The cast of Family Affair: Anissa Jones, Brian Keith, Kathy Garver, Sebastian Cabot and Johnny Whitaker.
Kathy Garver has spent more that 60 years entertaining audiences around the world as a television, film, stage, voice-over, and commercial actress. Garver is also an author and activist, but the four-time Audie Award-winning performer is best known today for her iconic role as the teenage orphan Cissy in the classic TV series Family Affair. The Baltimore Post-Examiner had the privilege of meeting Kathy Garver at this year’s Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention. There, we spoke with Garver about her life as a child star, memories of her television family, and about her latest book, co-authored with Fred Ascher: X Child Stars, Where Are They Now? (2016 by Rowman/Littlefled). X Child Stars is available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
BPE: Thank you so much for taking the time to sit down with us today. You’ve written a new book called, X Child Stars Where Are They Now? You were a child star, but unlike the stereotypical hellion, you were very well grounded. How were you grounded and what part did your upbringing play in your transition from child star to successful adult actress, author, and mother?
KG: In the book, I make a summation of how some child stars are able to make the transition either into an adult acting career or into another field successfully. I list four-five different things, but one of the main things is family. I had a wonderful family, but I ask, what is the situation financially? Are they using their child’s income as a bank from which they make withdrawals whenever they want? Also education. I find that a lot of child stars don’t go on to college. It’s improving a lot. They get so ingrained with the artistic profession and think, “This is all I’m going to do, but acting is so much more than just being on stage or film or doing voice overs – all of which I still do. There’s the business of show business, and if you don’t get that or get a well-rounded education, you can’t even do interviews like the one we are having right now. It’s an entire lifestyle that one has to embrace.
I suppose that is a long-winded answer to the question, “How am I grounded”. I’m only 5’1″ – that’s how I am grounded!
BPE: Please tell us how you went about researching the new book.
KG: I was at an autograph convention, and someone very charming came up to me. There were some child stars who were sitting by themselves, and no one was coming up to them. He said, “You know, I don’t feel good about these child stars. To me, they are national treasures. They have been so maligned in the media and now have a bad reputation. I’d like to see a book about our child stars”, and I thought, “This is a good idea.” I’d already written the Family Affair Cookbook and my memoir, Surviving Cissy, and this subject was very close to my heart. I know so many former child stars and have worked with a lot of them, so I didn’t have to do a lot of research. In most cases, we had chatted over a cup of coffee or while sitting beside them at an autograph convention. In that kind of relaxed setting, you really get to know the essence of a person. Of course, for everyone in the book, I did my research to make sure the dates and other background information is right.
BPE: Saying the subject is close to your heart calls to mind the troubled lives of your Family Affair siblings, Anissa Jones and Johnny Whitaker.
KG: What happened with Anissa, the absolutely adorable, warm spirited young girl, is – I’m hesitant to speak ill of the dead – but her mother was very much a stage mother. She was divorced and an atheist. I believe in God or the Spirit – whatever name you’d like to use.
BPE: Because of your Catholic upbringing?
KG: (laughing) Oh, yes. God knows, I’d better mention that. But it’s such an anathema to me to encounter people who don’t believe in any kind of a Spirit. You have to have something, or the morality goes away; the ethics go away. That may be kind of off topic, but I think that was one of her problems.
Here she was, a girl starring in a show that was such a big hit at a time in our history when culture was going through these really big changes. It was like Shirley Temple – Anissa became a hit. She had this innocence people could cling to, so I think that was part of the appeal. As the series progressed, she would finish filming, then be whisked off to do publicity.
One of the most difficult things for her was she started doing the show when she was nine. At the end, she was fourteen years old – still wearing pigtails and short dresses; carrying a doll and talking in character like a nine-year-old. This was very deleterious to her mental and emotional health. When the show ended, she wanted nothing more to do with show business. She was run ragged and started hanging with the wrong crowd and doing drugs. It was a total mismatch. And then she had nothing to cling to – no God, no Spirit to guide her.
Johnny’s story is a bit different. He came from a Mormon family. He had six or seven brothers and sisters, and they tithed; so when he turned eighteen, he had maybe ten percent of the money he had earned as an actor. He didn’t have much, but got married anyway and divorced in a year. He was depressed and got into drugs and alcohol. Johnny’s family saved him in this instance, which is why family is so important. Anissa just had her one, divorced mother.
BPE: When you talk about assisting former child stars, one of the first names we think of is Paul Petersen, from The Donna Reed Show.
KG: Paul wrote the forward to my book. We have this group ( A Minor Consideration) which helps child stars make the transition (to a normal adult life). You don’t always have to be an actor. You can be a cameraman or a grip. Tommy Cole, who was a Mouseketeer, is a makeup artist. You don’t even have to be in the business. So many of the child stars I profile became lawyers, which I think is a very apt transition.
BPE: What other child stars are you in touch with today?
KG: Oh, there are a lot. We just did an exhibit at the Hollywood Museum, “Child Stars: Then & Now.” I saw a lot of my friends who I continue to see. Veronica and Angela Cartwright are good friends of mine. We had the same childhood agent, Hazel McMillan – the mother of Gloria McMillan from Our Miss Brooks.
Stanley Livingston from My Three Sons, Tony Dow and I are all doing a play together this fall in Palm Springs. I’ll also be interviewing them and other actors like myself, who have a Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars, on a new show called Star Watch. In upcoming shows, I’ll be talking with Lindsay Wagner from Bionic Woman, Trini Lopez, Gavin MacLeod from The Love Boat – all the people who have stars in Palm Springs will be profiled on the new show.
BPE: Like some of the child stars you write about, Brian Keith had his emotional ups and downs. I think that came across from season-to-season in Family Affair, which is one of the things that makes watching the show today so interesting. There was such an array of personalities and yet somehow the entire program gelled. I believe you’ve described the cast as the first dysfunctional TV family.
KG: Yes, it did gel, but that was because there was a respect for one another and a true affection. As diverse as we all were – both in character and real life – there was a warm spirit about the set: a real connection.
Johnny is the only other one left now, and I see him now and then, but our lives have diverged and we really have nothing in common.
BPE: Just like a real family?
KG: Yes – exactly.
BPE: Edmond Hartman, who directed the show, was known for working at a feverish pace in films with Bob Hope and Abbott and Costello. Yet, he did Family Affair with these very long, drawn out shots. Can you comment on that?
KG: He did the show with Don Fedderson, who also produced My Three Sons. I think Ed’s style was changed, because by using the long close-ups, you really got to know the characters; to see what was in their hearts. Ed Hartman was something of a mentor to me. He always told me, “You look at the eyes. That’s a reflection of the soul. That’s what will always grab people”.
Poor Nancy Walker! When she came on to play the housekeeper, Emily Turner, in the fifth season, she was so used to the snappy pace of Vaudeville, she could hardly hold herself back. It worked, but that was part of the fun of the show.
BPE: Getting back for just a second to Brian Keith, didn’t Don Fedderson also give him the room to do other things while Family Affair was in production?
KG: Yes, he gave Brian the same kind of arrangement he had given Fred MacMurray on My Three Sons. Both men, I believe, had three-month commitments to do the TV shows. That allowed them to pursue parts in movies the rest of the year. Since Brian was only available for a limited time, he would shoot all of his scenes for the season over the course of just twelve weeks. It was fun to watch him work. Sebastian Cabot was a classically trained actor. He would come in very well rehearsed and have his lines perfectly memorized. Brian, on the other hand, would show up on the set and ask, “What are we doing today?” The director would decribe the scene, Brian would take a quick look at the script, and say, “All right, let’s go.”
BPE: That would explain some of the looks of consternation on Sebastian’s face.
KG: Yes, I guess you could say that, but it always worked out very well.
BPE: How did nine-year-old Kathy Garver get to be featured in The Ten Commandments?
KG: That’s a long story and it’s all in my memoir, but my husband always says, ‘Just do the bottom line, Kathy.’ Cecil B. DeMille picked me out of the crowd and wrote special scenes for me into the movie. I have several pictures of those scenes with Charlton Heston.
BPE: One final question: What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment?
KG: Oh, that would be my wonderful 25-year-old son, Reid. He is such a joy to me. Now, if I could just get him to move out of our house!