Movie stars and murder have always gone together, well, like popcorn and soda. And the San Fernando Valley has had its share of both.
Mix in the fact that one of the Mafia’s favorite playgrounds in the ‘50s and ‘60s was Ventura Boulevard and that’s the beginning of a good story.
Movie star Lana Turner appeared in nearly 50 films through the ’40 and ‘50s, with her popularity waning in subsequent decades. Just a few of her films were Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), and Peyton Place (1957), for which she received a Best Actress Oscar nomination.
Turner was married seven times, but the femme fatale’s most famous escort was mobster Mickey Cohen’s bodyguard, Johnny Stompanato.
It all took place in an Italian restaurant in Sherman Oaks.
A small item in the Nov. 15, 1957, edition of the B’nai B’rith Messenger heralded the opening of Rondelli’s at 13359 Ventura Boulevard: “The big doings at the gala opening of Rondelli’s authentic Neapolitan restaurant on Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks, brought a raft of film TV and stage personalities to welcome the event. Among them were Academy award winner Ernest Borgnine, Jane Withers…and others.”
Two years later, on Dec. 2, 1959, Rondelli’s made national headlines when a gun that had belonged to Stompanato was found in a nearby dumpster after Jack “The Enforcer” Whalen was shot dead in the restaurant while sitting next to Mickey Cohen. The involvement of the LAPD, the Mafia, and show business habitues of Rondelli’s made the scandal sheets for months.
The abusive Stompanato himself had been shot dead two years earlier by Lana Turner’s 14-year-old daughter, Cheryl.
But Rondelli’s wasn’t the only Valley Italian restaurant to figure in a well-publicized murder.
Robert Blake’s favorite restaurant was Vitello’s at 4349 Tujunga Avenue in Studio City, near his home. He ate there twice a week, and the menu’s Fusilli ala Robert Blake was named after him.
While most famous as a TV cop in Baretta, he also had a successful film career, appearing in 118 films between 1939 and 1997, most notably In Cold Blood, Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, and The Greatest Story Ever Told. Western aficionados remember him as Little Beaver, Red Ryder’s sidekick in 22 films.
On May 4, 2001, at about 9:30 p.m., someone shot Blake’s wife, Bonny Lee Bakley, while she sat in their black sports car, which was parked on Woodbridge Street, a block from Vitello’s. Blake said he had briefly returned to Vitello’s, where they had had dinner earlier, to retrieve a gun he had left behind, and when he came back to the car, he found his wife dying from a gunshot wound.
Two days after the murder, Blake moved out of the home in Studio City, and moved in with his adult daughter in Hidden Hills, where, on April 18, 2002, nearly a year after the murder, police arrested him. Almost three years later, in 2005, after spending much of that time behind bars, a jury pronounced Blake not guilty.
Bakley turned out to be a petty crook and con artist obsessed with Hollywood celebrities. Blake had married her just four months before the murder because she had given birth to his child.
And yet a third Valley Italian restaurant, Buca di Beppo, at 17500 Ventura Boulevard in Encino, figures in a celebrity murder.
Phil Hartman appeared in 28 films between 1978 and 1998, but was better known for his eight years on Saturday Night Live. Known for his good humor, Hartman appeared on the TV show “NewsRadio” and did voiceovers on 52 episodes of The Simpsons.
The Hartman family lived on Encino Avenue, near Embassy Drive, and Hartman was active in community affairs, even serving as Encino’s Honorary Sheriff.
On May 27, 1998, Hartman’s wife, Brynn, had dinner and drinks with a friend at Buca di Beppo. After returning home, Brynn argued heatedly with Phil, after which he went to bed.
She entered his bedroom some time before 3:00 a.m. and fatally shot the 49-year-old actor several times with a .38 caliber handgun as he slept. It later came out that, in addition to drinking at the restaurant, she was taking antidepressants and had recently used cocaine.
That same morning, she confessed to killing her husband, locked herself in a bathroom in their home, and shot herself to death.
The moral of the story: Before ordering the eggplant parmesan in a Valley Italian restaurant, make sure there are no suspicious-looking people in the next booth.
Martin Cooper, President of Cooper Communications, supervised public relations for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences for ten years; held executive positions with Disney and Universal Studios; and served as Chairman of the Board of the UCLA Film & Television Archive. He is a Fernando Award Honoree and Past Chairman of VICA. An award-winning author, he has written four books, two of them on the San Fernando Valley. He is currently researching his next book on the Valley.