Future President Ronald Reagan serves in film unit


Year
1943
Month Day
January 27

On January 27, 1943, future President Ronald Reagan, an Army Air Corps first lieutenant during World War II, is on an active-duty assignment with the Army’s First Motion Picture Unit.

Technically, Reagan was a unit public relations officer, however Warner Brothers Studios and the American Army Air Corps had tapped him the previous year to star in a motion picture called Air Force. To allow filming to go forward, Reagan was transferred from his cavalry unit to the Air Corps’ motion-picture unit in early January 1943.

Housed in the old Hal Roach studios, the First Motion Picture Unit (FMPU) produced military training, morale and propaganda films to aid the war effort. FMPU released Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series and a documentary of the bomber Memphis Belle, the crew of which completed a standard-setting 35 bombing missions in Europe. The films were screened on domestic training grounds and in troop camps overseas as well as in U.S. movie theaters.

Air Force, which was later renamed Beyond the Line of Duty, conveyed the true story of the heroic feats of aviator Shorty Wheliss and his crew and featured narration by Lt. Ronald Reagan. The documentary, intended to promote investment in war bonds, won an Academy Award in 1943 for best short subject. Reagan went on to narrate or star in three more shorts for FMPU including For God and Country,Cadet Classification, and the The Rear Gunner. Reagan also appeared as Johnny Jones in the 1943 full-length musical film This is the Army.

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“The Birth of A Nation” opens, glorifying the KKK


Year
1915
Month Day
February 08

On February 8, 1915, D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, a landmark film in the history of cinema, premieres at Clune’s Auditorium in Los Angeles. The film was America’s first feature-length motion picture and a box-office smash, and during its unprecedented three hours Griffith popularized countless filmmaking techniques that remain central to the art today. However, because of its explicit racism, Birth of a Nation is also regarded as one of the most offensive films ever made. Actually titled The Clansman for its first month of release, the film provides a highly subjective history of the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. Studied today as a masterpiece of political propaganda, Birth of a Nation caused riots in several cities and was banned in others but was seen by millions.

David Wark Griffith was born in La Grange, Kentucky, in 1875, the son of an ex-Confederate colonel. His father died when he was seven, and he later dropped out of high school to help support his family. After holding various jobs, he began a successful career as a theater actor. He wrote several plays and, on the advice of a colleague, sent some scenarios for one-reel films to the Edison Film Company and the Biograph Company. In 1908, he was hired as an actor and writer for the Biograph studio and soon was promoted to a position as director.

READ MORE: How ‘The Birth of a Nation’ Revived the Ku Klux Klan

Between 1908 and 1913, Griffith made more than 400 short films for Biograph. With the assistance of his talented cinematographer, G W. “Billy” Bitzer, he invented or refined such important cinematic techniques as the close-up, the scenic long shot, the moving-camera shot, and the fade-in and fade-out. His contributions to the art of editing during this period include the flashback and parallel editing, in which two or more separate scenes are intermixed to give the impression that the separate actions are happening simultaneously. He also raised the standard on movie acting, initiating scene rehearsals before shooting and assembling a stock company of film professionals. Many of these actors, including Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Mary Pickford, Mae Marsh, and Lionel Barrymore, went on to become some of Hollywood’s first movie stars.

Taking his cue from the longer spectacle films produced in Italy, in 1913 Griffith produced Judith of Bethulia, a biblical adaptation that, at four reels, was close to an hour long. It was his last Biograph film. Two years later, he released his epic 10-reel masterpiece, Birth of a Nation, for Mutual Films.

Birth of a Nation, based on Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansman, tells the turbulent story of American history in the 1860s, as it followed the fictional lives of two families from the North and the South. Throughout its three hours, African Americans are portrayed as brutish, lazy, morally degenerate, and dangerous. In the film’s climax, the Ku Klux Klan rises up to save the South from the Reconstruction Era-prominence of African Americans in Southern public life.

Riots and protests broke out at screenings of Birth of a Nation in a number of Northern cities, and the recently formed National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) embarked on a major campaign to have the film banned. It eventually was censored in several cities, and Griffith agreed to change or cut out some of the film’s especially offensive scenes.

Nevertheless, millions of people paid to witness the spectacle of Birth of a Nation, which featured a cast of more 10,000 people and a dramatic story line far more sophisticated than anything released to that date. For all the gross historical inaccuracies, certain scenes, such as meetings of Congress, Civil War battles, and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, were meticulously recreated, lending the film an air of legitimacy that made it so effective as propaganda.

The Ku Klux Klan, suppressed by the federal government in the 1870s, was re-founded in Georgia in December 1915 by William J. Simmons. In addition to being anti-black, the new Klan was anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, and anti-immigrant, and by the early 1920s it had spread throughout the North as well as the South. At the peak of its strength in 1924, membership in the KKK is estimated to have been as high as three million. There is no doubt that Birth of a Nation played no small part in winning wide public acceptance for an organization that was originally founded as an anti-black and anti-federal terrorist group.

Of Griffith’s later films, Intolerance (1916) is the most important. Hailed by many as the finest achievement of the silent-film era, it pursues four story lines simultaneously, which cumulatively act to prove humanity’s propensity for persecution. Some regard it as an effort at atonement by Griffith for Birth of a Nation, while others believe he meant it as an answer to those who persecuted him for his political views. Intolerance was a commercial failure but had a significant influence on the development of film art.

Griffith went on to make 27 more films. In 1919, he founded United Artists with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Charlie Chaplin.

Before D. W. Griffith’s time, motion pictures were short, uninspiring, and poorly produced, acted, and edited. Under his guidance, filmmaking became an art form. Despite the harm his Birth of a Nation inflicted on African Americans, he will forever be regarded as the father of cinema.

READ MORE: Ku Klux Klan

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Oscar-winning actor Robin Williams dies at 63

Year
2014
Month Day
August 11

Robin Williams, the prolific Oscar-winning actor and comedian, died by suicide on August 11, 2014. He was 63. 

On the big screen, Williams, who was born in Chicago in 1951, made his debut in the 1977 low-budget comedy “Can I Do it ‘Til I Need Glasses?” then went on to appear in films such as “The World According to Garp” (1982), “Moscow on the Hudson” (1984) and “Good Morning, Vietnam” (1987), for which he earned his first Academy Award nomination, in the best actor category, for his performance as an Armed Forces Radio disc jockey. Williams also received best actor Oscar nods for his role as an influential English teacher in “Dead Poets Society” and his role as a delusional homeless man in “The Fisher King” (1991).

Among the performer’s other credits are “Aladdin” (1992), in which he voiced the part of the genie, “Mrs. Doubtfire,” in which he portrayed a British nanny and “Good Will Hunting,” for which he won an Oscar, in the best supporting actor category, for his role as a therapist. Williams followed these projects with films including “One Hour Photo” (2002), “The Night Listener” (2006), the “Happy Feet” series (2006-11) and the “Night at the Museum” series (2006-14). 

Williams was involved in a number of charitable causes, such as co-hosting telethons, along with Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg, for Comic Relief, an organization that helps homeless people. The actor also was a regular on USO tours, entertaining American troops around the world. In his stand-up routines, Williams spoke openly about his experiences with substance abuse and sobriety.

After Williams died, tributes poured in from the Hollywood community and beyond. Then-president Barack Obama said: “[He] was an airman, a doctor, a genie, a nanny, a president, a professor, a bangarang Peter Pan and everything in-between. But he was one of a kind. He arrived in our lives as an alien—but he ended up touching every element of the human spirit.”

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Hollywood icon Lauren Bacall dies

Year
2014
Month Day
August 12

On August 12, 2014, actress Lauren Bacall, who shot to fame in her debut film, 1944’s “To Have and Have Not,” in which she appeared opposite Humphrey Bogart, with whom she would have a legendary romance, dies at her New York City home at age 89. In a career that spanned nearly 70 years, the smoky-voiced Bacall made more than 40 films, including “The Big Sleep,” (1946) “How to Marry a Millionaire” (1953) and “The Mirror Has Two Faces” (1996).

Born Betty Joan Perske on September 16, 1924, in the Bronx, New York, she began using the last name Bacal, part of her mother’s maiden name, after her parents divorced when she was young. (While breaking into acting, she added a second “l” to her last name, and Howard Hawks, who directed Bacall’s big-screen debut, dubbed her Lauren). After graduating from high school in Manhattan in 1940, she studied acting but quit after a year because she could no longer afford the tuition. She went on to work as an usher in Broadway theaters and also started modeling. Her cover photo for Harper’s Bazaar magazine eventually came to the attention of Hawks, who cast her in his wartime drama “To Have and Have Not.” During the making of the film—in which Bacall famously utters the line: “You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow”—she and the then-married Bogart, who was more than twice her age and already the star of such films as “The Maltese Falcon” and “Casablanca,” began an affair.

Married in 1945, Bogart and Bacall became one of Hollywood’s iconic couples and made three more films together, “The Big Sleep,” “Dark Passage” (1947) and “Key Largo” (1948). Bacall also appeared in such movies as “Young Man with a Horn” (1950) with Kirk Douglas, “How to Marry a Millionaire” with Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable and “Designing Woman” (1957) with Gregory Peck. Her marriage to Bogart, which produced two children, ended when the actor died of cancer in 1957 at age 57. After a brief romance with Frank Sinatra, Bacall wed actor Jason Robards in 1961. The pair, who had a son together, divorced in 1969.

Among Bacall’s other screen credits are “Harper” (1966) with Paul Newman, “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974), “Misery” (1990) and “The Mirror Has Two Faces” with Barbra Streisand. For her role in the latter film, Bacall earned her lone Academy Award nomination, in the best supporting actress category. (In 2009, she received an honorary Oscar.) Bacall also appeared in a number of theatrical productions and won best actress Tony awards for 1970’s “Applause” and 1981’s “Woman of the Year.”

Despite her achievements, Bacall realized the public likely would always associate her with Bogart. As she said in a 1999 Newsday interview: “I’ll never get away from him. I accept that. He was the emotional love of my life, but I think I’ve accomplished quite a bit on my own.”

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Movie critic Roger Ebert dies

Year
2013
Month Day
April 04

On April 4, 2013, one of America’s best-known and most influential movie critics, Roger Ebert, who reviewed movies for the Chicago Sun-Times for 46 years and on TV for 31 years, dies at age 70 after a battling cancer. In 1975, Ebert started co-hosting a movie review program on TV with fellow critic Gene Siskel that eventually turned them both into household names and made their thumbs-up, thumbs-down rating system part of American pop culture.

Born on June 18, 1942, in Urbana, Illinois, Ebert was the only child of an electrician father and bookkeeper mother. At age 15, Ebert he began writing about high school sports for his local newspaper. In 1964, he graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where majored in journalism and served as editor of the school’s newspaper. Two years later, he went to work for the Chicago Sun-Times. When the paper’s film critic retired in 1967, Ebert was named as her replacement.

Ebert reportedly watched 500 movies a year and penned reviews of at least half that many on an annual basis. (In 2012, when asked to name the 10 greatest films of all time, his list included such titles as Apocalypse Now, Citizen Kane, Raging Bull and Vertigo.) His work was syndicated in hundreds of newspapers around the world, and he was the author of more than 15 books, including the acclaimed 2011 memoir Life Itself. Ebert had a brief foray into movie making when he wrote the script for 1970’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Upon its release, the film was trashed by critics, including Siskel.

Diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2002 and salivary gland cancer the following year, Ebert lost the ability to speak, drink and eat in 2006 following surgery for jaw cancer. However, he continued to work, writing for the Sun-Times, blogging for his own website and developing a large following on Facebook and Twitter. On April 2, 2013, Ebert publicly announced he would be writing fewer reviews due to a recurrence of cancer. He died two days later. The Sun-Times published his final movie review on April 6, for To the Wonder. Ebert awarded it 3.5 out of 4 stars.

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“Avatar” makes its world premiere in London


Updated:
Original:
Year
2009
Month Day
December 10

On December 10 2009, “Avatar,” a 3-D science-fiction epic helmed by “Titanic” director James Cameron, makes its world debut in London and goes on to become the highest-grossing movie in history. Starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana and Sigourney Weaver, the box-office mega-hit was praised for its state-of-the-art technology and earned nine Academy Award nominations, including best picture and best director.

Set in the year 2154, “Avatar” tells the story of disabled ex-Marine Jake Sully, who is recruited to help conquer and colonize Pandora, a faraway moon that is home to a mineral deposit coveted by people on Earth, whose energy resources are almost depleted. Pandora is inhabited by the Na’vi, a group of nature-loving, blue-skinned, half-alien/half-human creatures intent on protecting their own eco-system. (Cameron hired a linguist to create a unique language for the Na’vi.) Using an avatar to explore Pandora because the air there is toxic to humans, Jake falls in love with a Na’vi princess and goes native, eventually working to save the Na’vi from the human colonists.

Cameron wrote the script for “Avatar” in 1994; however, at that point the technology didn’t exist to produce the movie he wanted. In the meantime, he penned and directed “Titanic,” the 1997 blockbuster that garnered 11 Oscars and became the first film to gross more than $1 billion internationally. Prior to “Titanic,” Cameron helmed such hit films as “The Terminator” (1984), “Aliens” (1986) and “The Abyss” (1989), and became known for his imaginative use of special effects. In 2009, he told The New Yorker: “[‘Avatar’] integrates my life’s achievements…It’s the most complicated stuff anyone’s ever done.” Among the technologies used to make “Avatar” was performance capture, which turns an actor’s movements into a computer-generated image.

At the 82nd Academy Awards, held in March 2010, “Avatar” won Oscars for best visual effects, cinematography and art direction.

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Kathryn Bigelow becomes the first female director to win an Oscar


Year
2010
Month Day
March 07

On March 7, 2010, Kathryn Bigelow becomes the first woman to win an Academy Award for best director, for her movie “The Hurt Locker,” about an American bomb squad that disables explosives in Iraq in 2004. Prior to Bigelow, only three women had been nominated for a best director Oscar: Lina Wertmueller for 1975’s “Seven Beauties,” Jane Campion for 1993’s “The Piano” and Sofia Coppola for 2003’s “Lost in Translation.”

Born in San Carlos, California, in 1951, Bigelow graduated from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1972 and later earned a master’s degree in film from Columbia University. She made her feature film debut with 1982’s “The Loveless,” which she co-wrote and co-directed. The film, about a motorcycle gang, starred Willem Dafoe. The next movie Bigelow directed, 1987’s “Near Dark,” was a western-horror hybrid that gained a cult following. She went on to helm 1990’s “Blue Steel,” starring Jamie Lee Curtis as a police officer stalked by a killer, and 1991’s “Point Break,” about bank-robbing surfers, featuring Patrick Swayze and Keanu Reeves. Bigelow’s other directing credits include 1995’s “Strange Days” with Ralph Fiennes, 2000’s “The Weight of Water” with Sean Penn and 2002’s “K-19: The Widowmaker” with Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson.

At the 82nd Academy Awards in March 2010, Bigelow’s fellow best-director nominees included James Cameron (“Avatar”), whom she was married to from 1989 to 1991, along with Lee Daniels (“Precious”), Jason Reitman (“Up in the Air”) and Quentin Tarantino (“Inglorious Basterds”). After making history by winning the directing prize, Bigelow said, “I hope I’m the first of many [women], and of course, I’d love to just think of myself as a filmmaker. And I long for the day when that modifier can be a moot point.” Her movie “The Hurt Locker,” which starred Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty, also won Oscars for best picture, film editing, sound editing, sound mixing and original screenplay.

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Hollywood icon Elizabeth Taylor dies at 79


Year
2011
Month Day
March 23

On March 23, 2011, actress Elizabeth Taylor, who appeared in more than 50 films, won two Academy Awards and was synonymous with Hollywood glamour, dies of complications from congestive heart failure at a Los Angeles hospital at age 79. The violet-eyed Taylor began her acting career as a child and spent most of her life in the spotlight. Known for her striking beauty, she was married eight times and later in life became a prominent HIV/AIDS activist.

Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor was born in London, England, on February 27, 1932, to an American art dealer and his wife, a former actress. In 1939, the family moved to Southern California, and in 1942 Taylor made her film debut in There’s One Born Every Minute. At age 12, she rose to stardom in 1944’s National Velvet, later moving on to adult roles such as 1951’s A Place in the Sun, for which she garnered strong reviews. As one of Hollywood’s leading stars in the 1950s and 1960s, her credits included 1956’s Giant, with Rock Hudson and James Dean; 1957’s Raintree County, with Montgomery Clift and Eva Marie Saint; 1958’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, with Paul Newman; and 1959’s Suddenly, Last Summer, with Clift and Katharine Hepburn. The latter three films each garnered Taylor Oscar nominations, before she took home best actress honors for 1960’s Butterfield 8, with Laurence Harvey and Eddie Fisher, and 1966’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, with Richard Burton.

Off-screen, Taylor’s colorful personal life generated numerous headlines. In 1950, the 18-year-old actress married hotel heir Conrad Hilton. The union lasted less than one year, and in 1952, she wed British actor Michael Wilding. The couple had two sons before divorcing in 1957. That same year, Taylor wed producer Mike Todd, with whom she had a daughter. A little over a year later, Todd died in a plane crash. In 1959, Taylor married singer Eddie Fisher (who left his wife Debbie Reynolds for Taylor); the union ended in 1964. Days after her divorce from Fisher was finalized, Taylor wed Welsh actor Richard Burton, with whom she co-starred in 1963’s Cleopatra. (Playing that film’s title role, Taylor became Hollywood’s highest-paid actress at the time.)

The public was fascinated by Taylor and Burton’s lavish lifestyle (among his gifts to her was a 69-carat diamond) and tumultuous relationship. The couple, who adopted a daughter, divorced in 1974, remarried the following year and divorced again in 1976. Taylor later called Mike Todd and Burton, who died in 1984, the great loves of her life.

READ MORE: Elizabeth Taylor Was ‘Still Madly in Love’ With Ex Richard Burton When He Died

In 1976, Taylor wed Virginia politician John Warner, who went on to become a U.S. senator. The pair divorced in 1982. In the 1980s, Taylor, who battled addictions to alcohol, drugs and overeating, spent time at the Betty Ford Center. In 1991, she married construction worker Larry Fortensky, whom she met at the treatment center. After a wedding ceremony at entertainer Michael Jackson’s Neverland Valley Ranch in California, the couple divorced five years later. In addition to her addiction issues, Taylor suffered from a variety of health problems throughout her life, ranging from hip replacements to smashed spinal discs to a brain tumor.

In addition to her film career (her last silver-screen appearance was a cameo in 1994’s The Flintstones), Taylor’s legacy includes her work as a pioneering activist in the fight against AIDS. Starting in the 1980s, the actress helped raise millions of dollars to combat the disease.

Taylor was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California, the same place where her friend Michael Jackson was interred.

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Shirley Temple receives $50,000 per film


Year
1936
Month Day
February 27

On February 27, 1936, Shirley Temple receives a new contract from 20th Century Fox that will pay the seven-year-old star $50,000 per film.

Temple was born in 1928 in Santa Monica, California, and started appearing in a series of short films spoofing current movies, called Baby Burlesks, at the age of four. At six, she attracted attention with her complex song-and-dance number “Baby Take a Bow,” performed with James Dunn, in the 1934 movie Stand Up and Cheer. Based on the film’s success, 20th Century Fox signed little Shirley to a seven-year contract. 

She would appear in a string of films that year and the next, including Little Miss Marker, Change of Heart, Bright Eyes (which featured one of her most famous songs, the bouncy tune “On the Good Ship Lollipop”), and Curly Top. At the depths of the Great Depression, Temple’s films provided a cheery alternate universe for audiences suffering the effects of widespread unemployment and general economic hardship.

Knowing they had a cash cow on their hands, 20th Century Fox refined the terms of Temple’s contract in 1936, paying her the unprecedented sum of $50,000 per picture. They also famously altered the year on her birth certificate, making it appear that she was a year younger in order to prolong her adorable child-star status. By 1938, Temple was the No. 1 box-office draw in America. The public loved her, and she routinely upstaged her adult counterparts on the big screen. Over the course of the 1930s, the box-office success of her more than 40 films, including Poor Little Rich Girl, Wee Willie Winkie, Heidi and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, went a long way towards helping Fox weather the Depression.

Temple’s career began to peter out in her teenage years, however, and her later films met with less and less success with audiences. In 1950, she retired from movies, though she narrated the television series Shirley Temple’s Storybook from 1957 to 1959. Also in 1950, she married naval officer Charles Black, changing her name to Shirley Temple Black. (She had been previously married to Jack Agar; they wed when she was 17 and divorced after having one child, Linda.) With Black, she had two more children, Charles Jr. and Lori.

Some 20 years after retiring from Hollywood, Temple Black launched a political career, running as the Republican candidate for a congressional seat in San Mateo, California, in 1967 and coming in second of 14 candidates. The following year, President Richard Nixon appointed her as an ambassador to the United Nations; she worked for the State Department in the United States and overseas for more than two decades. She was the first woman to ever serve as chief of protocol, a post she held for 11 years under President Gerald R. Ford, and President George H.W. Bush named her ambassador to Czechoslovakia in 1989; by the end of her term in 1993, it had become the Czech Republic.

Temple Black published her autobiography, Child Star, in 1988. She served on the Institute of International Studies. The former child star also became a spokeswoman for breast cancer awareness after she discovered a malignant lump in her breast in 1972 and underwent a simple mastectomy. In 1999, at an event hosted by then-President Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary, Temple Black received a medal from the Kennedy Center for lifetime achievement to the United States and the world.

On February 10, 2014, Temple died at her Woodside, California, home at 85.

READ MORE: 7 Facts About Shirley Temple

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Sitcom actress murdered; death prompts anti-stalking legislation

Year
1989
Month Day
July 18

On July 18, 1989, the 21-year-old actress Rebecca Schaeffer is murdered at her Los Angeles home by Robert John Bardo, a mentally unstable man who had been stalking her. Schaeffer’s death helped lead to the passage in California of legislation aimed at preventing stalking.

Schaeffer was born November 6, 1967, in Eugene, Oregon. She worked as a teenage model and had a short stint on the daytime soap opera One Life to Live, but was best known for co-starring with Pam Dawber in the television sitcom My Sister Sam. Bardo, born in 1970, had written Schaeffer letters and unsuccessfully tried to gain access to the set of My Sister Sam, before showing up at her apartment on July 18, 1989. The obsessed fan had reportedly obtained the actress’s home address through a detective agency, which located it through records at the California Department of Motor Vehicles. On the day of the murder, Schaeffer reportedly complied with Bardo’s request for an autograph when he appeared at her home and then asked him to leave. He returned a short time later and the actress, who reportedly was waiting for someone to deliver a script, answered the door again. Bardo then shot and killed her.

Arrested the next day in Tucson, Arizona, Bardo was later prosecuted by the Los Angeles County district attorney Marcia Clark, who later became famous as a prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson trial. In 1991, Bardo was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. In 1994, California passed the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act, which prevented the Department of Motor Vehicles from releasing private addresses.

The 2002 film Moonlight Mile, loosely inspired by Schaeffer’s story, was written and directed by Brad Silberling, who had been dating the young actress at the time of her death.

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