Posted by medusamorlock on May 10, 2007
Actor David Huffman would have turned 62 today, May 10th, but the talented actor with so much promise ahead of him never got the chance to grow old like most of us do. Twenty-two years ago, when Huffman was just 39, this accomplished and likable stage, movie and television actor was brutally murdered.
While his name might not be familiar to everyone, David Huffman was a busy actor with a burgeoning list of credits that began with his Broadway debut in Butterflies are Free, and continued while he cut his teeth on a steady stream of TV movies and miniseries, including the lauded 1976 Eleanor and Franklin, F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Last of the Belles, Baretta, Captains and the Kings, Testimony of Two Men (anybody else rememember the Operation Prime Time offerings that put independent TV stations on the map? I was there, baby!), Lou Grant, and the starring role in Tom Edison: The Boy Who Lit Up The World in 1979. Huffman also branched out into movies, making his debut in the revenge action title Wolf Lake in 1978, where he played a Vietnam draft dodger who’s targeted by embittered Rod Steiger who blames Huffman for the death of his soldier son.
He got a big break the next year when he was cast as Sylvester Stallone’s union buddy in F.I.S.T., then had roles in two popular releases Ice Castles and The Onion Field. Horror fans remember his role in the low budget Blood Beach, and the same year he filmed the modest ripped-from-the-headlines St. Helens, about the massive volcanic explosion of the Washington mountain in May of 1980. Art Carney co-starred as the cantankerous real-life eccentric named Harry Truman who vowed to stay put in his cabin despite the warnings of impending doom, and did just that. This modest movie is one of those titles that is much better than it needed to be, fairly accurately recreating the uncertainty of the St. Helens pre-eruption situation, and the valiant attempts of the scientists to predict when she would blow her top. Huffman is charming and convincing as the volcanologist who, after falling in love with a local lass and urging her to safety (okay, so they romanticized it a little) is the guy who was up on the mountain when it blew, and radioed the news just before he was incinerated and buried by the blast.
Huffman worked with action star Clint Eastwood in 1982’s Firefox, then continued making frequent TV appearances in popular favorites like Little House on the Prairie, Trapper John, M.D., Remington Steele, Newhart, as well as going back to his first love the stage to hone his craft. In February of 1985, Huffman was appearing at San Diego’s Old Globe Theater, located in Balboa Park near the San Diego Zoo in Of Mice and Men, and was going to be leaving the production a few weeks early in order to take a role in the highly-anticipated miniseries The Blue and the Gray. He had brought cookies to his castmates as an early goodbye gift, and would give his last performance on the upcoming weekend.
It was the morning of February 27, 1985, and actor David Huffman was in his van, playing the bagpipes, in the parking lot near the theater. Close by there were shouts, an elderly couple by their motorhome yelling that somebody had broken into their vehicle, and Huffman looked up to see a young man fleeing the scene. David gunned his engine and followed the suspect, only to see him disappear into the foliage of one of the steep canyons in Balboa Park. Stopping his van and leaving it by the road in a red zone, Huffman jumped from his van and ran into Palm Canyon, chasing after the suspect who continued deeper into the thick growth. The suspect was momentarily held back by a fence, and Huffman caught up to him. The two men struggled and just a moment later Huffman was attacked with a sharp instrument, his chest pierced twice, and he went down. The suspect continued his escape. Minutes later, Huffman had bled to death, and his body was found an hour later by a group of schoolchildren on a nature hike.
Hollywood was shocked, San Diego was shocked, family, friends and fans were shocked. This was a brutal murder and the exact circumstances were not even known for a time. The group in the parking lot who had witnessed the beginning of the chase had waited around, but when no one returned from the canyon, those witnesses, who turned out to be Canadian tourists, didn’t know what to do, so they left. They had no idea that their hero had died while trying to help them, and in fact didn’t even know of the slaying until days later, when they read of it in the newspaper and contacted the authorities. It was an unsolved crime until someone came forward and helped create a police drawing, then the authorities were able to track down the suspect, a 16-year-old illegal immigrant with a history of theft and violence who had been picked up by the police earlier that morning after being found prowling around a different parking lot, then dropped off at the high school he was supposed to be attending. An hour or so later he had murdered David Huffman.
When the accused finally came to trial at the end of 1985, despite testimony that he had merely been “frightened” when he stabbed Huffman to death — using a screwdriver, as it turned out — jurors convicted him of first degree murder and he was sentenced to 26 years in jail, which must have sounded like a long time back then. Now, twenty-two years after the crime, it’s surely not nearly enough.
At his memorial service, Huffman was remembered by his friends as “part prince, part angel, part saint.” Clearly the circumstances leading to his death did not suggest otherwise; he came to the aid of fellow human beings, without hesitation, as a selfless hero. Hollywood had lost a gifted actor; his wife, casting director Phyllis Huffman, had lost her husband and the father of her two sons. In later years she would credit actor/director Clint Eastwood for helping her get back on her feet; she became Eastwood’s primary casting agent for all his films, and in fact her last two projects were his Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. Phyllis Huffman died in March 2006 after a short illness.
David Huffman is remembered for his career and also, sadly, for the terrible way it was cut short. My fellow Morlocks and I seem to touch on death a fair bit in our entries, but we do it, I’m sure, in the hopes that good and memorable things and people are indeed remembered long after they are gone, as it should be. It’s the very least we can do for them.
(The image on the right is from an Ebay auction of his autograph.)
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