There are a handful of shows that I watched on Lifetime as a kid, if I remember correctly—a handful of shows that were more centered around women and their feelings. My Sister Sam only ran about a season and a half, not long enough to be syndicated, but I feel as though that’s how I saw it. I do remember quite enjoying it—and being shocked when its pleasant costar, the young woman who played Pam Dawber’s sister, was murdered. Not many people remember Schaeffer today, but her death lingers in the law and in pop culture of the time.
Schaeffer was initially interested in being a rabbi, but she also looked into a modeling career. At 5’7″, she was too short—and because she had a normal weight, she weighed too much. Modeling wasn’t really happening—and I have no details on how she ended up as a wardrobe assistant on School Daze. She did end up on the cover of Seventeen, though. She’d already acted a little at that point. She had a small part, mostly cut, in Radio Days, and she spent six months on One Life to Live, but it’s the Seventeen cover that brought her to the attention of the producers of an upcoming sitcom for CBS.
My Sister Sam is another one of those blended family sitcoms that were weirdly popular in the ’80s. Dawber played Sam Russell, a photographer in San Francisco. Her parents died, and her teenage sister, Patti, came to live with her. Schaeffer was cast as Patti. The two women had chemistry and looked similar. The characters got along, but the difference in age was a reasonable issue for them; certainly 29 was young enough to not be interested in suddenly raising a teenager. You got wacky hijinks and also genuine affection.
The show had already been canceled when Schaeffer died. However, it is what brought her to the attention of her murderer. He stalked her. He got her address for a mere dollar from the California DMV. He’d tried to get to her on the Warners lot, and security turned him away twice. The second time, he was armed with a knife. However, there was no security at Schaeffer’s building. She answered her door thinking it was the messenger with the Godfather III script she was expecting. She talked with him briefly and asked him not to visit again. An hour later, he did; apparently, her last word was, “Why?”
California established new protections after her death, including making it harder to get current addresses through the DMV. Stalking was made a felony. Too late for Schaeffer, but hopefully it saved other lives. And, of course, any stalking plot in any TV show in the late ’80s and early ’90s was probably inspired by her. There’s an episode of Cop Rock that’s clearly inspired by the case, and if that’s not a troubled legacy, I don’t know what is.