Judith Barsi was born on June 6, 1978, the only child of Hungarian emigrants to America plumber Joe Barsi and homemaker Maria Barsi. From the time of Judith’s birth, Maria foresaw an entertainment career for her daughter. Maria’s brother Joseph Weldon admonished, “Don’t waste your time. The chances are one in 10,000 that you’ll succeed.”
Despite her brother’s advice, Maria coached her child in posture, poise, and voice. The mother’s training paid off when an odd happenstance launched Judith’s career. Members of a crew shooting a commercial at a skating rink noticed five-year-old Judith’s skillful skating. She was hired for her first commercial for Donald Duck Orange Juice.
Maria began taking the child on auditions. Judith got regular work in commercials. In 1984, she played a little girl murdered by her father in the TV mini-series Fatal Vision that was based on a real-life case. However, Judith’s earnings were not yet enough to prevent the family from suffering financial hardships in 1985 when Joe’s drinking prevented him from working. He opposed Maria working outside the home. The family was on welfare for a brief period.
In 1985, Judith was cast in the TV film Do You Remember Love? Sherry Barber’s daughter Andrea, eight, also acted in the film. Barber later wrote about time in a trailer between takes. She recalled, “Maria and Judith took turns reading from a storybook, their voices sweet and soft and animated. Before long Judith called out to Andrea and started a round of knock-knock jokes, which led to some riddles, giggles and note-passing under the door.” In one note, Judith drew a bird, flowers, and hearts.
The Brasi financial situation improved greatly in 1986 when Judith began getting earning a high income. Although she never became a star, she eventually worked in over 50 commercials as well as in TV shows and movies. By age seven, she earned over $100,000 in a year. That money enabled the family to buy a four-bedroom home in Canoga Park.
Although Judith enjoyed acting, it occasionally had a downside. Take after take after take for commercial for Campbell’s Tomato Soup left her with an aversion to tomato soup. She never ate it again.
Judith loved to swim and to play in her best friend’s sprinkler. She also loved playing the Milton Bradley game Operation.
Joe appeared to adore Judith, fondly calling her “Little One.” However, he also often appeared inexplicably angry at her. A neighbor recalled that on one occasion, Maria brought a kite home for Judith. Joe grabbed it.
“You’re going to break it!” Judith exclaimed as he roughly handled it.
To both neighbor and wife, Joe said, “Look at her! She’s just a spoiled brat and doesn’t share her new toy!” Joe perversely broke the kite into pieces.
Maria filed a police report in 1986, accusing Joe of threatening her over the last five years. She also said he hit and choked her. Police found no evidence of injuries on Maria and she eventually refused to prosecute.
In 1987, Judith was cast in her first motion picture, Jaws IV: The Revenge. She had to film it on location in the Bahamas. Before she left, her father gave her a terrifying farewell. He brandished a knife and warned, “If you decide not to come back, I will cut your throat!”
When filming finished, Judith and Maria visited Weldon in Flushing, New York. Judith talked with Joe over the phone. “Remember what I told you before you left,” he shouted.
The terrified child burst into tears and ran into a bedroom. Mother and daughter returned to California where family disruption continued to torment Judith.
Joe’s friend Peter Kivlen recounted that Joe saying he would kill Maria. Kivlen would ask, “If you kill her, what will happen to your Little One?”
Joe answered, “I gotta kill her, too.”
Although Joe’s anger often flared against both wife and child, he frequently apologized profusely to Judith and reassured her of his love. After pulling her hair in rage, he bought “Little One” a pink television set to make up for it.
To a large extent, Judith was on the receiving end of rage that had its roots in traumas Joe had suffered long before her birth. Joe and Maria did not know each other in their native Hungary but both fled it following the 1956 Soviet invasion. Joe had suffered a “miserable” childhood because his out-of-wedlock birth left him stigmatized. Maria had enjoyed a happier childhood in a university town. The two met in a Los Angeles restaurant that attracted many Hungarian immigrants. Joe was a customer and Maria was a waitress. The handsome man often paid for drinks with $100 bills.
They were happy in the early years of their marriage. However, the wounds from Joe’s childhood had left him hypersensitive. He exploded in fury if anyone laughed at his accent. Maria sometimes ripped open the central wound of his childhood by hurling “bastard” at him in arguments.
Joe’s heavy drinking led to three DUI arrests.
Although Maria was a full-time homemaker because of Joe’s opposition to her working outside the home, he complained about her housekeeping to friends and showed them mounds of clothes and toys left throughout the house.
Acting meant Judith often missed school. According to friend Lisa Williams, 10, Judith said she “missed being in school because she missed her friends a lot.” Lisa’s mother, Linda Williams, recalled Maria as a protective mother. “The child was not allowed to go anywhere – very few places – alone,” Linda said.
According to Kivlen, Joe acquired a girlfriend in 1988. He lavished expensive gifts on her including a ring and necklace.
Judith told a couple who were friends of the family, “I’m afraid to go home. My daddy is miserable. My daddy is drunk every day and I know he wants to kill my mother.”
In May 1988 Judith attended an audition for a singing part in an animated feature. The child burst into tears. Appalled by her client’s distress, Hansen suggested Maria take Judith to a child psychologist. Maria did. Hansen recalled talking to the psychologist who said, “Ruth, it is extreme verbal, mental and emotional problems with this child and I have to report it to Children’s Services.”
A spokeswoman for Children’s Services later said the agency had contacted Maria who said she had “a plan of action.” However, Hansen claims Maria “said they weren’t doing anything so she said, ‘I guess I’ll have to handle it myself.’”
Maria rented an apartment. She and Judith spent their days there but returned home to Joe in the evening. Hansen pressed Maria as to why she did not make a complete break with Joe. She said she did not want to lose the nice home that Judith’s career had bought the family.
That same May, Sherry Barber, saw Maria and Judith in a studio parking lot. Barber was puzzled by Judith’s appearance: she had no eyelashes. Unbeknownst to Barber, Judith had pulled them all out. She had also pulled out the whiskers of one of her five cats.
Judith had an appointment with Hanna Barbara Productions on July 25, 1988 but did not make it. Hansen called Joe. He said a car had taken his wife and daughter away.
They were already dead. That very day, Joe shot and killed Maria in a hallway and then Judith in her bedroom. Her body was near the TV set he gave her to make up for having pulled her hair.
Sometime after his brief phone conversation with Hansen, Joe soaked the bodies of his wife and child with gasoline and set them ablaze. Then he went to the garage and killed himself with a shot to the head.
Next-door neighbor Eunice Daly was shocked by an explosive noise. She saw smoke rising from the Barsi house. She recalled thinking, “He’s done it. He’s killed them and set a fire in the house.”
The interior of the home was destroyed.
On August 9, 1988 Sherry and Andrea Barber stood among mourners. “Six uniformed pall bearers from Forest Lawn carried the caskets, first a large white one, then a small white one, to the gravesite.”
A county advisory panel stated in September 1988 that the Los Angeles County Department of Children’s Services dropped its investigation into the Barsi family prematurely Department of Children’s Services Director, Robert L. Chaffee defended the Department’s actions by stating that Maria Barsi had asked them to close the case. In addition, the social worker handling the case was handling a total of 67 cases, 27 more than what is considered a full caseload. Commissioner Thomas L. Becket of the Commission for Children’s Services countered, “Lack of funds is an excuse, to a degree, but it can only go so far. The Los Angeles Times reported that “the Commission for Children’s Services recommended that the department become more sensitive to the impact of domestic violence on children and develop clearer guidelines for closing an inquiry.”
Some of Judith’s toys survived the fire and were donated to Goodwill. A close friend fed her cats for months after her death.
The song Love Survives used in All Dogs Go To Heaven (1989), an animated movie in which Judith voices the character of the orphaned Anne-Marie and which was released after her death, was dedicated to Judith. At least two websites, Judith Barsi in Memoriam and The Official Judith Barsi Memorial Site, are dedicated to keeping alive the memory of the richly talented child actress whose life was cut cruelly short.