The Tragic Death Of This Land Before Time Actress
When “The Land Before Time” was released back in 1988, the animated dinosaur film was an unprecedented smash hit: captivating the minds of millions of children worldwide and becoming an instant classic. The film’s resounding success spawned over a dozen direct-to-video sequels, a video game, and even a spinoff television series, and “The Land Before Time” became a foundational memory for an entire generation.
While the movie was obviously marketed towards children, part of the film’s lasting appeal is the way it balances the lighthearted fun of animation with some extremely mature themes. When the film starts, protagonist Littlefoot is immediately forced to deal with the gruesome on-screen death of his mother. Despite being a movie about cartoon dinosaurs, it’s a brutally realistic representation of loss, and Littlefoot’s entire journey following his mother’s death is about coping with life’s tragedies.
The way the film grapples with trauma and loss was crucial to its lasting impact, but what many might not know is that behind the scenes, the movie’s cast experienced a death of their own, one which was as unexpected as it was tragic.
A young star destined for great things
Judith Barsi played the role of Ducky, one of the original five main characters in “The Land Before Time” that joined Littlefoot on his journey. Ducky was one of the more positive and outgoing characters in the film, and was noted for her cheerful personality and catchphrase of “yup-yup-yup!”
Ducky’s memorable appearance in the film was due in no small part to the performance of Barsi, who, though only 10 years old, had already acted in around 72 commercials as well as several episodes of television shows such as “Punky Brewster,” and two feature films. She was also pulling in an estimated $100,000 a year by the time she entered fourth grade, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Judith was not an up-and-coming actor or on the verge of a breakout: she had broken out already and seemed poised to have a long, successful career ahead of her. Tragically, that all came to a screeching halt on July 28, 1988, when Judith was murdered by her own father, József Barsi, just a few months before the theatrical release of “The Land Before Time.”
House of horrors
According to the Los Angeles Times, Judith’s father had a long history of abuse that had gone unchecked for years. József Barsi was a bitter alcoholic, who more often than not spent his time at home with the bottle instead of working his day-to-day job as a plumber.
Reports that came out after the murders claim that József threatened his wife, Maria, and their only daughter for years, and ruled his house with an iron fist. In one instance, when Judith left the family home to film “Jaws The Revenge” in 1987, it was reported that Józef pulled a knife on her and said, “if you decide not to come back, I will cut your throat.” The terror of living in that home was so bad that Judith’s agent reported she bit her nails and plucked her eyelashes out of stress.
A friend and fellow plumber was quoted as saying that József “told [him] 500 times he was going to kill his wife.” When the plumber asked József what will happen to his “little one” if he kills her, József simply remarked, “I gotta kill her too.”
On that fateful day in 1988, József came through on his promise: shooting Judith and Maria before setting the house on fire and turning the gun on himself. Judith was found dead in her canopy bed beside a pink television set, which her father had allegedly bought to apologize for yanking out her hair.
An avoidable tragedy
It was a disgusting, unforgivable act of violence, but what makes the case so tragic is how easily it could have been avoided. From the reports that came out after the murders, it seemed like everyone around the neighborhood had an inkling of what was really going on in that house, and county officials had actually been notified of the abuse before (via the Los Angeles Times).
Maria Barsi had gone to Child Protective Services multiple times, but since she was reluctant to press charges, and the reports were almost always related to emotional abuse instead of physical abuse, the case was never pursued. A detective from the Los Angeles Police Department passed the blame on the social welfare system, claiming it was too difficult to follow through on accounts of emotional abuse. “How do we protect someone from threats? We really, honestly can’t,” the detective said. “I could say ‘I’m going to kill you.’ I have the right because we have a free society to say that.”
Judith Barsi’s death wasn’t just tragic because the world was robbed of a young, talented star; it’s also tragic because it was preventable, and because dozens of people sat by and let it happen.