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Fallen Angel: The Life and Death of Dominique Dunne

Written by Alexander Tucker   // 10/17/2012

Domonique Dunne

Fallen Angel: The Life and Death of Dominique Dunne

In memory of Dominique Dunne: 1959-1982

Ever since the beginning of motion pictures there have been curses linked with certain films. The Exorcist was believed to have been cursed. There were half a dozen deaths related in some way to William Friedkin’s classic 1973 film adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s equally brilliant novel. Another film believed to have a curse attached to it is Steven Spielberg’s 1982 horror classic Poltergeist. The film’s two young female stars, Dominique Dunne, who played 16-year old Dana Freeling and Heather O’ Rourke, who played 5-year old Carol Ann, both died very young. O’Rourke died on the operating table after being misdiagnosed with a rare illness and Dunne was murdered by a jealous ex-boyfriend.

Dominique Ellen Dunne was born November 23, 1959 in Santa Monica, California. She was the youngest of three children and the only daughter. Her father was film producer and later author Dominick Dunne and her older brother Griffin is an actor and director who appeared in the 1981 horror-comedy The American Werewolf In London and Martin Scorsese’s underrated 1985 dark comedy After Hours. Dominique was destined to become an actress.

Dominique grew up in Beverly Hills and attended several high schools before graduating from Fountain Valley High School in 1977. After graduation Dominique spent a year in Italy before returning to California and landing a job as a receptionist for the Italian Trade Commission. In 1979, Dominique appeared in the made for television movie Diary of a Teenage Hitchhiker. She also enrolled in Colorado State University to study acting but only stayed there a year. Guest starring roles on such shows as Family, Hart to Hart, CHIPS and Fame soon followed.

In 1981 Dominique met John Thomas Sweeney, a chef at a Las Angeles restaurant called Ma Maison. They were soon dating and rented a house in West –Hollywood. It wasn’t long before trouble started though. Dominique was outgoing and made friends easily and Sweeney was jealous of anyone that Dominique talked to, including male costars. Sweeney would often show up on the set of whatever project Dominique was working on. It was also not unheard of to see him attending her acting classes.

Though her personal life was in turmoil her career was taking off. Dominique was casted by Steven Spielberg as the eldest daughter, 16-year old Dana Freeling, in his film Poltergeist. At age 34 Spielberg was already one of the most successful filmmakers of all time having directed several of the all time highest grossing films of time like JAWS (1975), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). For the summer of 1982 Spielberg was planning a double header with Poltergeist and E.T. The Extra Terrestrial. Poltergeist was Dominique’s first big screen film and it certainly didn’t hurt that she would be working with Hollywood’s golden boy, as Spielberg was often considered since success had come to him so early and even in his mid-30’s he was boyish looking and childlike at heart. Like on many Spielberg films, Dominique and her fellow young costars Heather O’ Rourke and Oliver Robbins stole the film from its older stars JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson with Dominique’s greatest scene being when she gives the middle finger to a group of construction workers who were playfully flirting with her.

Following production on Poltergeist, Dominique went to work on the made for television movie The Shadow Riders starring Tom Selleck, Sam Elliott and Katherine Ross. The film aired a few months after Poltergeist was released in theaters and was a big hit in the ratings. Dominique gave a wonderful performance despite having very few lines.Dominique Dunne Her Life and Times

On August 27, 1982, Sweeney beat Dominique in such a violent manner that an entire clump of her hair came out in his hand. The scared young actress hid from Sweeney at her mother’s house but soon forgave him. Less than a month later on September 23, Sweeney picked Dominique up by the neck and threw her on the floor. Thankfully, a friend was present to end the fight. Dominique escaped through the bathroom window. The following day she started work on an episode of Hill Street Blues as a victim of abuse. She had so many bruises that she needed hardly any make up for the role.

In the autumn of 1982 Dominique was working on the television miniseries V, as Robin Maxwell, a human girl who gives birth to an alien baby. She became good friends with costar David Packer and invited him over to her house on October 30th to rehearse some scenes. Despite having broken up with Sweeney for good, he none the less showed up at her house begging her to take him back. When she refused an argument broke out and Packer asked if he should leave. Dominique told him to stay, and she and Sweeney went outside where their argument grew worse.

Sweeney grabbed Dominique by the neck and began to choke her. He even dragged her into the back yard while still choking her. A few minutes later David Packer found John Sweeney crouching beside Dominique Dunne’s unmoving body and called the police. An ambulance soon arrived to take Dunne to Cedars Sinai Hospital where she was pronounced brain dead with no chance of recovery. On November 4th, Dominick and Ellen Dunne asked that their daughter be taken off life support and she passed away within seconds.

DunneDominique was buried on November 6th, only two weeks before her 23rd birthday. John Sweeney served a mere three years in prison, The jury, not knowing of Sweeney violent history, found him guilty of voluntary manslaughter, feeling that he acted out of anger and wasn’t completely accountable for his actions. Though several members of the jury later stated that they would have found him guilty of second degree murder if they had known about his past, something his lawyers managed to keep out of the trial.

Dominique is remembered by friends and family as tomboyish and a lover of animals. She was superstitious and believed in the paranormal. Dominique loved acting and her favorite actors were Jane Fonda, Julie Andrews and Timothy Hutton

It has been nearly 30 years since Dominique was murdered at a young age. She didn’t live long enough to have a long career or to have a family. John Sweeney took that away from her. Dominique and her Poltergeist costar Heather O’ Rourke will forever live on in the minds of horror movie fans thinks to the 1982 horror movie classic which they appeared in.

Poltergeist  (1982) Trailer:


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