The recent passing of renowned actor Sidney Poitier on January 6 of this year reminded many of us from Youngstown of Elizabeth Hartman who played opposite him in A Patch of Blue. In 1966, she received a Best Actress Nomination in the Academy Awards for her role, the youngest actress to do so. I remember how proud all of us were. We’d point to her on the screen or in a news story and say, “She’s from Youngstown!” And she was a slender, freckled redhead with all-American good looks that turned all our heads.
She was born Mary Elizabeth Hartman on December 23, 1943 to Claire (Mullaly) and Bill C. Hartman, a local building contractor. Even while in Boardman High School, she already was gaining notice for her acting, playing Laura in The Glass Menagerie as well as having roles in productions of A Clearing in the Woods and Our Town at the Youngstown Playhouse. She won a statewide award for her role in The Glass Menagerie.
After graduation in 1961, she attended Carnegie Mellon University, known for its theatre program. During summers, she acted with the Kenley Players and at the Cleveland Playhouse, where she had roles in The Mad Woman of Chaillot and Bus Stop. During her time in Pittsburgh, she met her husband Gill Dennis, a future director and screenwriter. They married in 1968.
In 1964, she moved to New York, auditioning for plays, and winning the leading role in Everybody Out, the Castle is Sinking. The play was not a success, but she received recognition and screen tests with MGM and Warner Brothers. That fall, she was offered the role in A Patch of Blue. Sadly, her father died at this time. In addition to her Academy nomination in 1966, she won a Golden Globe award as well as an achievement award from the National Association of Theater Owners.
She played in several major films between 1966 and 1973: The Group, You’re A Big Boy Now, The Beguiled, and the blockbuster Walking Tall in 1973, portraying Pauline Mullins, the wife of Sheriff Bufford Pusser. In 1975, she starred in the Tom Rickman play, Balaam, and played various TV roles over the next years. She began in a touring role of Morning’s at Seven in 1981, but left due to declining mental health. Her last on-screen performance was in a horror spoof, Full Moon High, playing Miss Montgomery. She also did acclaimed voiceovers for Don Bluth’s The Secret of NIMH in 1982. It was her last role.
Elizabeth Hartman had always struggled with depression. In 1978, she spent a year at the Institute of Living in Hartford, Connecticut. She separated from her husband in 1979 and they divorced in 1984. She moved back to Pittsburgh, continuing to receive treatment for her depression from the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, while working at a local museum. On the morning of June 10, 1987, she called her psychiatrist saying she was very despondent. Later that day, she fell from her fifth floor apartment window to her death. No note was found. She lies at rest back in Youngstown, at Forest Lawn Memorial Park.
She was a brilliant actor, who could “become” a variety of roles. Her brother-in-law, Robert H. Shoop, Jr said of her, ″She had an unbelievable talent. She was able to portray so many people on the stage and yet, she wasn’t like any of them.″ In her New York Times obituary, Elizabeth Hartman is quoted from a 1969 interview, saying, ”That initial success beat me down. It spiraled me into a position where I didn’t belong. I was not ready for that. I suddenly found myself failing.” She rose meteorically, and then the roles slowed down as fickle Hollywood turned to others.
Given her early, meteoric rise, one wonders whether she ever had a chance to figure out who she was beyond her roles. Her struggle throughout her life suggests a physiological condition that the talk therapies of the day could not greatly help. The most effective anti-depressant medications only came online after her death.
One can never answer the questions of “what if?” All we can do is remember Elizabeth Hartman’s artistic excellence and honor her memory. We also can take pride in the local institutions, from high school theatre programs to the Youngstown Playhouse and the Kenley Players, that gave her the opportunity to develop her craft. Seeing those images of her with Sidney Poitier once again reminded me, “she was from Youngstown” but also that we lost her too soon.
To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!