President Barack Obama’s call to action to stem the tide of gun violence has particular relevance to Hollywood. While there are industry conservatives who disagree with the president’s call for increased background checks and vetting measures, and liberals who will feel the president hasn’t gone far enough, there is also a long trail of industry insiders and their loved ones lost to gun violence. I have had the grim task of reporting many of these over the last quarter-century, and when I sat down and contemplated the carnage in the wake of the president’s appeal Monday, I was taken aback at how long the list actually is.
In 1989, when 21-year-old My Sister Sam star Rebecca Schaeffer was gunned down in her doorway by a deranged fan, the Screen Actors Guild spearheaded a campaign to make it more difficult for stalkers to obtain the home addresses of celebrities. Her killer had obtained her address in the Fairfax District through a private detective, who got it from the Department of Motor Vehicles.
It was the first celebrity shooting death I covered as a reporter, but it would not be the last. Today, largely thanks to SAG’s efforts, it’s no longer legal for the DMV to give out celebrities’ home addresses to anyone. But SAG has no jurisdiction over how easy it is for troubled potential killers to get their hands on guns. Schaeffer’s killer, who at the time was too young to buy a gun legally, got the .357 Magnum he shot her with from his brother, who had purchased it legally in Arizona.
Six years later, I covered the shooting death of Selena, the popular singer who was murdered in a hotel room in Texas by the president of her fan club, who had legally purchased the .38 revolver used in the crime. The killer didn’t need Selena’s home address – just easy access to a gun.
In 1996, I covered the murder of actor Haing Ngor, who survived the real-life killing fields of Cambodia and then went on to win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance in The Killing Fields, only to be gunned down outside his home in Los Angeles by a local street gang. The murder weapon never was located.
A year later, I covered the murder-suicide of MPAA general counsel William J. Billick III, who chased his wife out of their home, and then went back inside and shot their 18-month-old twins, Daniel and Alexandra. Then he turned his legally purchased handgun on himself. The funeral was as sad as any I ever covered.
In 1998, I covered the shooting death of actor, comedian and Saturday Night Live stalwart Phil Hartman. He was killed by his wife, Brynn. She too had legally purchased the murder weapon – one of several she’d bought for home protection. After killing her husband, she shot herself.
Many others in the industry have been killed by gunfire — most famously, singer-songwriter John Lennon in 1980. He was shot multiple times by a stalker with a gun that had been legally purchased in Hawaii.
Others to meet a similar fate include:
- Rapper-actor Tupac Shakur, gunned down in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas in 1996 by unknown assailants;
- Rapper Christopher Wallace (aka Biggie Smalls and the Notorious B.I.G.), was gunned down six months after Tupac in a drive-by shooting in Los Angeles by unknown assailants;
- Publicist Ronni Chasen (pictured, left), shot to death in 2010 while driving her car through Beverly Hills after leaving the premiere of Burlesque. Police say that the killer, an ex-con, later used the same gun to kill himself. How he got the gun remains unclear.
- Music executive John Atterberry, killed by a crazed gunman who went on a shooting spree at the corner of Sunset and Vine in 2011. The shooter later was killed by the police. How he obtained the weapon is unclear.
- Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer, of The Little Rascals fame, was shot to death in 1959.
Many family members of celebrities have also been killed by guns. Bill Cosby’s 27-year-old son Ennis was shot to death in 1997, while fixing a flat tire just off the 405 Freeway in Los Angeles. It remains unclear how his killer, an 18-year-old Ukrainian immigrant, obtained the weapon.
Cheers and Frasier star Kelsey Grammer’s father was shot to death in 1968. In 1986, Dallas star Patrick Duffy’s mother and father were shotgunned to death during a robbery of the bar they owned in Montana. Mark Ruffalo’s brother, Scott, was shot to death in 2008 during what police described as a game of Russian roulette. In 2011, The Apprentice star Omarosa Manigault’s brother was shot to death in Ohio by his girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend. When Allman Brothers founders Gregg and Duane Allman were little, their father was shot to death by a hitchhiker. When Sean Combs was only 3, his father also was shot to death. Basketball great Michael Jordan’s father, James Jordan Sr., was shot to death in 1993. Singer Marvin Gaye was shot to death by his own father, in 1984.
Ice Cube’s sister, Beverly Jean Brown, was shot to death by her husband in South Central Los Angeles in 1981. “America is built on the gun,” the rapper and Straight Outta Compton producer later said. “America is in love with the gun. It’s a sick love affair. But it’s just hard to break.”
No doubt, there will be more celebrity shooting deaths to cover in the days ahead. Like Ice Cube said, America is in love with the gun, and Hollywood is not immune to its tragic effects.