Life and career
Childhood and early acting career
Sharon Tate was born in Dallas, Texas, the eldest of three daughters, to Colonel Paul James Tate (1922–2005), a United States Army officer, and his wife, Doris Gwendolyn (née Willett). At six months of age, Tate won the "Miss Tiny Tot of Dallas Pageant", but her parents had no show business ambitions for their daughter. Paul Tate was promoted and transferred several times. By the age of 16, as a military brat, Tate had lived in six cities and reportedly found it difficult to maintain friendships. Her family described her as shy and lacking in self-confidence. As an adult, Tate commented that people would misinterpret her shyness as aloofness until they knew her better.
Tate attended Chief Joseph Junior High School (now Chief Joseph Middle School) from September 1955 to June 1958, and Columbia High School (now Richland High School) in Richland, Washington, from September 1958 to October 1959. She attended Irvin High School in El Paso, Texas, from late fall 1959 to April 1960; and Vicenza American High School in Vicenza, Italy, from April to June 1960. Tate graduated from Vicenza American High School in 1961.
As she matured, people commented on Tate's beauty; she began entering beauty pageants, winning the title of "Miss Richland" in Washington in 1959. She spoke of her ambition to study psychiatry, and also stated her intention to compete in the "Miss Washington" pageant in 1960; however, before she could do either, her father received orders to be stationed in Italy. With her family relocating in Verona, Tate learned that she had become a local celebrity owing to the publication of a photograph of her in a swimsuit on the cover of the military newspaper Stars and Stripes. She discovered a kinship with other students at the American school she attended in nearby Vicenza, recognizing that their backgrounds and feelings of separation were similar to her own, and for the first time in her life began to form lasting friendships.
Tate and her friends became interested in the filming of Hemingway's Adventures of a Young Man, which was being made nearby with Paul Newman, Susan Strasberg, and Richard Beymer, and obtained parts as . Beymer noticed Tate in the crowd and introduced himself, and the two dated during the production of the film, with Beymer encouraging Tate to pursue a film career. In 1960, Tate was employed by the singer Pat Boone and appeared with him in an episode of the television series The Pat Boone Chevy Showroom that was filmed in Venice.
Sharon Tate (at right wearing a dark wig) as Janet Trego in the 1964 "Giant Jackrabbit" episode of The Beverly Hillbillies
with Max Baer, Jr.
and Nancy Kulp
Later that year, when Barabbas was being filmed near Verona, Tate was once again hired as an extra. Actor Jack Palance was impressed by her appearance and her attitude, although her role was too small to judge her talent. He arranged a screen test for her in Rome, but this did not lead to further work. Tate returned to the United States alone, saying she wanted to further her studies, but tried to find film work. After a few months, Doris Tate, who feared for her daughter's safety, suffered a nervous breakdown and her daughter was persuaded to return to Italy.
The family returned to the United States in 1962, and Tate moved to Los Angeles, where she contacted Richard Beymer's agent, Harold Gefsky. After their first meeting, Gefsky agreed to represent her, and secured work for her in television and magazine advertisements. In 1963, he introduced her to Martin Ransohoff, director of Filmways, Inc., who signed her to a seven-year contract. She was considered for the role of Billie Jo Bradley on CBS's sitcom Petticoat Junction, but Ransohoff believed that she lacked confidence and the role was given to Jeannine Riley. Ransohoff gave Tate small parts in Mister Ed and The Beverly Hillbillies to help her gain experience, but was unwilling to allow her to play a more substantial role. "Mr. Ransohoff didn't want the audience to see me till I was ready," Tate was quoted in a 1967 article in Playboy.
During this time, Tate met the French actor Philippe Forquet and began a relationship with him. They became engaged, but their relationship was volatile and they frequently quarreled. Career pressures drove them apart and they broke up.
In 1964, she met Jay Sebring, a former sailor who had established himself as a leading hair stylist in Hollywood. Tate later said that Sebring's nature was especially gentle, but when he proposed marriage, she declined. She said she would retire from acting as soon as she married, and at that time she intended to focus on her career.
In 1964, Tate made a screen test for Sam Peckinpah opposite Steve McQueen for the film The Cincinnati Kid. Ransohoff and Peckinpah agreed that Tate's timidity and lack of experience would cause her to flounder in such a large part, and she was rejected in favor of Tuesday Weld. She continued to gain experience with minor television appearances, and after she auditioned unsuccessfully for the role of Liesl in the film version of The Sound of Music, Ransohoff gave Tate walk-on roles in two motion pictures in which he was the producer: The Americanization of Emily and The Sandpiper. In late 1965, Ransohoff finally gave Tate her first major role in a motion picture in the film Eye of the Devil, costarring David Niven, Deborah Kerr, Donald Pleasence, and David Hemmings.
Tate in Eye of the Devil
Tate and Sebring traveled to London to prepare for filming, where she met the Alexandrian Wiccan High Priest and High Priestess Alex and Maxine Sanders. Meanwhile, as part of Ransohoff's promotion of Tate, he arranged the production of a short documentary called All Eyes on Sharon Tate, to be released at the same time as Eye of the Devil. It included an interview with Eye of the Devil director J. Lee Thompson, who expressed his initial doubts about Tate's potential with the comment, "We even agreed that if after the first two weeks Sharon was not quite making it, we would put her back in cold storage," but added he soon realized Tate was "tremendously exciting".
Tate played Odile, a witch who exerts a mysterious power over a landowner, played by Niven, and his wife, played by Kerr. Although she did not have as many lines as the other actors, Tate's performance was considered crucial to the film, and she was required, more than the other cast members, to set an ethereal tone. Niven described her as a "great discovery", and Kerr said that with "a reasonable amount of luck" Tate would be a great success. In interviews, Tate commented on her good fortune in working with such professionals in her first film and said that she had learned a lot about acting simply by watching Kerr at work. Much of the filming took place in France, and Sebring returned to Los Angeles to fulfill his business obligations. After filming, Tate remained in London, where she immersed herself in the fashion world and nightclubs. Around this time, she met Roman Polanski.
Tate and Polanski later agreed that neither of them had been impressed by the other when they first met. Polanski was planning The Fearless Vampire Killers, which was being coproduced by Ransohoff, and had decided that he wanted the red-headed actress Jill St. John for the female lead. Ransohoff insisted that Polanski cast Tate, and after meeting with her, he agreed that she would be suitable on the condition that she wore a red wig during filming.
The company traveled to Italy for filming where Tate's fluent Italian proved useful in communicating with the local crew members. A perfectionist, Polanski had little patience with the inexperienced Tate, and said in an interview that one scene had required 70 takes before he was satisfied. In addition to directing, Polanski also played one of the main characters, a guileless young man who is intrigued by Tate's character and begins a romance with her.
As filming progressed, Polanski praised her performances and her confidence grew. They began a relationship, and Tate moved into Polanski's London apartment after filming ended. Jay Sebring traveled to London, where he insisted on meeting Polanski. Although friends later said he was devastated, he befriended Polanski and remained Tate's closest confidante. Polanski later commented that Sebring was a lonely and isolated person, who viewed Tate and himself as his family.
Tate returned to the United States to film Don't Make Waves with Tony Curtis, leaving Polanski in London. Tate played the role of Malibu and the film was intended to capitalize on the popularity of beach movies and the music of such artists as the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean. Tate's character, billed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer publicity as "Malibu, Queen of the Surf", wore little more than a bikini for most of the film. Disappointed with the film, she began referring to herself sarcastically as "sexy little me". Before the film's release, a major publishing campaign Coppertone sunsscreen featured Tate. The film opened to poor reviews and mediocre ticket sales, and Tate was quoted as confiding to a reporter, "It's a terrible movie", before adding, "Sometimes I say things I shouldn't. I guess I'm too outspoken."
Polanski returned to the United States, and was contracted by the head of Paramount Pictures, Robert Evans, to direct and write the screenplay for Rosemary's Baby, which was based on Ira Levin's novel of the same name. Polanski later admitted that he had wanted Tate to star in the film and had hoped that someone would suggest her, as he felt it inappropriate to make the suggestion himself. The producers did not suggest Tate, and Mia Farrow was cast. Tate reportedly provided ideas for some of the key scenes, including the scene in which the protagonist, Rosemary, is impregnated. A frequent visitor to the set, she was photographed there by Esquire and the resulting photographs generated considerable publicity for both Tate and the film.
A March 1967 article about Tate in Playboy began, "This is the year that Sharon Tate happens ..." and included six nude or partially nude photographs taken by Roman Polanski during filming of The Fearless Vampire Killers. Tate was optimistic: Eye of the Devil and The Fearless Vampire Killers were each due for release, and she had been signed to play a major role in the film version of Valley of the Dolls. One of the all-time bestsellers, the film version was highly publicized and anticipated, and while Tate acknowledged that such a prominent role should further her career, she confided to Polanski that she did not like either the book or the script.
Patty Duke, Barbara Parkins, and Judy Garland were cast as the other leads. Susan Hayward replaced Garland a few weeks later when she was dismissed. Director Mark Robson was highly critical of the three principal actresses, but according to Duke, directed most of his criticism at Tate. Duke later said Robson "continually treated [Tate] like an imbecile, which she definitely was not, and she was very attuned and sensitive to this treatment". Polanski later quoted Robson as saying to him, "That's a great girl you're living with. Few actresses have her kind of vulnerability. She's got a great future."
In interviews during production, Tate expressed an affinity for her character, Jennifer North, an aspiring actress admired only for her body. Some magazines commented that Tate was viewed similarly and Look published an unfavorable article about the three lead actresses, describing Tate as "a hopelessly stupid and vain starlet". Tate, Duke, and Parkins developed a close friendship that continued after the completion of the film. During the shooting of Valley of the Dolls, Tate confided to Parkins that she was "madly in love" with Polanski. "Yes, there's no doubt that Roman is the man in my life," Tate was quoted as saying in the New York Sunday News. Tate promoted the film enthusiastically. She frequently commented on her admiration for Lee Grant, with whom she had played several dramatic scenes. Tate was quoted as saying, "I learned a great deal about acting in [Valley of the Dolls], particularly in my scenes with Lee Grant.... She knows what acting is all about and everything she does, from little mannerisms to delivering her lines, is pure professionalism."
A journalist asked Tate to comment on her nude scene, and she replied,
I have no qualms about it at all. I don't see any difference between being stark naked or fully dressed — if it's part of the job and it's done with meaning and intention. I honestly don't understand the big fuss made over nudity and sex in films. It's silly. On TV, the children can watch people murdering each other, which is a very unnatural thing, but they can't watch two people in the very natural process of making love. Now, really, that doesn't make any sense, does it?
An edited version of The Fearless Vampire Killers was released, and Polanski expressed disgust at Ransohoff for "butchering" his film. Newsweek called it "a witless travesty", and it was not profitable. Tate's performance was largely ignored in reviews, and when she was mentioned, it was usually in relation to her nude scenes. Eye of the Devil was released shortly after, and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer attempted to build interest in Tate with its press release describing her as "one of the screen's most exciting new personalities". The film failed to find an audience, and most reviews were indifferent, neither praising nor condemning it. The New York Times wrote that one of the few highlights was Tate's "chillingly beautiful but expressionless performance".
The All Eyes on Sharon Tate documentary was used to publicize the film. Its 14 minutes consisted of a number of scenes depicting Tate filming Eye of the Devil, dancing in nightclubs, and sightseeing around London, and also contained a brief interview with her. Asked about her acting ambitions, she replied, "I don't fool myself. I can't see myself doing Shakespeare." She spoke of her hopes of finding a niche in comedy, and in other interviews she expressed her desire to become "a light comedienne in the Carole Lombard style". She discussed the type of contemporary actress she wanted to emulate and explained that there were two in particular that she was influenced by: Faye Dunaway and Catherine Deneuve. Of the latter, she said, "I'd like to be an American Catherine Deneuve. She plays beautiful, sensitive, deep parts with a little bit of intelligence behind them."
Later in the year, Valley of the Dolls opened to almost uniformly negative reviews. Bosley Crowther wrote in The New York Times, "all a fairly respectful admirer of movies can do is laugh at it and turn away". Newsweek said that the film "has no more sense of its own ludicrousness than a village idiot stumbling in manure", but a later article read: "Astoundingly photogenic, infinitely curvaceous, Sharon Tate is one of the most smashing young things to hit Hollywood in a long time." The three lead actresses were castigated in numerous publications, including The Saturday Review, which wrote, "Ten years ago ... Parkins, Duke, and Tate would more likely have been playing the hat check girls than movie-queens; they are totally lacking in style, authority, or charm." The Hollywood Reporter provided some positive comments, such as, "Sharon Tate emerges as the film's most sympathetic character ... William H. Daniels' photographic caress of her faultless face and enormous absorbent eyes is stunning." Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times praised Tate as "a wonder to behold", but after describing the dialogue in one scene as "the most offensive and appalling vulgarity ever thrown up by any civilization", concluded that, "I will be unable to take her any more seriously as a sex symbol than Raquel Welch."
Marriage to Roman Polanski
In late 1967, Tate and Polanski returned to London and were frequent subjects of newspaper and magazine articles. Tate was depicted as being untraditional and modern, and was quoted as saying couples should live together before marrying. They were married in Chelsea, London, on January 20, 1968, with considerable publicity. Polanski was dressed in what the press described as "Edwardian finery", while Tate was attired in a white minidress. The couple moved into Polanski's mews house off Eaton Square in Belgravia, London. Photographer Peter Evans later described them as "the imperfect couple. They were the Douglas Fairbanks/Mary Pickford of our time ... Cool, nomadic, talented, and nicely shocking."
While Tate reportedly wanted a traditional marriage, Polanski remained somewhat promiscuous and described Tate's attitude to his infidelity as "Sharon's big hang-up". He reminded Tate that she had promised that she would not try to change him. Tate accepted Polanski's conditions, though she confided to friends that she hoped he would change. Peter Evans quoted Tate as saying, "We have a good arrangement. Roman lies to me and I pretend to believe him."
Polanski urged Tate to end her association with Martin Ransohoff, and Tate began to place less importance on her career until Polanski told her he wanted to be married to "a hippie, not a housewife." The couple returned to Los Angeles and quickly became part of a social group that included some of the most successful young people in the film industry, including Warren Beatty, Jacqueline Bisset, Leslie Caron, Joan Collins, Mia Farrow, Jane Fonda, Peter Fonda, Laurence Harvey, Steve McQueen, Joanna Pettet and Peter Sellers; older film stars like Yul Brynner, Kirk Douglas, Henry Fonda and Danny Kaye; musicians such as Jim Morrison and The Mamas & the Papas; and record producer Terry Melcher and his girlfriend, actress Candice Bergen. Jay Sebring remained one of the couple's more frequent companions. Polanski's circle of friends included people he had known since his youth in Poland such as Wojciech Frykowski and Frykowski's girlfriend, coffee heiress Abigail Folger. Tate and Polanski moved into the Chateau Marmont Hotel in Los Angeles for a few months until they arranged to lease Patty Duke's home on Summit Ridge Drive in Beverly Hills during the latter part of 1968. The Polanski house was often full of strangers, and Tate regarded the casual atmosphere as part of the "free spirit" of the times, saying that she did not mind who came into her home as her motto was "live and let live." Her close friend Leslie Caron later commented that the Polanskis were too trusting — "to the point of recklessness" — and that she had been alarmed by it.
In the summer of 1968, Tate began The Wrecking Crew (1969), a comedy in which she played Freya Carlson, an accident-prone spy, who was also a romantic interest for star Dean Martin, playing Matt Helm. She performed her own stunts and was taught martial arts by Bruce Lee. The film was successful and brought Tate strong reviews, with many reviewers praising her comedic performance. The New York Times critic Vincent Canby criticized the film, but wrote, "The only nice thing is Sharon Tate, a tall, really great-looking girl." Martin commented that he intended to make another "Matt Helm" film and that he wanted Tate to reprise her role.
Around this time Tate was feted as a promising newcomer. She was nominated for a Golden Globe Award as "New Star of the Year – Actress" for her performance in Valley of the Dolls.
She placed fourth behind Mia Farrow, Judy Geeson and Katharine Houghton for a "Golden Laurel" award as the year's "Most Promising Newcomer" with the results published in the Motion Picture Exhibitor magazine. She was also runner-up to Lynn Redgrave in the Motion Picture Herald's poll for "The Star of Tomorrow," in which box-office drawing power was the main criterion for inclusion on the list. These results indicated that her career was beginning to accelerate, and for her next film, Tate negotiated a fee of $150,000.
She became pregnant near the end of 1968, and on February 15, 1969, she and Polanski moved to 10050 Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon. The house previously had been occupied by their friends Terry Melcher and Candice Bergen. Tate and Polanski had visited it several times, and Tate was thrilled to learn it was available, referring to it as her "love house." At their new home, the Polanskis continued to be popular hosts for their large group of friends, although some of their friends still worried about the strange types who continued to show up at their parties. Encouraged by positive reviews of her comedic performances, Tate chose the comedy Twelve Plus One (1969) as her next project, as she later explained, largely for the opportunity to co-star with Orson Welles. In March 1969, she traveled to Italy to begin filming, and Polanski went to London to work on The Day of the Dolphin (1973). Frykowski and Folger moved into the Cielo Drive house.
After completing Twelve Plus One, Tate joined Polanski in London. She posed in their apartment for photographer Terry O'Neill in casual domestic scenes such as opening baby gifts, and completed a series of glamour photographs for the British magazine Queen. A journalist asked Tate in a late July interview if she believed in fate, to which she replied, "Certainly. My whole life has been decided by fate. I think something more powerful than we are decides our fates for us. I know one thing — I've never planned anything that ever happened to me."
She returned from London to Los Angeles on July 20, 1969, traveling alone on the QE2. Polanski was due to return on August 12 in time for the birth, and he had asked Frykowski and Folger to stay in the house with Tate until his return.