Sharon Simone: The Person behind the Headlines and “Ultimate Betrayal”

Everyone has seen television films based on the experiences of real people, and wondered how it must feel for them to have the most intimate details of their private lives unveiled in front of millions of viewers. Why do they consent to it? What do they hope to achieve? Do they have any chance to participate in the process?

One person who can answer these questions is Sharon Simone, an adult survivor of child abuse who, with her sister, sued her father — a former FBI agent and child abuse expert — and won judgment in a landmark case that is rewriting national law in this area. Simone’s story will be told in ULTIMATE BETRAYAL, which aired Sunday, March 20, 1994 on CBS-TV 9:00-11:00 p.m. (ET). Marlo Thomas stars as Simone.

“After a story about our case appeared on ’20/20,’ we were deluged with calls from television producers,” says Simone. “We talked it over, my sisters and I, and decided to go ahead.”

We knew what we wanted the television movie to do and not to do”, she says. “There’s already too much attention paid to abusers and the violence they commit, and I don’t believe that helps people. We wanted to show people the personal consequences of not dealing with abuse — consequences I hadn’t faced myself until my relationship with my children began to fall apart. We talked to a number of companies, and chose Hearst Entertainment because they seemed responsive to most of our requests, and thoughtful when they disagreed with us. They told us flat out, for example, that we couldn’t have final approval of the script, but that we would be involved in every step of the production process.”

Simone and her three sisters brought together the producer/director, Donald Wrye, the writer, Gregory Goodell, and a therapist for a marathon two-day session in which memories, feelings, and resentments were confronted and explored in depth. “This was really the first time all four sisters had sat down together to talk about our family at length with support”, Simone says. “It was very emotional. It plunged the production people into the situation, showed them the damage that had been done, let them get to know us as individuals. Other discussions followed over a period of months, and Simone reviewed approximately ten drafts of the script before it went to final.

Sooner or later, in any fact-based movie, comes the time when actors and actresses have to be chosen to play the real-life people. When Simone heard that she was to be played by Marlo Thomas, she was delighted.

“She’s a woman who’s always stood up for the rights of women and children”, she says. “She does things right, with her whole heart. Integrity seems to be her base, and I admire that.” Simone and Thomas conferred repeatedly over a period of mine months, with the actress questioning Simone at great length about her actions and her feelings. It wasn’t a one-way street.

“Marlo told me about her own private feelings, some of her own pain. We agreed completely that shame is most powerful when it’s kept a secret. When it’s let into the daylight, its power disappears.”

The two became so close that when the time came for Simone to see the show at last, she asked Ms. Thomas to watch it with her. “I was in Los Angeles, where Marlo had done a press event for the film, and we went into her hotel room and put it on the VCR. I was sitting there crying and when Marlo saw me she started crying. When it was over”, I said. “My God, you got it exactly right. You’ve given me a gift of healing for my whole life.”

And how does Sharon Simone feel as the air date nears? “Grateful and thrilled. It’s such a relief to know the truth will be out there. There is an ironic proportionality about it. As imprisoned, silenced and numb as I felt before — that’s how relieved I feel now.”

ULTIMATE BETRAYAL also stars Mel Harris, Ally Sheddy, and Kathryn Dowling. Donal Wrye produced and directed for Hearst Entertainment.

Four Sisters Confront Dad and the Past

Brennan, P. (1994, March 20). “Four Sisters Confront Dad And The Past”. The Washington Post.

At times, “Ultimate Betrayal” (Sunday at 9 on CBS) is not an easy movie to watch. Based on a true story of incest and physical abuse, it follows four adult sisters as they share their memories and decide to sue their father in civil court.

Their precedent-setting 1990 lawsuit in a Denver court has repercussions on Capitol Hill. If Rep. Patricia Shroeder (D-Colo.) gets her legislation passed, the Child Abuse Accountability Act will establish procedures to allow child abuse victims to claim court-ordered financial restitution by garnisheeing the federal (but not military) pensions of their abusers even years after the abuse occurred. Currently, federal pensions can be garnisheed for alimony and child support.

In the film, Marlo Thomas plays Sharon Rodgers Simone, eldest of seven children in a Colorado Springs, Colo., family. Now a middle-aged wife and mother, she is a fearful person on the edge of a nervous breakdown, a woman who sleeps in her car at night, returning at dawn to help get the children off to school. Her husband is keeping the family together.

When Sharon’s youngest sister, Mary Rodgers LaRocque (Ally Sheedy), calls to ask if she’ll join in a lawsuit against their father, Sharon learns that her three sisters also are leading dysfunctional lives. All four have sought psychological help; three have attempted suicide.

But unlike Sharon, who has no explanation for her undefined fears, the other sisters know why: As children, they say, they were sexually abused by their father. Sharon hears her sisters’ stories but denies that such horrors occurred — certainly, she believes, not to her. As Thomas put it, “Only Sharon had trouble connecting the dots.”

Filled with shame, the sisters — Mary, Susan (Mel Harris) and Beth Medlicott (Kathryn Dowling) — had never confided in one another.

“One of the things that Sue says on the stand is, ‘All my life, I thought this was my shame,’ ” said Thomas. “All of us carry little secrets that have tremendous power because they’re secrets. A secret tears you apart; it stops you. But if you let it out, it has no power. It doesn’t have to be a secret as big as theirs. The secret can be that you just weren’t loved, just the fact that your parents didn’t have time for you.”

But Mary’s secret was a big one, one she had never told. Sheedy, in one of the most touching and unsettling scenes in the movie, recounts to her older sisters the repeated sexual abuse, including a rape that occurred when she was very young and was the only child left at home.

Edward J. Rodgers Jr. said that never happened. Rodgers had been an FBI agent for 27 years when he retired from that career in 1967 and became a child-abuse investigator for the 4th Judicial District Attorney’s Office (El Paso County) in Colorado Springs. He also served on the board of a group that supports the rights of abused children.

The same year he retired from the FBI, he separated from the mother of his seven children. Two years later, he married a woman with a son and two daughters.

In 1990, long after the Rodgers children were grown, Susan Rodgers Hammond and Sharon Rodgers Simone sued their father, not only to gain money to pay for their therapy, but also hoping for a public accounting and to hear their father acknowledge what happened.

That he would not do. Edward Rogers failed to appear in court, and in a written deposition, he denied that the sexual abuse ever occurred, although he admitted that he had been a physically rough disciplinarian with a quick temper.

Nor would his sons Edward, Steve and John, who are seen in the film being beaten as children, participate in the lawsuit. They are seen in the film berating their sisters in the courtroom at the close of the trial. Sharon’s therapist (played by Eileen Brennan), did testify, as did Sharon’s husband, Patrick Simone.

Without the defendant present, and with no defense counsel, a six-woman Denver jury heard the testimony, considered the evidence for 90 minutes, and awarded them $2.3 million, the largest settlement (at that time) in a case of this nature.

Thus far, said Thomas, Rodgers has never paid a penny of that sum. Schroeder’s bill, introduced in November of 1993, would tap into Rodgers’s FBI pension. Currently, a federal employee’s pension can be garnisheed only for court-ordered child support or alimony.

Thomas pointed out that unlike other cases that have caught public attention recently, “This isn’t a case of false memory or repressed memory,” said Thomas. “The other sisters said, ‘I’ve known this all my life,’ but Sharon wouldn’t allow herself to admit that.”

They related all of this to producer/director Donald Wrye, writer Gregory Goodall and a therapist in an emotional two-day session before the movie went into production. Simone reviewed at least 10 drafts of Goodall’s script. Then the actors were cast.

“The abuse psychologist we spoke to said everybody plays a different role in the family,” said Thomas. “Sue was the one who fought back and got beaten the most. Sharon was the one who tried to make her father calm down and feel loved, met him at the door, brought him a beer. She thought she was helping by helping her father feel loved. But underneath, there was the guilt of the collaborator.

“To me, what was very touching was that she {Sharon} didn’t want to lose her father. Every girl needs her daddy. Sharon told me, ‘There’s a part of me that still loves my father.’ Her fantasy was that they would have this trial, the father would be found guilty, and then they would all go around and help other families. She said, ‘I thought maybe we’d make all this bad become good for somebody.’ ”

Thomas said Sharon eventually came to understand that her vision of family healing was an unlikely scenario. Instead, helping make the movie and working for the Child Abuse Accountability Act have become her way of making “bad become good for somebody.”

Thomas said after she read the script, she gave the movie a lot of thought.

“I’ve never done an ‘abuse movie’ before,” she said. “I put {the script} down and I thought, there’s something very special here. It took a lot of courage for these women to stand up to their father. There’s something basic about having your pain acknowledged, having your reality acknowledged.

“The father had every opportunity to acknowledge his daughters. They asked him to talk, they asked him for money for their therapy, and as a last resort, they sued him to get money for their therapy. But that doesn’t seem to be the real issue. The real issue is, if Dad won’t acknowledge what happened, maybe the jury will. That was the triumph for them.”

This film is the fourth time that Marlo Thomas has portrayed a living person. She was Marie Balter in “Nobody’s Child,” Sis Levin in “Held Hostage,” and Laura Z. Hobson in “Consenting Adult.”

She has kept up with all of the women she’s played. “Once you play somebody real, you’re in their life forever,” she said.

“I like playing real women. It’s like a road map: You can follow the street signs.

“Often with a fictional character, you’re constantly saying to the director, ‘But why would you do that?’ With a real person, you can just ask.”

Marlo Thomas on Playing Real People: A “Special Responsibility”

“You can’t rob her of her truth.”

That’s Marlo Thomas’s answer when she’s asked about the challenge of playing a real-life person in a film — something she will do for the fourth time in a fact-based television movie when she portrays Sharon Rodgers Simone in ULTIMATE BETRAYAL, which aired Sunday, March 20, 1994 on CBS-TV 9:00-11:00 p.m. (ET). The film tells the true story of adult sisters — played by ms. Thomas, Mel Harris, Ally Sheedy and Kathryn Dowling — two of whom sued their father for physical and sexual abuse committed during their childhood. The case, which was legally unprecedented, inspired pending Congressional legislation setting forth conditions under which adult victims of child abuse can seek compensation.

“Playing a real person, especially one who’s alive, is a special kind of responsibility — it’s scary but exciting”, says Ms. Thomas. “In preparing for ULTIMATE BETRAYAL, I got to know Sharon Simone very well. I talked for five hours with her and her therapist. She gave me letters and poems she had written over the years. I went through the same basic procedure when I played Marie Balter in ‘Nobody’s Child,’ Sis Lewin in ‘Held Hostage’ and Laura Z. Hobson in ‘Consenting Adults.’ In all four cases, I received so much personal help, such rich material. The challenge for the actress goes beyond creating a believable character the audience will accept; there’s also an obligation to the person you’re playing. They’ve given you their truth, and you don’t want to let them down.”

During the period of Sharon’s life covered by the first half of ULTIMATE BETRAYAL, she is a woman whose world is falling apart. Her sisters have decided to file their lawsuit, and they turn to Sharon for support even though she has no recollection of childhood abuse. As she is forced to confront her denial, horrific memories of her childhood begin to surface, driving her to the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Her actions endanger her most important adult relationships –those with her husband and their children. It’s deeply intimate, highly emotional material, and Ms. Thomas took the challenge very seriously indeed –even after filming ended.

“When we’d finished, Sharon asked if she could view the rough-cut with me”, she says. “I was terrified. What if she didn’t like it? What if I’d failed her? Could she handle the emotional experience of seeing her story? Could I handle watching her try to handle it? I would up sitting several rows behind her to give her some privacy, and I remember at one very difficult point she lifted her arm and made a little ok sign with her fingers and thumbs. When it was over, she came up to me and said, ‘You got it right…you got every bit of it.’ And I relaxed for the first time.”

ULTIMATE BETRAYAL also stars Eileen Heckart and Henry Czerny. The screenplay is by Greg Goodell. Donald Wrye is director and executive producer. The film is a production of Polongo Productions in association with Hearts Entertainment Productions.