February 15, 2016

Tragic Child Star Judith Barsi

The death of a child is a heartbreaking event, a blip of nature that shouldn't happen in the normal occurrence.  When it's done deliberately at the hands of a parent, there should be no mercy.

Judith Barsi was discovered in the manner rhapsodized by classic Hollywood journalists, only set to a 1980s background.  Five and a half year old Judith was noticed at a San Fernando Valley ice rink and, due to her petite size, was mistaken for a three year old.  Ultimately the mistake didn't hurt her as she was cast in a Donald Duck orange juice commercial and her career began.  She would eventually grace more than seventy commercials, including Campbell's soup, Toys R Us and Jif peanut butter.  It was a natural progression for Judy, as she was known, to act in television movies and theatrical films.  Her mother Maria was a stage mother but not along the lines of Judy Garland's mother or the mother of silent film star Mary Miles Minter.  Maria tried to keep Judy's life as normal as possible - - she kept her in school, unless she absolutely had to be pulled out for filming, brought her lunch daily and encouraged her normal child pursuits, like riding her bike, playing Operation and learning to knit.  Whenever one of her commercials or television programs was due to air, her mother would pop popcorn and the two would sit in front of the tv to watch.  Unless of course her father was home, in which case they would huddle together to watch in Judith's room. 

By all accounts Judy was a happy, cheerful child until around 1985.

Her father Jozsef was resentful of his only child and that resentment only grew as Judy's success grew.  Despite the fact that she was making six figures a year by 1987 and that salary had allowed the family to move into a nice family home on a cul-de-sac in Canoga Park, he verbally and physically abused both the little girl and her mother.  When he wasn't abusing or threatening to abuse (he would hold a knife to Judy's throat and tell Maria that if she even thought about not returning from a movie set he would hunt them down and kill them both) he was spending his time drinking. 

By the summer of 1988, the previously carefree and joyous Judith was showing signs of the stress she was subjected to at home - - she had gained weight, had pulled out her eyebrows and all her eyelashes and had even dewhiskered one of her cats. 

It's mind blowing to think about this today and it being par for the course for Maria and Judith but back in 1988, domestic violence was still a dirty family secret.  While CPS was called several times, Maria was reluctant to press charges and the matter went no further.  She didn't appear to reach out to anyone else for help and if those friends of Judy's mentioned the father they found scary, the parents went no further with it.  Likely, most felt it was none of their business and a private family matter that would go no further.  They were wrong.

On July 25, 1988, Judith had an audition with Hanna Barbera for an upcoming TV cartoon series - - the little girl wanted to be a voice actress into adulthood.  That dream would be smashed during the early morning hours that day as ten year old Judith slept in  her bedroom, Jozsef crept into her room with a handgun and fatally shot her in the head.   Maria, who never left Judith alone with her father because of his abusive nature, heard the shot and ran to protect her daughter.  She was met in the hallway by her husband who shot her as she fell to her knees and tried to protect her head and face with her hands. 

Jozsef then spent the next two days in the house with the dead bodies of his wife and child.  On the morning of July 27, he poured gasoline on both bodies and set the house on fire.  He then went into the garage and put a self-inflicted (and much deserved) bullet into his own head.  A neighbor was watering her plants outside and heard the gunshot, notifying authorities who arrived to a horrible scene. 

Judy's funeral must have been morbidly surreal for those who attended.  Actor Lance Guest, who played her father in the film Jaws IV, was one of her pallbearers.  Actresses and sisters Tracey, Missy and Brandy Gold (Brandy had worked with Judy on the television miniseries Fatal Vision in which - - eerily - - Judith played the part of a young girl murdered by her father) gave the eulogy, reading a poem titled "A Child of Mine."   Judith was buried with her mother at Forest Lawn in the Hollywood Hills in a grave that would be unmarked until fans banded together to arrange for a marker in 2004.  It is unknown what happened to Jozsef's remains.

Judith's story is painful and tragic.  With all the business contacts she had, was there no one her mother felt she could go to for help?   How much emotional and physical abuse did the two suffer at the hands of Jozsef before he killed them?  And why?   He was a plumber by trade but had started becoming more and more reclusive even before Judith's career took off.  He refused to allow Maria to work so why did he allow Judith to work?  Why was he so angry and resentful toward this precious little girl that made so many others happy? 

It's hard not to imagine what and who Judy may have become if her father had allowed her to live.   She wouldn't be a little girl any longer - - she would be nearly forty now, the same age her mother was when she was killed.  Would she be a voice actress?  Would she still be tiny and petite or would she have hit a growth spurt that would allow her to catch up to other kids?  Would she be a parent now herself? 

While Judith's story is a cautionary tale of sorts, one that shows domestic abuse knows no boundaries insofar as race, culture and income levels, I remember her fondly as the sweet little girl on screen in Jaws IV or who voiced Ducky in The Land Before Time (her favorite role.) 

She was a good little actress who had a wonderful future ahead until it was robbed by a person who should have loved and protected her most.

From Edgar Albert Guest's poem "A Child of Mine":

But should the angels call for her,
Much sooner than we've planned.
We'll brave the bitter grief that comes,
And try to understand.                         


  1. That's so sad. I know that's stating the obvious but I just have no other words : (

    1. It is sad, Roger. The best way to honor Judy is to remember her.

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