A TV Movie About Teenage Suicide Forces An Actress to Face Again the Trauma of Her Father's Death

updated 10/29/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 10/29/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

"I thought I knew everything there was to know about suicide until last June," says actress Mariette Hartley. Then she read the script of Silence of the Heart, the CBS movie that airs on October 30, in which she plays the mother of a teenage boy who kills himself. The film forced Hartley, 44, to relive that harrowing day 22 years ago when she and her mother, Polly, discovered the suicide of Mariette's father, Paul Hartley, a former advertising executive.

"I don't know anyone who has more self-awareness, balance and understanding of life than Mariette," says her husband of 10 years, producer Patrick (V) Boyriven. It wasn't always so. After her father's death, she sought help through psychotherapy. The movie became an extension of that often painful process. "It was hell all over again," she says, "but it showed me suicide can be about life, not only death. It gives life much more poignancy."

At her home in the San Fernando Valley, Hartley spoke with reporter Gail Buchalter about Paul Hartley's death and the toll it took on his family.

My father was a very strong male figure to me as a child. He was very dashing, had a wonderful sense of humor and was romantically handsome in the Scott Fitzgerald genre. He worked as an advertising executive and was a wonderful classical artist and a brilliant photographer. I always felt he understood me. We were mutually creative.

My father wasn't withdrawn. He just didn't talk about his feelings. We had a hell of a time expressing anger. We'd only let it out if we were tired or problems built to such a point we'd explode. There was no happy medium.

We weren't into touching either. My mother's father was the behavioral psychologist, John B. Watson. He never kissed my mother until she was 7. My father was a farm boy who never learned to be holding and supportive. So, I was afraid of feeling all of my life. Ironically, it was my father's death that eventually brought me to life.

We weren't poor by any stretch of the imagination. Nevertheless, my father always felt the pressure of supporting the family. His ego was a problem. He had a sense of worthlessness. He was an artist but couldn't sell his paintings. He lost his advertising job, then started art classes at home but they failed. He wrote a book, How to Beautify Your Home With Color, but it didn't sell. Each failure was like one stab wound after another.

When I reached my teens, my mother had to go to work selling clothes. That really got Dad. He was uncomfortable in an apron. I think that my urge for success was to prove that if he couldn't succeed, I could.

I wanted to be an actress and was studying with Eva Le Gallienne when I was 14. After a year of college, I joined the American Shakespeare Festival with John Houseman. At 19, I married John Seventa, a publicist. I wasn't clear about myself; I had no self-esteem. I wanted to get out of my house. We divorced after only two years.

It was a difficult divorce. I called my parents and they immediately came to California. We all lived in a little beach house. I had a seven-year contract with MGM, but, when I became very ill with a condition misdiagnosed as hepatitis, MGM dropped me. We moved to an apartment in Brentwood to make ends meet. My father was 67, still a very creative guy, but he felt thwarted and uprooted. Over a two-to-three month period I noticed a tremendous change. He became more and more withdrawn. I literally got down on my hands and knees and begged him to go for therapy but he wouldn't.

Then one night there seemed to be an uplifting of his spirits. There was a great sense of relief in him. The following morning my mother and I were having brunch in the kitchen when we heard a noise. It sounded like a firecracker, but I knew exactly what had happened. We rushed into the bedroom and found my father dead. He had shot himself in the head.

I remember feeling tremendous shock plus a tiny amount of relief that his agony, and ours, was over. My mother and I stayed in the same apartment. We had no money and no place to go. I could smell death at night there. Probably it was a form of self-punishment. You feel so guilty. Was I responsible? Had my success done this to my father? Did I have the power to do that to someone? At the time I answered "yes" to all those questions. But then I realized it's each individual's decision. I had gotten it all mixed up.

Then there was the anger: How dare you do this to me? There was so much pain and quiet agony. I don't think my mother and I supported one another. We tried, but we were so lost. The toughest part was that we were friendless. There was no funeral, no memorial service. Only my brother, Tony, came West. Later my mother took my father's ashes back to Connecticut. He's buried at the Weston Gun Club, which he co-founded. Dad was a hunter and had guns in the house all the time.

My mother and I never stopped working. To survive, we had to. Acting probably kept me together but it was a catch-22. I did a few Virginians and Bonanzas, and when I heard gunshots I fell apart. When a car backfired, it sounded like a gun to me. I had a series called Hero but it was canceled, and that completely knocked the wind out of me. No one was asking me to work after that. I began overeating. I wasn't dating. My career was destroyed. Nothing worked. In a sense I had an unconscious wish not to go on living.

I started therapy with Dr. Victor Monke about four months after my father died, but I couldn't stick with it. I got my own apartment and found a job selling clothes at I. Magnin. I needed time away from my career to figure out whether I was acting by choice or out of compulsion. After three years I decided to return to acting, and I did several Death Valley Days. While auditioning for a major orange juice commercial in 1973, I met my husband, Patrick. I also went back to Dr. Monke and stayed with therapy for four years. I had to learn to let go of huge feelings of anger and not be punished by them.

Still, I had great reservations about doing Silence of the Heart. I was afraid I would shut down. My husband and the director were terribly supportive and so was my new therapist. Still, one scene really got to me. In it, my son's girlfriend describes him as "a square kid in a round hole." For some reason, it put me in touch with everything I'd ever felt. I had to go to my dressing room and sob. My real prayer is that this movie will change people's outlook on suicide—take all the labels off it and make it have no shame.

I had a dream about my father recently. I said goodbye. What was so lovely was that he looked so peaceful. Then after I woke up, I realized he was still alive in a sense and that I'm still denying his death. It's the only thing I'll probably never completely get over. But now I realize I don't have to.

From Our Partners