Judith poses for a TV Guide promo for an ABC Afterschool Special in 1988. Judith Eva Barsi
was an American child actress whose career was prevalent in the 1980s. She appeared in numerous commercials, TV shows, and movies. Judith is known for notable roles such as Thea Brody in Jaws: The Revenge
, young Carol Seaver in Growing Pains
, Ducky in The Land Before Time
, and Anne-Marie in All Dogs Go To Heaven
(she provided her voice for the latter two). Despite an overwhelming and successful career by the time she was 10-years-old, Judith's private life was not a happy one, and it was cut short by her own father, József.
Early life and family
Judith was born in Los Angeles, California on June 6, 1978, to parents József Barsi and Maria Virovacz. Both of them had escaped their home country of Hungary after the 1956 revolution, though they did not encounter each other until several years later. Eerily enough, they both had neglectful and abusive childhoods.
József's first marriage was to a woman named Klara; they had met on a train while immigrating to France. They were quickly married and had two children, Barna (b. 1957) and Ági (b. 1958). The family moved to New York in the early 1960s, where József began to drink and abuse his family physically, emotionally, and verbally. In 1968, Klara and the children fled to Arizona but József followed them in an attempt to reconcile. Their relationship began to improve and Klara was delighted to see that her husband had stopped drinking. He found work as a plumber, earning the nickname "Arizona Joe." The happiness was short-lived. No more than a year later, József threw a cast-iron skillet at Klara. She filed for divorce, leaving her husband for good. When Ági was 15-years-old she vowed never to speak to her father again and encouraged her older brother to do the same. József Barsi, pictured here in an undated 1960s photo with his first family.
Not much is known about Maria's journey from Hungary to the United States. Like József, she also had a previous marriage. Their paths crossed in 1976. Both were living in California; József was working odd contracting jobs while Maria was a waitress at a local café that was popular for immigrants. József would apparently flash $100 bills and pay for all his buddies' drinks. This got Maria's attention and the pair began to see each other regularly. They were married in August 1977 and Maria became pregnant soon after. It was her first child and József's third. At the time of Judith's birth, her parents were 38 and 45 respectively. 2-year-old Judith with her parents, Maria and József.
Maria quit her job to become a stay-at-home mother while József struggled with employment. The family lived in a small apartment on welfare. Maria told her brother, Joseph Weldon, that she saw a future for Judith as an actress in Hollywood. Like other people, he told her that she was wasting her time. "You don't know the odds," Weldon said. "The odds are 10,000 to 1." But Maria was sure of it. In 1983, she and Judith, now 5, were at an ice-skating rink. Coincidentally, a film crew was there preparing to shoot a commercial. A casting agent noticed Judith skating and, mistaking her for a 3-year-old due to her size, approached Maria with an acting opportunity. That same year, Judith did her very first commercial for Donald Duck Orange Juice
. She was signed on to Harry Gold & Associates Talent Agency after just one meeting.
A promising career; the abuse begins
Judith Barsi's rise to fame grew through her appearances in various commercials. She worked with famous brands like Campbell's Tomato Soup, Jif Peanut Butter, and McDonald's. Her breakthrough came in 1984, playing Kimberly McDonald
in the television miniseries Fatal Vision
. Based on a true story, the plot revolved around a man killing his pregnant wife and two children. This role would foreshadow Judith's own fate.
After Fatal Vision
, dozens of opportunities poured in for the young actress. She appeared in small roles on shows like Remington Steele
, Knots Landing
, and The Fall Guy
. She even co-starred with Oscar-nominee Melinda Dillon on an episode of The Twilight Zone
As his daughter became more successful, József Barsi felt pressured to pull his own weight around. Still unable to find a secure job, he turned to alcohol again. In just one year, he was arrested on three different occasions for DUI. He instigated arguments with Maria, turning violent within the blink of an eye. When he wasn't verbally abusing his wife, he was striking her across the face or attempting to choke her. It's fair to say that Judith probably witnessed most of this, but she always maintained her composure on set and her behavior gave no indication that something was going on at home. Like most abused children, Judith kept quiet about her home life. She and mother Maria were usually always seen together.
By 1986, she was making an estimated $100,000 a year from commercials and television reruns. Thanks to this, the family was able to purchase a three-bedroom house in Canoga Park, a neighborhood located in the San Fernando Valley. The first thing "Arizona Joe" did was have a spiked fence placed around the property.
Despite a turnaround in their lifestyle, József still wasn't pleased. An unnamed neighbor later speculated that "good ole 'Arizona Joe' was jealous [of his own kid]." It was a plausible theory; Judith was
making more money than both of her parents, and she hadn't escaped another country due to an uprising--perhaps József saw her as "ungrateful" and deemed that she had it easy compared to him. Another neighbor recalls an incident where Judith was playing in the yard and Maria came home with a toy kite. Before Judith could play with it, József snatched it out of her hands. "You're going to break it!" Judith cried. Her father scoffed and looked at Maria. "You see that? She's a spoiled brat who doesn't want to share!" He then proceeded to smash the kite into tiny pieces.
That same year, Judith was approached by Don Bluth for a role in what would later be known as The Land Before Time
. After auditioning, she was asked if she'd like to play Ducky
. "Yep! Yep! Yep!" Judith chimed. Bluth would later incorporate this into her character, which became a fan-favorite quote. Judith also had guest-starring roles in Punky Brewster
. Her career was taking off at a faster pace and Maria was able to befriend and bond with other stage moms. Meanwhile, things weren't faring any better at home. József had extended the cruelty of his abuse solely towards Judith. During a house party one evening, he followed her into the kitchen and yanked her ponytail, causing Judith to hit the floor; he didn't like all of the attention she was receiving from guests. As an apology, he went out shopping the next day and bought her a pink television set for her room.
Another haunting role was Judith's portrayal of an abused child
on an episode of Cagney & Lacey
. Still, she did not inform any adults of the real-life abuse she was experiencing. When her daughter wasn't at school or an acting gig, Maria took every opportunity she could to get Judith out of the house. They would go to restaurants or visit family friends. Judith spoke fluent Hungarian and would communicate in the language with her mother when they went to public places, so nobody could figure out what they were saying. Judith smiles with her birthday cake.
On June 10, 1986, Judith celebrated her 8th birthday at a bowling alley with friends from her elementary school. József was absent and Maria allegedly told another parent, in passing, that her husband was "stuck at home, getting drunk." He often showed her where he kept a can of gasoline and threatened to burn down the house if she or Judith tried to leave.
The abuse was getting worse. Judith told her friend Trixie that her father had thrown pots and pans at her in a drunken rage, resulting in a bloody nose. A few days before Christmas, Maria Barsi filed a police report, stating that József had attempted to strangle her after threatening her life. Reportedly, the officers saw "no absolute signs of physical abuse" and Maria reluctantly decided not to press charges.
As 1987 approached, Judith landed her first theatrical role
in Jaws: The Revenge
. The part required her and Maria to fly out to the Bahamas. József found out about this and came into Judith's room one evening while she was packing her suitcase. He took a kitchen knife and held it against the 8-year-old girl's neck. "If you and your mother don't come back after the shooting, I'm gonna cut your throat," he growled. When they arrived at the island to start filming, Maria told anyone who would listen about her fears for Judith's safety. "She was just constantly crying out," studio teacher Linda Stone-Elster recalled. "Almost to the point where nobody took her seriously. It was like, 'Oh, here goes Maria again.' Just worried about going home to this crazy person." Although the film was panned by critics, Judith's role as Thea Brody is remembered fondly. She even wore her own swimsuits for the beach scenes.
When filming wrapped up, Maria and Judith purchased plane tickets to New York to visit Maria's brother. Judith and her cousin were playing when the phone rang. It was József. After handing the phone to Judith, her father told her, "Remember what I said before you left." Judith dropped the phone and began to cry, running into another room. Maria took control of the situation and started to berate her husband. "I had never seen such a thing like that before," Joseph Weldon later remarked.
Unfortunately, the trip to New York was cut short and Maria returned to California with Judith in tow. Neighbors and friends urged her to leave József. One woman even offered her home as a temporary safe haven. Maria told different people different things. She would say that she was in the process of filing for a divorce, but, to others, she expressed reluctance to leave. "He'll find us," she told one of the neighbors. "Even if he doesn't, he'll burn down the house." József Istvan \"Arizona Joe\" Barsi
József did many things to sabotage Maria's attempts to leave with Judith. He "accidentally" misplaced their passports and even went as far as hiding a telegram that informed Maria of a relative's death in Hungary.
In December 1987, while speaking on the phone to her niece, Eve Reitz, Maria mentioned that she suspected that József was having an affair, presumably showering another woman with expensive gifts. Reitz says that Maria didn't sound bothered; it was just another reason for her to look into a divorce lawyer. In fact, she told her niece that József cheating on her was probably "the best thing that has ever happened to [me]."
The haunting final months
9-year-old Judith was also starting to show severe signs of stress. She was gaining weight and had pulled out her eyelashes, as well as one of her cat's whiskers. There was also pressure for her to grow taller so she could prepare for older roles. Reportedly, there was an issue with her pituitary gland; puberty was delayed and Judith was "stuck" at the height of 3'8". Trips out of the house were no longer fun or entertaining. Instead, Maria was taking her to receive hormone injections at UCLA.
In spite of things, Judith got to play the young version of Carol Seaver
on Growing Pains
. It was a dream come true because she was a huge fan of the show. While on set, she spent time with cast member Tracey Gold, who viewed Judith as a little sister. Gold herself learned of the abuse through Maria and offered them help. Maria declined. Judith poses with her castmates on set.
A few months later, Maria Barsi began renting an apartment in Panorama City as a daytime haven for her and her daughter. Judith's career continued without issues and she landed the role of Anne-Marie in another Don Bluth production called All Dogs Go To Heaven
. But when it came time for her to sing "Soon You'll Come Home,"
the small child broke down into tears, telling her agent, Ruth Hansen, about everything that was happening at home. Disturbed by this incident and fearing for the child's well-being, Hansen ordered Maria to go to a child psychiatrist in Encino. After one session, the doctor reported Judith to the authorities as an abused child and the Los Angeles Department of Child Protective Services got involved. Maria was questioned extensively, but it's unclear as to whether or not József Barsi himself was ever investigated.
On May 18, 1988, Judith was able to watch herself on television one last time. She played a dying patient, whose parents are going through a divorce, in the final season of St. Elsewhere
As June rolled around, József reached out to his son Barna, who told Ági that their father was eager to see them and make amends. He invited the two down to Los Angeles, saying that he was remarried and mentioning that they had a half-sister named Judith. Barna, now 30-years-old, accepted the invitation but Ági was hesitant. She still didn't forgive her father, but she was curious about little Judith and wanted to meet her, as well as Maria. The older Barsi children arrived just in time to celebrate Judith's 10th birthday. While Barna spent every moment with his father and Maria, Ági got to know Judith. The little girl was delighted; she had never met her big sister before. Judith plays with one of her cats while spending time with her older half-sister, Ági.
After a few days, Ági, like Barna, was ready to forgive their father for his past actions, but something about Judith's behavior made her hesitate. "That's when I looked at her, and I knew right then and there that something was going on," Ági Barsi recalls in her memoir. "I saw myself. We were the same person." Sickened by the realization that her younger sibling was also experiencing abuse, Ági pulled Maria aside and demanded to know what was going on. Maria admitted that József had a temper and that he sometimes got physical, but he wasn't drinking anymore. "I told her, 'Just take Judy and be safe.' But she had another plan," Ági said. "She let the house get so messy. I mean, it was disgusting. When I saw all the trash I said, 'Let's clean it up.' She was like, 'No, it's going to drive [József] out of the house if we don't clean it up.' So it was a pig's pen, a living pig's pen." Maria held on to the idea that she and Judith had worked too hard for the house and their prized possessions--if anyone was going to leave, regardless of a divorce, it was going to be József Barsi. Maria allowed the house to become a filthy mess, thinking that József would flee given his obsessive cleanliness.
Barna and Ági were about to return home to Arizona when Judith approached them as they headed out the door. While Barna was loading things into the car, Judith told her sister, "Ági, take me with you. I'm scared that father is going to do something bad." Heartbroken and knowing the little girl's distress, Ági Barsi bent down and assured little Judy that things were going to be okay. "I told her that he had hurt [Barna and me] as children, but everything was alright in the end. It was only a temporary situation. I told her that she had to be strong, and I'll never forget the look in her eyes as we left."
At some point in early July, József followed Maria to the apartment in Panorama City. She was carrying boxes and when confronted, she told him that she was just helping a friend move in. Shortly thereafter, Maria told a friend that she was planning on cashing Judith's $12,000 tax refund check before her husband could get his hands on it. She was most likely (finally) getting ready to leave him and take Judith away once and for all; she had to make sure he would get little or none of their child's earnings until the divorce papers arrived.
Maria also notified CPS that she was divorcing József and that she'd be moving into the apartment with Judith. Believe it or not, the social worker took her word for it, and didn't even bother to visit the home. They closed Judith's case file the same day.
The double murder-suicide
On the morning of Monday, July 25, 1988, Judith Barsi was seen riding her bike around the neighborhood. That afternoon, she had an appointment with Hanna-Barbera Studios about a voiceover role in an upcoming animated series. For reasons unknown, Judith did not show up and Maria never called in to say why. It's speculated that a fight between József and Maria broke out and Judith was too upset to go. Another (less popular) theory is that József was holding them hostage or preventing them from leaving. No one ever saw the Barsi family alive and outside of their house after that day.
Here's where the case gets tricky because we'll never know for sure how the night played out. What we do know is that Judith put on her nightgown and went to bed. Maria did the same. József probably kept himself awake for several hours, contemplating on what to do next. The investigators believe he knew about Maria's plans to divorce him, and he'd most likely never see her or Judith again. Maybe she threatened him with a restraining order. Regardless of whether or not Maria fought back, József felt powerless or angry about something she had done or said. Something had to have been the last straw. Ági Barsi has her own theory. She believes that her father had "just finally snapped," citing his tormented, father-less Hungarian childhood as a reason for his mental demons.
Shortly around (or after) midnight, József retrieved his .32 caliber pistol and walked into his daughter's bedroom. She died instantly from a single shot to the head, above her right ear. Disturbingly enough, Judith was most likely awake when she was killed.
Hearing the shot, Maria ran out of her own bedroom and down the hall to confront her husband. She probably tried to fight for the gun (different sources cite that she had defensive wounds but this is unconfirmed). But Maria was overpowered, forced onto her knees, and shot in the head as well. Investigators agree that Judith was killed first because if József had gone after Maria before her, then the young child would've tried to hide or flee, thus her body would've been elsewhere in the house, other than her bed. The Barsi residence where the double murder-suicide took place.
Ruth Hansen was informed that Judith had missed her appointment and called the Barsi residence around noon on July 26. She was surprised that József picked up the phone instead of Maria. She questioned him, to which the man replied with: "They went to San Diego. A black car took them away. I'm just here to get my things and say goodbye to my little girl." Confused, Hansen allegedly tried to call the residence again a few hours later, but her call was ignored.
At 8:30 a.m. on July 27, neighbor Eunice Daly went outside to water her garden. An explosion alerted her to the Barsi's home, where she saw smoke billowing out of the roof. Firefighters, paramedics, and police swarmed the neighborhood. After the flames were put out, three bodies remained inside the residence. Maria, aged 48, was found at the end of the hallway; Judith, aged 10, was in her canopy bed. It was noted that the cap to a can of gasoline was found just a few feet away from her body. Both mother and daughter had been burned beyond recognition. Going into the garage, firefighters discovered the body of József Barsi, aged 55, with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. An investigator removes Judith's body from the home.
The medical examiner concluded that all three Barsi family members were deceased before the fire could really spread; none of their lungs showed signs of smoke inhalation. While there was confusion on which day Judith and Maria had been murdered (July 25 or 26), it was eventually confirmed that they had been dead for "more than 24 hours, but less than 48." Judith's death certificate
lists her date of death as July 27, even though that was the day her body was discovered
Aftermath and legacy Fans donated money to make sure Judith and Maria received proper headstones.
Judith and Maria Barsi were buried next to each other and laid to rest in unmarked graves on August 8 in Forest Lawn Memorial Park. In 2004, fans organized a donation campaign and the two were finally given their headstones. Growing Pains
star Tracey Gold read the eulogy at the little girl's funeral. Judith's Jaws
co-star and on-screen father, Lance Guest, was one of her pallbearers. Judith loved voicing Ducky in The Land Before Time (1988).
Three of Judith's projects were released posthumously. The Land Before Time
premiered in November 1988, becoming a well-loved memory to kids all around the world. It is perhaps Judith's most famous role in her short, but prolific, career. Oddly enough, most people learn about Judith's tragic fate when they have an innocent curiosity such as "What's Ducky's voice actress doing nowadays?" Judith Barsi as Billie Foster in A Family Again (1988). It was her only television role to be released posthumously.
Judith had a supporting role in the ABC Afterschool Special
episode "A Family Again,"
starring alongside Ricki Lake, Rhea Perlman, and Tonya Crowe. Ironically, along with the title, the episode dealt with grief and healing. The ending credits read: This film is dedicated to the loving memory of Judith Barsi
. Judith's final voiceover role was Anne-Marie in All Dogs Go To Heaven (1989).
Judith's final role was in All Dogs Go To Heaven
, which wasn't released until 1989. She had completed all of her lines, but another actress had to be brought in for Anne-Marie's singing voice due to Judith's heartbreaking reluctance to perform such a heavy song. The film's ending song, "Love Survives,"
was dedicated to her. Judith's final lines
in the film also feel like a punch to the stomach when you learn her story.
She is remembered greatly by Don Bluth, who had planned to feature her in more of his projects. As a way of coping with her death, Bluth and the animators based Anne-Marie's mannerisms on that of Judith's.
The Los Angeles Department of Child Protective Services was heavily criticized when news of their failure to ensure Judith's safety leaked to the press. In September 1988, the Department acknowledged its mistake, stating that caseworkers should be given assistance (Judith's social worker in particular already had 67 cases at the time, which was 27 more than a "full caseload"). As far as we know, they never issued an apology to the Barsi's surviving relatives.
Judith's half-brother, Barna Barsi, died in 1995 after falling off of a bridge in Scottsdale, Arizona. He had previously been dealing with alcoholism and was homeless at the time. It is unknown if the death was accidental or a suicide. Barna was 37-years-old.
Judith's half-sister, Ági, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1997. She wrote two books, got married, and became a stepmother. Despite only knowing Judith for a short time, she loved her dearly and wishes she had done more. Ági passed away in 2008, aged 50. If you suspect child and/or domestic abuse, click here. Sources: Death of a Family: Judith's Story, Los Angeles Times
(archive), The San Fernando Valley Blog, Lighting Their Way Home, Wikipedia