Sharon Tate was called a star before her first movie even came out. From the start, Tate was singled out by her sheer potential. She was destined for big, bright things.
Tragically, we remember Tate more for what she never got to accomplish than what she did during her six years in Hollywood. Exactly 50 years after her murder at the age of 26, Tate is still marked by her potential — a lost one.
Tate's death was part of an event that changed America. In 1969, cult leader Charles Manson directed his followers to carry out a series of murders in Los Angeles. Tate, who was two weeks from giving birth to her first child with husband Roman Polanski, was one of seven people murdered over the course of two August nights. Since then, she's been mythologized and picked apart in various works of TV and movies — but Tate's sister, Debra, told TMZ that Quentin Tarantino's movie Once Upon a Time in... Hollywood is the only one to get Tate right. Once Upon a Time in... Hollywood remembers Tate as she lived. Here's what you need to know about Tate.
Inside Sharon Tate's path to celebrity
Sharon Tate was born in Dallas, TX in 1943. Growing up, Tate was crowned Miss Tiny Tot of Dallas, Miss Richland 1959, and Queen of the Tri-City Autorama in Richland. Tate spent her high school years in northern Italy, after her father was transferred to an army base in Vicenzena. She was prom queen.
While in Italy, Tate began auditioning for Hollywood productions filmed locally. Tate appeared on an episode of the ABC series The Pat Boone-Chevy Showroom and the Biblical-era movie Barabbas. Her beauty was noticed on set: "I pointed her out to my assistant and told her I wanted in every close shot I could possibly use her in," director Richard Fleischer wrote in his autobiography. Palance, the movie's star, asked her out on a dinner date. Later that year, Tate was linked to the actor Richard Beymar (their relationship continued in California).
After getting a taste of Hollywood, prom and pageant queen wouldn't cut it for Tate. Her father happened to receive a transfer to San Pedro, CA. So, in 1962, Tate traveled to Los Angeles ahead of her family and headed to Beymar's agent's office. Her big break came after an audition for Petticoat Junction. She was brought to the attention of Beverly Hillbillies producer Martin Ransohoff, who said to her: "Baby, we're going to make you a star."
At the age of 20, Tate signed a seven-year contract with MGM and was literally groomed for stardom. For three years, she was on a rigorous circuit of acting, voice, singing, and body building classes. "I've had no personal life," Tate said in an interview in 1966, before her first major role.
One of the last vestiges of the star system, Tate didn't have control over her day-to-day schedule or her career's direction. She appeared in The Beverly Hillbillies in a black wig so people wouldn't recognize her before her Hollywood debut. She briefly appeared in the movie Sandpiper starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor; allegedly, a jealous Taylor requested Tate's scenes be deleted.
In 1967, MGM deemed Tate ready to emerge from chrysalis. She was starring in three films, including a documentary featurette called All Eyes on Sharon Tate. Playboy Magazine declared 1967 "the year Sharon Tate happens." But her acting abilities was still doubted: J. Lee Thompson, the director of her first film The Eye of The Devil, said very seriously, "Could she do it?" That was in all our minds. We even agreed that if after a first two weeks, Sharon was not quite making it, that we would put her back in cold storage.'"
What shot Tate to that longed-for stardom was the 1967 movie Valley of the Dolls, based on Jacqueline Susann’s 1966 bestseller. Tate played a rising actress Jennifer North. During press, of course, interviewers were obsessed with her body and her disrobing scenes — sense a theme? "I guarantee you will be noticed by this scene," a journalist says.
The movie was critically panned, but later became a cult favorite.
Sharon Tate's relationships with Jay Sebring and Roman Polanski were an essential part of her story
Tate's love life, unfortunately, is tied up with her death. In 1964, Tate began dating Jay Sebring, Hollywood's first celebrity hairstylist. They were together for three years. Tate even learned how to cut hair in Sebring's salon, which A-listers like Paul Newman, Warren Beatty, and Steve McQueen frequently visited. The couple got engaged, but never made it to the altar.
Enter: Roman Polanski, the Polish film director and Holocaust survivor. Tate was cast in his film The Fearless Vampire Killers — and Polanski played her love interest. They fell in love on set (after an LSD-orgy, apparently) and got married on January 20, 1968 in London.
Their marriage was scrutinized both by tabloids and their inner circle. Allegedly, Polanski was a very controlling husband: "He told her how to dress; he told her what makeup he liked, what he didn’t like. He preferred her with nothing, no makeup,” Tate's best friend, Joanna Pettet, said in Ed Sanders' biography Sharon Tate: A Life. Polanski allegedly screened their home sex videos at parties. Further, Polanski wasn't happy when he found out she was pregnant. When she refused an abortion, he began affairs with other people (like Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas).
Tate and Sebring's relationship ended, but they remained close friends. He was with her on the night of her death and was also murdered.
In 1969, Tate was caught in the crosshairs of history
On July 20, a heavily pregnant Tate left London and returned to the house she shared with Polanski on 10050 Cielo Drive. At the time, coffee heiress Abigail Folger and her boyfriend, writer Wojciech Frykowski, were housesitting. Sebring also planned to stay with Tate until she gave birth.
Polanski planned to leave London on August 12 in time for the birth. By the time he returned, it was too late. On the night of August 9, 1969, Tate was stabbed 16 times. Folger, Frykowski, Sebring, and teenager Steven Parent were also brutally killed by members of the Manson Family. Tate and Polanski's unborn child, named Paul Richard Polanski on his and his mother's shared tombstone, died 20 minutes after his mother stopped breathing. The following day, Leno and Rosemary LaBianca were killed in their home.
Unfortunately, Tate's gruesome death tends to overshadow her life's work. Tate only starred in two movies after Valley of the Dolls: The Wrecking Crew and Twelve Plus One. But she's been played by Margot Robbie in Once Upon a Time in... Hollywood, Hilary Duff in The Haunting of Sharon Tate, Grace Van Dien in Charlie Says — and that's in the last year alone.
But Tate was more than a victim. "Sharon was a luminous beauty, kind, gentle and a wonderful friend to all who were privileged to know her. She brought out the best in others," a friend recalled after her death. Hopefully, that Sharon will live on in on-screen depictions.