50 Years After This Oscar-Nominated Actor Vanished, The Dark Truth Has Finally Come To Light

Catherine Burns earned an Academy Award nomination for her standout performance in the 1969 teen drama Last Summer. Aside from the Oscar nod, the role also won Burns critical acclaim for her talent, seemingly tipping her to become Hollywood’s next big thing. Instead, the actor shied away from the limelight, before ultimately disappearing altogether.

In 1969 it seemed that Burns was on the brink of a successful Hollywood career. That year, she had made her film debut in the teen drama Last Summer. Her role as Rhoda in the dark indie flick, from filmmaker Frank Perry, earned the young actor critical acclaim and even an Oscar nomination. But she was not your average starlet.

Born in 1945, Burns grew up in New York City, in a West 11th Street apartment. She was the only child of a Polish secretary and an Irish salesman, but she herself dreamed of a career as an actor. And she got the idea after watching George C. Scott perform in a production of Richard III in her hometown.

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In order to pursue those acting dreams, Burns attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts at the weekends. However, she later took up a place at New York’s Hunter College, with the intention of becoming an English teacher. It seems that the future star couldn’t resist the call of the stage, however, and dropped out in her sophomore year.

The star later reflected on her decision to quit college. According to an article in The Hollywood Reporter, published in February 2020, Burns said, “There’s nothing worse than an English teacher who’s a frustrated actor.” So, in order to avoid such a fate, she hired theatrical agents and embarked on her new career.

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Burns’ first big break came in 1967 when she landed the role of Mary Warren in a CBS adaptation of The Crucible. She then spent a year performing in a Broadway production of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Thanks to her part in the play, the young star won most promising female performer at the Actors Equity Awards.

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Perhaps more significantly though, Burns’ stint on Broadway caught Frank Perry’s eye. And, as luck would have it, he was searching for actors to appear in Last Summer at the time. The movie was based on the Evan Hunter novel and had been adapted for the screen by the director’s then-wife Eleanor. And the film’s subject matter was certainly not for the faint-hearted.

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Last Summer follows the exploits of four teenagers wiling away the summer on Fire Island, NY. The three older kids have a seemingly perfect friendship. But a dark side of their relationship emerges after they take a lonely young girl named Rhoda, played by Burns in the film, under their wing.

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Perry undertook careful consideration when casting Last Summer. The filmmaker spent six months weighing up 1,000 candidates to play the parts of the three older characters and their younger acquaintance. In the end, Richard Thomas won the role of Peter, Bruce Davison took on Dan and Barbara Hershey was Sandy.

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But it was Burns that Perry chose to play Rhoda, the youngest of the teens and more naive than her counterparts. The character was more sensitive and eager to be friends with the older, cooler kids. But her storyline culminates in a brutal rape scene at the hands of her fellow teenagers, who have become agitated with the outsider’s intrusions into their group.

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The film was made in the summer of 1968, shot mostly on location on Fire Island. During Burns’ first week on the job, she filmed the movie during daylight hours and returned to Broadway at night. For the following two months of the shoot, she focused her efforts solely on the picture. However, the experience proved far from easy for the young actor.

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In fact, Burns wanted to quit Last Summer during the first week of filming. Perry managed to persuade the actor to stay, but she reportedly struggled with the isolation she felt from her fellow castmates. Reflecting on the young star’s frustrations, Perry later claimed that they were beneficial to the making of his film.

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In an interview with The New York Times in 1968, Perry explained, “For the first ten days, the other three young actors worked together as a unit, developing camaraderie. For Cathy, there was the intense frustration of being alone. She was nervous, tense. Actually, it was very useful; it enhanced her feeling as an outsider.”

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Another contributing factor to Burns’ unease on the set of Last Summer was her character’s final scene. As the movie was shot in sequence, Rhoda’s savage rape played on the young actor’s mind throughout production. She told the New York Times, “I just wanted to get it over with. The sitting around, worrying about it, was bad. I trusted [Perry], but it wasn’t easy to do.”

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And it seemed that the making of Last Summer also troubled Burns in a deeply personal way. She told the Chicago Sun-Times, “When I saw the film, I did see certain things about myself, and it hurt to see them revealed so plainly on the screen. There were things in that character that were me and that represented areas or emotions I had tried never to let anybody see.”

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Burns added, “It hurt so much to play that role. I don’t remember ever having to do anything so painful.” But despite the actor’s clearly difficult relationship with Last Summer, she still wanted to be recognized for her performance. She explained, “I’d like to get a nomination, if only because of the effort.”

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And Burns’ role in Last Summer did attract an award nomination – for an Oscar, no less. Following the nod, Rex Reed, a film critic, told television star Dick Cavett that the young actor would get his vote if he belonged to the Academy. He described her as “a wonderful little girl who I thought gave one of the most startling performances.”

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But alongside the praise Burns’ received for her performance in the movie, there were also endless jibes over her appearance. Standing at five-foot-one with freckled features, she wasn’t what many imagined a young Hollywood starlet to look like. In fact, the actor herself put her image down, apparently referring to her “funny face.”

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Nevertheless, it must have been difficult for Burns when critics were talking up her performance in Last Summer while simultaneously tearing her appearance down. In a 1969 review of the film, Vincent Canby of The New York Times claimed that she was “shaped like a fat mushroom.” And the criticism over the actor’s looks didn’t end there.

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In an article for the Chicago Tribune, reviewer Gene Siskel made a plea. With regard to Burns, he asked readers to consider “the homeliest” of the Last Summer cast during award season. Furthermore, in the same article, a caption for a photograph of the actor stated, “Cathy Burns: Not [the] prettiest… But the most talented.”

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Elsewhere, Dick Kleiner, a columnist of the time, described Burns as looking “like an intelligent marshmallow.” Not putting a too fine a point on it, he brutally added, “Twenty years ago, they wouldn’t have let her inside a studio gate.” So it’s fair to say that the young star was subjected to some pretty sexist treatment following the release of Last Summer.

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So, as awards season neared, it seemed that the scrutiny over Burns’ looks had taken its toll on her. She told The New York Times, “The worst thing about being a fat pig is the feeling of being grotesque.” And what’s more, it appeared that she had also lost all enthusiasm for winning an Oscar.

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In Burns’ interview with the The New York Times, she explained, “It used to be very nice being recognized. But not now. I find it disturbing… I’m becoming hard.” So when the star took a night off from her new Broadway show to attend the Academy Awards, it seemed that she didn’t really want to be there.

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Burns showed up to the Oscars wearing a blue dress, with her hair cut pageboy style and sporting glasses. When the star’s name was read out by Fred Astaire while announcing the nominees in her category, she appeared to respond with an eye-roll. She ultimately lost out on the award to Goldie Hawn, who was honored for her role in Cactus Flower.

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According to The Hollywood Reporter Burns later said of the Oscars, “It was so idiotic.” And it appears that the actor may have carried that disdain for showbusiness into the rest of her life. Following the ceremony, she then retreated from the Hollywood spotlight. In fact, she returned to her native New York, where she lived in an apartment close to Columbia University with some friends.

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But Burns wasn’t completely done with Hollywood just yet. In 1971 she reunited with her Last Summer co-star Thomas for the film Red Sky at Morning. The movie was made by the legendary producer Hal Wallis – whose credits included Casablanca – and told the story of some New Mexico teenagers during the Second World War.

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Burns’ role in Red Sky at Morning propelled the actor into the spotlight once more. And yet again, she faced constant criticism over her appearance as she promoted the film. With that in mind, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the star’s confidence took a severe knock. And it appeared that the negative comments about her looks had begun to affect the way she saw herself.

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According to The Hollywood Reporter, Burns told Earl Wilson, a gossip columnist, that seeing herself onscreen made her feel “sick.” She explained, “It’s my mannerisms. My mouth looks like a Post Office slot. My head moves too much, it shakes. When I stand still, I vibrate. My speech is wrong. I sound like I’m being played back at 78 instead of 33.”

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In the following years, Burns’ contemporaries saw their careers take off. But hers seemed to stagnate and then eventually peter out. There were whispers in 1971 that the actor might land a part in a new Brian De Palma film, but they came to nothing. As a result, she returned to the theater, first in North Hollywood and then eventually back on the East Coast.

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Near the 20th anniversary of Last Summer, in 1989, the Los Angeles Times managed to track Burns down. By then she was 44 years old and had become a writer, having penned multiple screenplays and even selling a script to the CBS show Guiding Light. Furthermore, the former actor had also written a children’s book entitled The Winter Bird.

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Burns had also recently married in June 1989. But while she seemed settled in her new life out of the spotlight, she didn’t completely rule out a return to acting one day. She mysteriously told the Los Angeles Times, “I am one of a kind… Ah, but what kind?” However, after that interview, she seemed to drop off the radar completely.

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In the intervening years, Last Summer maintained a kind of cult status among filmmakers. Screenwriter Larry Karaszewski was among the movie’s high profile fans. And for him, Burns’ performance is one of the highlights of the picture. In fact, he told The Hollywood Reporter that the three-minute monologue she delivers about the death of Rhoda’s mother was “one of the greatest soliloquies in the history of film.”

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Karaszewski obtained a rare original print of Last Summer in 2012 and was eager to get the film’s cast back together for a Q&A. The only problem was, while the screenwriter was eventually able to track down three of the film’s main stars, he found it impossible to locate Burns. And so he became obsessed with the mystery of her whereabouts.

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Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Karaszewski said of Burns, “I could not find a trail. Even in this age of Facebook and Google, she was impossible to track down. I became so obsessed that a friend gave me a framed picture of Cathy, which hangs in my office.” The screenwriter wouldn’t learn what became of the actor until 2019, near the 50th anniversary of Last Summer.

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It was then that a team from The Hollywood Reporter joined the search for Burns. And after sifting through piles of public records, they came across an address linked to the former actress in Lynden, Washington. A city of 14,000 people situated five miles from the Canadian border, it seems the star had relocated to a retirement community there.

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Following the trail, a team from The Hollywood Reporter traveled to Lynden in the hopes of finding out what had become of Burns. Once there, though, they heard a rumor that she’d died sometime around Christmas. However, the Washington Department of Health was subsequently unable to find a death certificate. So the investigators decided to visit the retirement home.

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Once there, The Hollywood Reporter team was pointed in the direction of a particular door. Outside, a sign read, “Tenant is either asleep or out. Please do not ring or knock or disturb in any way for any reason. Thanks for your consideration.” So they left a note explaining that they were on the hunt for Burns and asked the resident to get in touch.

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The next day, The Hollywood Reporter received a response from Burns’ husband. But he wasn’t happy about their investigation. In an email, he demanded to know how they had been found, and said of the star’s former life, “We left that rotten business a long time ago. It’s time for some peace. Maybe someone else wants this kind of reminder of who they once were, but we do NOT.”

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The Hollywood Reporter then offered Burns’ husband the chance to co-write an article about their lives – an offer he seemed open to. But when the team heard nothing back, they returned to the Department of Health. It was then that they finally discovered the truth. The former star had died in February 2019 following a fall in her home.

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With this news, The Hollywood Reporter returned to Burns’ husband, who offered a potential explanation as to why his wife had shied away from the limelight in later life. He said, “She hated the movie that made her well-known. Hated it and most everything that came with it. She wanted to be remembered as a published writer of novels.”

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