The Actress Who Killed Her Abusive Husband and Was Expelled from Hollywood

The story of Saundra Edwards, whose dreams of Hollywood stardom were cut short when she fired a shotgun shell through her husband's chest.
18 September 2019, 8:00am
saundra edwards
Saundra Edwards. Photo: Historic Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

When Saundra Edwards embarked on a teen modelling career in the 1950s, her goals were simple.

The half Native-American girl of humble origins hoped to earn enough money to help her struggling family, then become a famous actress, and then one day buy a lavish wardrobe from Paris. But by the time she was 24, she would instead become ensconced in a scandal – the killing of her husband with a shotgun blast to the chest – that served as the death knell of her career.

In the Hollywood of the early-60s, long before the advent of the social revolution, Saundra would be seen as both victim and perpetrator. The press would report on her "shapely" figure even as she stood weeping at a funeral; they'd snap photos of her sobbing on the witness stand with a mixture of fascination and pity. In the deeply sexist and publicity-obsessed studio era, she would become a social pariah and be labelled in the most damning of ways: a murderer.

Saundra grew up in the shadow of the major movie studios, likely never imagining that she'd one day work at the Warner Brothers Burbank lot, only a short drive from her family's rented apartment in central LA.

There's a lot we don't know about Saundra's childhood, but we do know that they were poor. At one point, the Edwards family, with five children, were practically itinerant, as her father, John, moved from California back to Nebraska, to Oregon and Washington, and the children swapped schools accordingly. Luckily for them, Saundra would soon offer an additional income: she grew up to be strikingly beautiful – standing 5'7" with almond-shaped eyes, black hair and a doll-like pout that made her well-suited to modelling.

The earliest photograph I can find of Saundra dates back to 1954. She is only 15, puppy-cheeked and having her fingernails painted. It seemed to be no bother to anyone that she had a pin-up career before she was a legal adult, posing in bikinis across a number of men's magazines.

The teenager would marry and fall pregnant before her 17th birthday, the product of both a necessary rush for income as much as the limited options for women of the time. Her husband was Lorin Kopp, likely a decade her senior and serving as her "business manager" – in other words, not built to last to the end of the decade.

Two months after Saundra gave birth to a baby girl she was featured on the cover of GALA, a now-defunct men's magazine with "adult pictorials". Given the mores of wedded motherhood during the era, it was an unusual move. Was Saundra estranged or separated from her husband? Or was she the main breadwinner and forced to return to work quickly for financial reasons?

In March of 1957, the same month she turned 18, Saundra posed for a new men's magazine of some distinction: Playboy. Launched only four years prior, Hugh Hefner's mag was not the liberal, provocative juggernaut it would become in the 1970s. In those early years, it operated with a vaguely anti-domestic attitude, celebrating the high-living bachelor.

Saundra was Playmate of the Month, posing in skintight red leggings and backless mules, breasts carefully covered with her hands. She's all red lips and dark hair, beautiful but never quite sexual.

In spite of her reportedly shy disposition, Saundra had made a decent career of "cheesecake" photoshoots and stints as a Vegas showgirl.

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Saundra Edwards (rear) in 'The Crowded Sky' (1960). Photo: Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

In 1958, at 20, Saundra was signed to an acting contract at Warner Brothers. Hampton Fancher was her fellow studio contract star, a lean, attractive young actor who would later go on to become a successful screenwriter on the Blade Runner films. In 1961, he played Saundra's husband in a forgotten film called Parrish. He found that she seemed out of place somehow: "She was a bit on the sullen side, a bit insecure, quiet. Although she had stature physically, she wasn't exhibitionist at all," he tells me on the phone from New York. "She made you feel protective of her."

If it had been a decade prior, signing a contract with Warner Brothers might have had slightly more currency: it would have meant the full contract player treatment, and maybe a decent shot at "making it". There would have been etiquette and talent lessons, training in singing or horseback riding. Maybe it would have allowed Saundra, who seemed unsure of herself, to feel more secure as an actress.

But by the end of the 1950s, Warner Brothers was making most of its money from cheap and cheerful TV production, mostly with repetitive western serials and implausibly-plotted detective shows. The studio preferred to contract a large stable of relative unknowns, maintaining power over a mostly replaceable selection of talent. In her first two years at the studio, Saundra would appear in five feature films without a single actual credit to her name.

The situation was exacerbated by the fact that Saundra was frequently used for her Cherokee heritage onscreen, typecast as Native-American girls in numerous western TV series of the time, mostly in forgotten shows like Cheyenne and Sugarfoot. In others, she played Mexican damsels and Arabian servants.

Although her mother was German-American and she was classed as white in wider society, even the remotest drop of Native blood was enough for her to be exoticised onscreen. As a result, she often starred in a second-fiddle position to pert blondes or more obviously WASP-y types. As Hampton says, "It seemed like she should have been a catch, but on set she was almost invisible. She had a certain kind of beauty, but it wasn't part of the consensus of what was beautiful at that time."

At least, not in Hollywood.

It's no wonder Saundra felt ostracised; she was pigeonholed to secondary, often "ethnic" roles, a divorced mother of two young children, and felt uncomfortable with the new bohemian spirit of some of her contemporaries on the lot. "I liked her, and respected her," Hampton says. "But she did seem like a girl who could be atavistic in terms of her attitude. It was as though she was from an even earlier time. Whatever the beatnik influence was, she wasn't caught up in that."

Sometime in 1960, she would meet a fellow Warner Brothers television actor by the name of Tom Gilson on the lot. Gilson was another TV bit-part player who's best remembered for playing a comic Elvis-like character in Rally Round the Flag, Boys! (1958). A rowdy heavy drinker who stood 6'4" and counted Steve McQueen among his best friends, Tom was known for his machismo. In short, he was everything a bohemian might dislike, and thus appealed to Saundra enormously.

By August of 1961, Tom and Saundra would be married. She gave birth to their son five months later, so it doesn't take a mathematician to work out that she'd become pregnant out of wedlock. In those days, as Hampton points out, "The studio owned you. It was dictatorial. Marijuana was like heroin, and comparatively to the later 60s, it was a very naive and puritanical time in the States. I used to live with women and we'd have a phoney wedding ring to avoid gossip."

Trapped again by circumstance and hemmed in by byzantine morality clauses in her studio contract, Saundra married before she gave birth. That year, two films would be released – A Fever in the Blood and Parrish – that finally saw her in named, credited supporting roles. But the bloom of promise wouldn't last; Parrish would be her final screen appearance.

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Saundra Edwards and Will Hutchins in ‘Sugarfoot: The Return of the Canary Kid’. Photo: Walt Disney Television via Getty Images

In 1962, the suburban enclave of Van Nuys, California was a respectable one. It was lined with post-war tract homes and served as an employment hub for two prosperous mid-century businesses: General Motors and Anheuser-Busch.

On 6th October of that year, that respectability was shattered. The events began in the home of a married couple, Connie and Richard Davis. Living with them at the time was Connie's wayward younger sister, Saundra. Aged 24 and estranged from her second husband Tom after less than a year, she was once again in a desperate family situation. Tom was an alcoholic, and according to Saundra he had "banged [her] head against a tile wall", and once "started beating me while I held the baby in my arms, and some of the blows struck the baby". This was the final straw, and Saundra moved out.

It was a Friday evening, and Saundra spent it watching her three children and her nephew, while her sister and brother-in-law had gone out to a party. With her was Camille, six; Steven, three; and Thomas Jr, only nine months old. The idyll was shattered when Tom called the house.

He was "very drunk", according to Saundra, and was angrily insisting on coming over to see his baby son. She refused, but he took no heed. It was not the first time he had called, and in fact had previously shown up threatening to break into the house. Police had been called to the scene for disturbances on more than one occasion. The hulking, 6'4" Gilson posed a serious threat.

Saundra begged her sister to come home from the party, and the couple did. Before brother-in-law Richard departed again to pick up his car, he left Saundra with a parting gift: his shotgun. He showed her how to load it, assuring her she could scare off a drunken Tom Gilson if he showed up to their home again.

When a single 12-gauge shotgun blast rang through the Davis home and out into the residential community at around 2AM, there was no real attempt to hide what came next. Saundra ran into the street sobbing, and she was entitled to: she had never fired a gun in her life. Now, she had blown through her estranged husband's chest at point blank range. Numerous reports stated that the muzzle of the gun was only a foot from Tom when she fired. He was dead.

According to a story in the Oakland Tribune on the 7th of October, 1962, a distraught Saundra later explained to the police that, when she brandished the gun, Tom told her: "Go ahead. I don't care. If you don't shoot, Sandra, I'll kill you and the kids." With four children to protect, she pulled the trigger.

Saundra was arrested on suspicion of murder, and her name was splashed across the papers. Only a few days later, images appeared in the Los Angeles Herald Examiner of Saundra sobbing on the stand when presented with the murder weapon by a prosecutor. "Take it away," she wept. "Please, take it away."

Neile Adams, the wife of actor Steve McQueen and one of Gilson's best friends at the time, wrote of Tom in her autobiography: "Steve could control the furies that raged within him, but Tom, when under the influence, seemed always to want to show the world that he could go one step beyond." Saundra echoed those sentiments when she told authorities that Gilson "would drink until he went blank. Time and time again he would beat me."

For his part, Hampton Fancher felt that the incident made sense. "I met Tom Gilson a few times," he says. "He had that silent macho thing. He tried to make me like him, I think. He was like, 'Hey, we're tough. We're rebels, and women like us and we don't play by the rules,' and all that stuff. I thought he was basically an idiot. When that happened, when she shot him – knowing him just a little bit – it seemed to add up."

It took the coroner's jury only half an hour to give Saundra a verdict of "justifiable homicide" on the grounds of self-defence. But the damage was done, to psyche and career. The public attitude was one of pity, but the private one was about the bottom line: no audiences wanted to fantasise about a beautiful actress when they knew she had killed her husband. She would be cut loose from her Warner Brothers contract within the year.

The last clipping I could find about Saundra, anywhere I looked, was in the Herald Examiner, only a month or so after she was acquitted. She had traded in dreams of a Paris wardrobe and a Hollywood career, working instead as an apprentice animal trainer for the movies. She had moved to a trailer on the farm, sharing it with her three small children. The final, unwittingly devastating line of the short news piece, read: "Sa[u]ndra has already been allowed to make several trips to the studios on assignments involving trained chimpanzees."

It was a long way to fall.

That's it. Saundra is a ghost now; I can't find her, try as I might over the past several months. I don't know what became of her. Los Angeles death records didn't turn up anything definitive. There are some hints that she remarried in the 1970s, meaning if she has since died it would have been under a different surname, and may well have been in a different city. If she is alive – and there are some rumours to the contrary – she'd be 81 now, and is living in essential obscurity. I've called countless disconnected and wrong numbers, irritated my fair share of librarians. All I know is she was made to disappear from public life, and so she decided to embrace it.

Who is Saundra Edwards now? What could she possibly mean to us, as a footnote of a footnote on some Wikipedia page?

To me, she's a sad reminder that the entertainment industry – certainly Hollywood – has never really sided with women survivors or victims. Even when the powers-that-be pay lip service or express sympathy, as with #MeToo, they rarely follow through. While men in Hollywood are allowed to shape-shift, to behave badly, to sometimes get away with literal murder and rape, women who transgress are forever cast out. After her traumatic experience, Saundra simply couldn't fit into a narrative the male-dominated entertainment world had set out for her. As her co-star Hampton tells it, "Women didn't stand a chance."

Saundra is almost totally forgotten now. She never had time to make a real name for herself in movies, or even distinguish herself as a talent to watch; perhaps she was in some ways unremarkable. It didn't matter. She was robbed of the chance even to be unremarkable on our screens, to make herself a living and a name, just because she had the misfortune to marry a monster. There are countless other women of her kind in Hollywood, nameless and unremembered. More than anything else, it makes her cipher-like quality all the more alluring; she’s a stand-in for so many.

I ask Hampton Fancher – now 81, the same age as Saundra might be if she's alive – if, back then, he thought the incident would ruin her career. He rushes to respond to the affirmative: "That was anathema. I remember knowing that even then. I didn't think she had any possibilities in terms of a future in Hollywood. No way."