S1E13: Love Survives
You may not recognize her name.
You might not even recognize her sweet little face even though she made over 70 appearances in commercials and television sitcoms, and dramas.
But if you've ever watched the animated classics All Dogs Go to Heaven or the Land Before Time, Judith Barsi touched your life.
S1E13: Love Survives
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Bag of Bones Podcast
Season One- Episode 13
You may not recognize her name.
You might not even recognize her sweet little face even though she made over 70 appearances in commercials and television sitcoms, and dramas. She even has a few movies under her belt.
But I think there is one way you will recognize Miss Judith Barsi, she was the beloved voice of Ducki in the animated movie A Land Before Time and Anne- Marie in All Dog’s Go to Heaven.
On July 25,1988, ten year old Judith Barsi was shot in the head while asleep in her pink canopy bed. The shooter? Her father.
Judith Eva Barsi was born on June 6th, 1978 at only five pounds and six ounces. Her parents, Maria and Joe had both emigrated from Hungary, but didn’t meet until Joe, a plumber, made his way to California and met Maria at the restaurant where she was waitressing.
He was known for flashing hundred dollar bills around and Maria thought that he would bring her a sense of security.
Not much is available to tell me about their life prior to becoming parents, but Joe fathered a son and daughter that lived in Arizona at the time. After the death of their father, the daughter came forward and admitted to the abuse they suffered while he was married to their mother. It was the reason Joe’s former wife Klara separated from him and eventually divorced.
Joe and Maria married in Las Angeles, CA in 1977 and Judith was their only child.
Maria, who had at one time wanted to pursue an acting career, began to groom her daughter at a young age to fulfill her former dreams. Her family tried to discourage her, but one fateful evening while at a skating rink in 1983, Judith was discovered when a team was shooting a commercial at the same rink. The casting director was so smitten with Judith that he talked her parents into bringing her in for an audition.
Judith is small for her age and She was mistaken for a three-year-old child, but she was actually five. Judith was cute, precocious, intelligent and a lot of fun to work with. They signed her on immediately.
Her small size allowed her to be cast in more roles because she looked so much younger, but it prompted the family to get her hormone injections, she grew to only three feet, eight inches by the age of ten.
Her first commercial was for Donald Duck orange juice and because of her pleasant personality, her politeness and brilliant smile, they hired her to do several more orange juice commercials but then the other offers started rolling in. Word spread that she was a delight to work with and could understand direction and convey deep emotion with little prompting.
Commercials took up the majority of her time. She promoted everything from JIF peanut butter, Lay’s chips, McDonald’s restaurants, Toys R Us, Tide laundry detergent, Campbell’s soup and many others.
One interesting story of the behind the scenes of commercial life:They had to do so many takes for the commercial of Campbell’s tomato soup, that she never wanted to eat it again.
Around 1985, Jozsef would often get too drunk and would be unable to get to work. He was barely working as a plumber and refused to let Maria work. He resented the attention that Maria poured on their daughter as they were practically inseparable while Maria encouraged and pushed for Judith’s acting career. Maria also tried very hard to give her a normal life.
Judith went to a public school at Nevada Avenue Elementary and had many friends. She loved playing outside every chance she got; playing in the sprinklers and riding her bike. Her favorite game is rumored to be Operation no matter how many times it scared her to touch the sides. She was a happy child and people loved to be around her.
Maria taught her daughter to speak fluent Hungarian and also brought traditional foods to her for her lunches at school to keep their family heritage alive.
The family slipped into an impoverished state for only a bit and had to rely on welfare. This did nothing to help the morale of the head of household. Soon his own daughter would be making more money in a year that he earned in his lifetime.
The more he drank the more abusive he became and his co-workers and neighbors recall that more than once he referenced that he wanted to kill his wife. When someone asked how he could hurt his child so much by taking away her mother, he responded, “I gotta kill her too.”
He was known to brag about his bravado and the many fights he would get into in his younger days- even serving time in jail for murdering a man during a fist-fight, but there is no record of this. He has had a few run-ins with the police, but not from fights from what I could find, but because of separate accounts of drinking while under the influence.
The abuse at home finally escalated enough that Maria went forward to the police to press charges. It was December in 1986. She confessed that he had been verbally abusive saying that he was going to kill her and that he had been physically abusing her for the the past five years, but the police found no visible evidence on her body at the time, and they dismissed the charge. They all but convinced her not to press charges due to the failure of evidence. She returned home.
Hindsight is 20/20… if they only knew. Los Angeles Police Detective Sandra Palmer, who was working the case said, “How do we protect someone from threats? We really, honestly can’t.” She went on to add, “I could say ‘I’m going to kill you.’ I have the right because we have a free society to say that. I don’t have the right to carry it out.”
It was after this incident that Jozsef gave up drinking and Judith’s career started to really take off. By 1986 and 87, she’s making six figures, enough so that they could purchase a modest home in Canoga Park. They barley had the property a month before Jozsef put up a pointed wrought iron fencing around their estate.
Despite his gruff appearance, Jozsef would say that his family is the most important thing to him. That quote “If the family life is gone, then life is not worth living.” So he did everything in his power to keep them close. He was possessive and demanding going so far as to hide a telegram from his wife regarding the death of a family member so that she wouldn’t leave the country.
And again, another example is when Judith had to leave California for shooting the film Jaws: the Revenge, he weilded a knife and threatened to cut Judith’s throat if they didn’t return. He hung this over the child’s head until they came back to their home. More on this in a minute…
Judith began showing subtle signs that she was abused but no one noticed. Even though she was known to have verbally said things about her father being angry all the time or wanting to kill her mother, she said them so nonchalantly that no one thought things were as bad as they really were. It was just conversation. It was just life as she knew it.
It wasn’t until Judith was scheduled for a singing audition that she broke down in uncontrollable sobs in front of her talent agent, Ruth Hansen, that the Child Protection Services were contacted, and Maria took the child to a child psychologist who confirmed the existence of severe mental and physical abuse.
After about a month’s worth of counseling, Maria, most likely terrified that her husband would discover the psychologist sessions told the Child Protection Services that she was going to handle things. She was going to get a divorce from Jozsef. So they dropped the case and did no further follow-up.
Maria rented an apartment with every intention of leaving the abusive marriage, but her husband noticed that she was taking things from the house and decided to follow her one day, catching her removing some of their furniture from her car. When he asked what she was doing, she told him that she was helping a friend.
She knew he didn’t believe her so she returned home.
But then she decided that she had worked too hard to get to where she was and that it should be Jozsef who should do the leaving. She had grown accustomed to their way of life and Judith’s career was only just getting started. She did not want to risk her daughter’s chances at future rolls, or leave her things behind.
Her plan, knowing that he was a neat freak, was to just “let the house go.” She stopped cleaning and let the filth pile up where it may hoping that he would get tired of it and leave.
It did not have that affect.
It is so much more difficult for the outside world to deal with the cases of verbal and social abuse when no physical abuse is present, as the abused may keep what is happening behind closed doors or not be believed when they do speak out. Verbal abuse is every bit as damaging, but harder to pin down.
Judith was getting so many offers that her work started interfering with her school but Maria allowed it, and she began to get roles on shows like, Punky Brewster, Knot’s Landing, the Twilight Zone, Remington Steele, Growing Pains where she became good friends with the cast. Judith only appeared in one episode of Growing Pains and they had to use clips from archived footage to do a final scene in the Seaver’s grand finale’.
She was already a well known presence on the small screen, but became a recognizable star on the movie screen when she appeared in the movie Jaws: The Revenge in 1987. But, looking back, it was this role, that may have sealed her fate. The paranoia and the fear of separation of Jozsef from his family began to get the better of him.
As I touched on briefly before, this was the episode that Jozsef made his intentions clear and his possessiveness was making the decisions for him.
Maria and Judith had to leave their California home and travel to the Bahama’s for on location shooting. Jozsef is rumored to have pressed a knife to Judith’s throat telling her that if she doesn’t come home after the filming, he would kill her and her mother. And just to make sure it sunk in, he called her on the phone while her cousin listened in and repeated his threat. Encouraging their return immediately. She was said to have run from the phone crying, her cousin close behind also crying.
Maria packs them up and returns home.
By now evidence of abuse can’t be ignored. Judith has started plucking her eyelashes and eyebrows in an unconscious cry for help. Neighbors and even the stars of Growing Pains have offered the ladies a safe haven and an escape option, if they would just leave, but Maria chooses to stay.
I don’t have a reason for why she chose to stay. It was said that when they were in the Bahamas on location for Jaws: the Revenge, that Maria spoke out about the abuse or made several comments about not wanting to return home, but the others who heard her did not hear a cry for help, they, instead heard of a woman constantly complaining about her husband. They started to avoid conversations with her, knowing that she would just complain again.
Judith was offered the role in a new Don Bluth Film, The Land Before Time. The former Disney animator was the director, lead animator and one of the producers along with the brand new Amblin Entertainment Studios.
Bluth prefers using children in the roles of children and thought that Judith was a promising addition to the Bluth family entertainment franchise and had quite a few more roles lined up for her future.
Judith completely enjoyed the process of animation had said that doing the voice acting was her favorite thing to do and wanted to be a voice actor when she grew up. Her character, Ducky, is sometimes more memorable than any of the other characters and is certainly the one Miss Judith is remembered for.
Following her role in Land Before Time, she went into production of Bluth’s All Dog’s Go to Heaven.
Life was pretty difficult for the young star at home even though she put on a brave face. She worked harder than most adults, putting in long hours and several acting gigs per month.
During the recording of the song, Soon You’ll Come Home, everything came to the surface and Judith broke down in tears and was escorted from the sound stage. Voice actor Lana Beeson was called in to record the song instead, Bluth deciding not to pressure Miss Barsi. Just days following the wrap of her recording the voice of the character Anne- Marie, tragedy ends the life of this budding star.
Judith was last seen on the morning of July 25, 1998. She was outside riding her bike and waving to the neighbors. She was scheduled for an audition for a new Hanna Barbara animated series later that day. What happens next is just a blur.
According to police reconstruction, Jozsef Barsi went to his daughter’s room and fatally shot her in the head as she slept. Maria, allegedly after hearing the gunshot, ran from her bedroom toward her daughter’s room. She was met in the hallway by Jozsef where he shot her in the head, her body falling limp against the wall in the hallway.
For two days, Jozsef wandered about his house and when Judith’s agent Ruth Hansen called the home because Judith had missed an audition, Mr. Barsi told her that a “black car had just come to take them away”. He also told her that he intended to move out for good, he just needed time to quote “say goodbye to my little girl.”
And then, this is now July 27th early in the morning, he doused the corpses of his wife and daughter with gasoline and struck a match. He then went to the garage and took his own life turning the same gun on himself and pulling the trigger.
The news of the incident shocked the nation as they mourned the short life of Judith Barsi.
Don Bluth includes a final song in All Dogs Go to Heaven that is dedicated to Judith called Love Survives. He is said to have personally gone into the art room to make Anne-Marie resemble the actress as much as possible and was so shaken by her death that he had to leave work.
Growing Pains episode The Graduation was Judith’s final sitcom tv role and the producers placed an “in loving memory” tag following the episode to honor her death. Tracy Gold, Missy Gold and Brandy Gold from the show, read the poem, A Child of Mine at her eulogy.
And Lance Guest, who played her father in the Jaws film was one of the pallbearers.
Young Judith Barsi never got to see her last, few roles: An Afterschool Special titled , A Family Affair was filmed only three months before she died and was technically the last time she was seen on television; the Land Before Time which was released November of 1988 and All Dogs Go to Heaven released in November 1989 - all released posthumously.
One last interesting piece of the sad, tragic story… Judith Barsi’s first role was the made for television movie Fatal Vision. She plays the part of three-year old Kimberly MacDonald. The true story of a father that kills his wife and daughters.
Judith and her mother are buried side by side at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Hollywood CA