Monday, June 17, 2019

The Sad Story of Dominique Dunne

Dominique Ellen Dunne was born in Santa Monica, California on November 23, 1959.  She was the youngest child of author and producer Dominick Dunne and ranching heiress Ellen Beatriz.  Pretty much everyone in her family (brothers, uncle, aunt, even her godparents) were in some way tied to the movie industry, so it was no coincidence that she became an actress as well.

Her first film role was in the 1979 made-for-TV masterpiece Diary of a Teenage Hitchhiker.  Here's a particularly creepy scene.   This led to a number of supporting roles in television series, including Lou Grant and Hart to Hart.  Here's a scene of her on the 80s cop drama Hill Street Blues, a series who's title I have never understood.  Sadly, this particular episode aired two weeks after she died.  But more on that later.

Say it with me now.
By 1981, Dunne had built up a sufficient enough resume to be cast in the soon-to-be-classic film Poltergeist, produced by Steven Spielberg.  Remember the trailer?  Watch it here.

That same year, Dunne began dating John Thomas Sweeney, a relationship that would ultimately prove fatal.  She bought a home with the up and coming chef, a modest, one-bedroom house in West Hollywood. 

Shortly after moving in together, the relationship began to deteriorate.  Sweeney became physically abusive with Dunne, even going so far as to yanking out entire handfuls of her hair during their frequent arguments.  She would often retreat to her mother's house, only to inevitably return to Sweeney.  That came to an end on September 26, 1982, when Dunne officially ended the relationship after he nearly choked her to death.  Sweeney moved out of the house and Dunne had all of the locks changed.

8723 Rangely Avenue, West Hollywood
Around this time, Dunne was cast in another soon-to-be-classic science fiction saga, V. She was cast as Robin Maxwell, the character destined to bear an alien offspring. 

On October 30, Dunne was in her home with V co-star David Packer rehearsing their scenes when Sweeney showed up.  She initially spoke to him through the locked door, but then agreed to meet him on the patio.  Packer remained inside.

Dunne had only been outside for a few moments when Packer started to hear an argument.  He later reported that he heard "smacking sounds, two screams, and a thud."  He called police, but was stymied when told that Dunne's house was outside their jurisdiction.  He then called a friend and informed him "if I'm found dead, John Sweeney is the killer."

David Packer (V, 1983)
Packer walked out the back door and approached the driveway.  There he saw Sweeney kneeling over Dunne.  He called police again, this time with success.  When units finally arrived, Sweeney met them in the driveway with his hands above his head as he declared "I killed my girlfriend and I tried to kill myself."

Dunne was still alive however, though unconscious due to oxygen deprivation.  She was taken to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and placed on life support.  Over the next week, doctors performed a series of brain scans, each one confirming the other - no brain activity.  On November 4, just a few weeks shy of Dunne's 23rd birthday, her parents removed her from life support, donating her kidneys and heart.

On November 6, a funeral was held at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills.  She was buried in Pierce Brothers Westwood Village.

Pierce Brothers Westwood Village
Section D, L-193


John Sweeney was tried for second-degree murder.  On September 21, 1983, after eight days of deliberation, the jury found him guilty of the lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter.  The judge sentenced him to a mere six years in prison, of which he only served three and a half.

After his release in 1987, Sweeney resumed his career as a chef.  He was hired by The Chronicle, a restaurant in Santa Monica, but it didn't last long.  Dominique's family handed out flyers declaring "the food you eat tonight was made by the hands that killed Dominique Dunne."  As the protests continued, Sweeney left the job and changed his name to John Maura. 

This practice continued for more than 20 years, as Dominick Dunne made it his life's mission to destroy Sweeney.  He hired protestors to picket any business that hired his daughter's killer and private detectives to follow him morning, noon, and night.  It wouldn't end until Dominick's own passing in 2009.

John Sweeney on trial, 1983, and John Maura, today.
So where is Sweeney/Maura today?  San Rafael, California, where he is the Director of Food Services for Smith Ranch Homes, a senior retirement community.  Interested in what the community has to say about that?  You can read their angry comments to management here.


  • Dominick Dunne authored a fascinating account of Sweeney's trial for Vanity Fair, entitled "Justice: A Father's Account of the Trial of his Daughter's Killer."  Read it here.

  • Dominick discusses his daughter's murder with the Archive of American Television.  Watch that interview here.

  • Poltergeist opened on June 4, 1982, the same day as Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.  Khan was tops at the box office that weekend, whereas Poltergeist opened in third place.  It was also beaten by Rocky III, which was in it's second week of general release.

  • Dunne is buried just a few hundred feet from her Poltergeist co-star Heather O'Rourke, who died in 1988.

  • Dunne filmed her appearance on Hill Street Blues just days after one of her beatings at the hands of Sweeney.  Appearing as an abused woman, the bruises you see on her face were largely her own.

  • According to V director Kenneth Johnson, Dunne actually appears in the completed film during the initial arrival of the alien motherships, though her face is never shown. 

  • As noted above, Dunne was to portray Robin Maxwell in V.  The character was impregnated by alien visitor Brian, and would subsequently give birth in the sequel V: The Final Battle.  Though completely unrelated to Dunne, watch that birth scene here.  You know you want to.

Monday, June 3, 2019


Ricardo Gonzalo Pedro Montalban y Merino was born on November 25, 1920 in Mexico City.  He was raised in a large Roman Catholic family, and by the time he was a teenager, he and his brother had emigrated to the United States.  Like many 20th Century immigrants, they settled in New York City, where he began his acting career with a much shorter name - Ricardo Montalban.

In 1941, he had small, uncredited roles in the films Her Cardboard Lover and He's a Latin From Staten Island.  That same year, he returned to Mexico to see his ailing mother.  After her funeral, he resumed his career in Mexico, with roles in such films as The Saint That Forged a Country, Fantasia Ranchera, and a production of The Three Musketeers.

He worked consistently throughout the 40s and quickly earned starring roles in his native Mexico.  Eventually Hollywood noticed, and he was cast in his first U.S. production, Fiesta, opposite Esther Williams. Here's the trailer. The film was a financial success, so MGM Studios signed Montalban to a long-term contract.

His first leading role was in the 1949 film Border Incident alongside George Murphy. Watch the trailer here.  The film wasn't as successful as Fiesta, but it did earn Montalban a spot on the cover of Life Magazine, the first Hispanic actor to ever receive that honor. 

"I was king for a week," Montalban mused, "I thought the offers would flood in, but after a week - nothing." 

Montalban's films continued to disappoint at the box office, leading to his dismissal from MGM in 1953.

"I played caricatures of what a Latin is supposed to be like," he later recounted.  "In reality, we are family men."

Montalban began working in television, with guest spots on such series as Ben Casey, Burke's Law, and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.  He also appeared on a series called The Lieutenant, created by Hollywood newcomer Gene Roddenberry.  You see where this is going?

It was through this association that in 1966, Montalban would be cast in what would arguably be his most famous role, Khan Noonien Singh in Star Trek.  Here's a clip of him going head to head with William Shatner's Captain Kirk.  Watch him discuss the episode here.

Ricardo Montalban and
Roddy McDowall.
In the early 70s, Montalban returned to the silver screen for both Escape From the Planet of the Apes (1971) and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) playing a circus owner who befriends the wayward simians.  Click on the titles for the very groovy 70s trailers.  And here's Montalban discussing his work in the films.

He continued to guest on a number of series throughout the 70s, including Columbo.  Watch his episode in its entirety here.  And here's a clip of him on Hawaii Five-O.  The original.  Not the current dumb one.
"Fine, Corinthian leather."

He supplemented his income in a series of now-famous commercials for the Chrysler Cordoba, which gave birth to his oft-repeated catchphrase "fine, Corinthian leather."  Watch one of those ads here.

All of this was building up to his most famous role on television, that of Mr. Roarke on Fantasy Island.  Watch the iconic intro here.  Smiles, everyone!

The series came about completely by accident, Montalban would later recount.  Series creator Aaron Spelling, frustrated with ABC for rejecting a number of his proposed series, sarcastically suggested a show about a place where all your sexual fantasies can be realized.  The light bulb went off over Spelling's head, and thus was born Fantasy Island, though it was broadened to include simple, every day fantasies as well.  Montalban relished playing the character.  Watch him discuss playing Mr. Roarke here.

Montalban with his Fantasy Island
co-star Herve Villechaize.
Montalban's co-star was James Bond veteran Herve Villechaize.  In the beginning, Montalban would later recount, Villechaize was a delight to work with, but it became increasingly hard to do so as the series continued.  Watch him discuss that often strenuous relationship here.  Most people forget that Villechaize left the series before it ended it's seven-year run.  During the final season, he was replaced by future Mr. Belvedere actor Christopher Hewett.  The two lacked chemistry however, and it is often cited as one reason why the series was cancelled.

It was during the run of Fantasy Island that Montalban received a phone call that would forever enshrine him in the pop culture Hall of Fame.  Paramount was producing a second Star Trek feature film, one that would revive his character of Khan.  After six years as the more mild-mannered Mr. Roarke, Montalban welcomed the opportunity to take on such a passionate role.  Watch him discuss that decision here.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, opened on June 4, 1982.  It broke the box office and remains one of the most popular films in the series to date.  Watch the film's trailer here.  And here he is chewing up the scenery with Shatner.  Oh, and here's his death scene.

Montalban was also a social activist.  In 1970, he co-created the Nosotros Foundation (We) to advocate for Latinos in the film industry.  Here's their Facebook page. He had often been disappointed by the manner in which Mexicans were portrayed, and through Nosotros, he sought to change that perception. 

Montalban continued acting throughout the 80s, most notably in the film The Naked GunHere he matches wits with series star Leslie Nielsen.

In the early 2000s, Montalban appeared as the grandfather in the Spy Kids series of films.  Watch one of his scenes here

Ultimately, it would be his final role.  After a series of health complications, the actor passed on January 14, 2009 from congestive heart failure.  True to his Catholic upbringing, he was buried in Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California.

Holy Cross Cemetery, Culver City
Section EE, Tier 3, Grave 21

RIP, Your Excellency.

  • Montalban released his autobiography Reflections: A Life in Two Worlds in 1980.  Pick up a copy on Amazon here.
  • In 1973, Montalban was in a touring production of The King and IHere he is promoting it on The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson.
  • In 2018, HBO produced a documentary film entitled My Dinner With Herve, chronicling the life of Herve Villechaize.  Actor Andy Garcia portrayed Montalban in the film.  Watch the trailer here.
  • Gene Roddenberry served in World War 2 with an officer named Noonien Singh.  After the war, they lost touch with one another, so in the days before Facebook, Roddenberry used his television series as a means to try to find his old friend, naming the Khan character after him.  By 1988, Roddenberry still hadn't found him, so he gave a similar name to Data's creator on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Noonien Soong.
  • This author unsuccessfully tried to buy the burial plot next to Montalban.  Although currently unoccupied, it already has an owner.