I was four years old when Family Affair began its run on t.v. In kindergarten and first grade I wore an awful lot of dresses that looked very much like “Buffy” wore on the show. My family loved the “glamor” of Uncle Bill’s life in the New York City Penthouse apartment.
Remember those great front doors with the door knob in the MIDDLE of the door? Now that was swanky! Uncle Bill date glamorous women–decorators, actresses, society types. He also took phone calls at tables in restaurants–before there were cell phones. Clearly a very important man–and one I could understand. My grandfather was a jet-setting engineer in those days. While Uncle Bill got to go to great places like Tahiti, my grandfather went to Denmark mostly. Still, to my 5 year old self, engineer meant important guy who traveled and got to watch what he wanted on tv when he came home. I think Uncle Bill probably did that in the den.
Then there was the sunken bathtub!! The was the ultimate in swank luxury. While my grown self says “how on Earth did tubby Mr. French scour that thing,” my young self could just imagine how cool that would be for playing G.I. Joes with my brother! That life raft would really be great in a sunken tub! As a grown up I secretly have had thoughts about Uncle Bill in that tub, but that’s another story! (Hey, there’s a reason I like the original Parent Trap and it’s not the twins, ok?)
I loved watching the show in re-runs years later. I always watched the opening credits hoping it would be one of the rare episodes with the “Skinny” Mr. French–John Williams. Something about him seemed more English to me. (In fact I think the actor influenced the physical build and looks of my Amberleigh character, Davis–William’s valet).
Above all else in the show though it was Cissy who had the coolest life to me. First off, she nearly got to go to boarding school–something I dreamed of as a young teenager (though I’d have flunked out and nearly died from homesickness and social awkwardness!). Then she messed up as a Candy-striper just like I did (not “just like”–but still….I just hated the whole thing once I tried it) and she could never decide which guy was the right one–exactly like me.
A few weeks ago I got to meet “Cissy,” aka actress and now author, Kathy Garver, who graciously posed for photos and signed my copy of her book. She is as polite and considerate as you imagined, back in Family Affair days, that Cissy would be. Her book, Surviving Cissy, tells the story of her career as well as the story of Family Affair and life after the show for its cast. It is an enjoyable read, but my favorite parts centered on the show.
In the show, Cissy, unlike twins “Buffy” and “Jody,” is allowed to grow up some over the years. She has an ongoing dating relationship with the hapless Greg, a typical teenager, but along the way has a few more exotic romantic moments–never full romances and certainly never the sort of thing teenagers have on tv today! In illustrating how Cissy is allowed to grow up Kathy cites two of my all-time favorite episodes.
Remember, at the time this episode was first broadcast, The Sound of Music was taking the world by storm. Cissy could not be left out of that magic, now could she? So she has a romance with a boy named “Carl,” who happens to be an Austrian Aristocrat. I found it all swoon-worthy even in my teens, even when I’d become obsessed with royalty. (Your can read a funny summary of the episode here.) Never mind the scoffers I was in love! Carl was suave, debonaire and dressed like a Princeton boy in Life magazine. Like I said, swoon-worthy.
In the episode “Put Away Your Dreams,” Cissy falls for an idealistic, frighteningly earnest Peace Corps recruit and decides to rush into marriage with him. While she’s pulling on her little white gloves to run to Bloomie’s and register for china, silver and crystal, he lowers the boom: They’ll be drinking from tin cups. Cissy, now having spent years with Mr. French serving Kellog’s product-placement Corn Flakes in silver porringers, gulps and grasps her pearls at the horror of it all. Uncle Bill, watches and waits, knowing being denied the opportunity to choose between “Chantilly” and “Damask Rose” (or maybe, in a fit of nostalgia for old Carl, “Strasbourg”) for her everyday sterling, will bring the curtain down on a rushed “Save The World” marriage. He watches, rubs his chin and looks ready to slip into that sunken bath with a glass of Scotch.It is what Uncle Bill (and Brian Keith in any role) did best.
Those are my memories, but Kathy adds to the story we know from tv by telling us of all the family members of various people involved in the show who have bit parts here and there. This information alone makes me want to binge-watch the series some weekend soon.
One lingering Family Affair question that the book did not answer was why, with Anissa “Buffy” having spent part of her life in Indiana, was “Terre Haute” always pronounced incorrectly? That has always puzzled me.
It was sad to remember that Anissa Jones died from drugs and that Johnny “Jody” Whitaker also had problems with substance abuse. The flip side of this was reading how Kathy rejected law school–rightly seeing her eventual career for what it would have been–and stayed in acting.Since Family Affair she has worked steadily in t.v. either in traditional acting roles or as a voice artist for animated shows. As an audio book devotee, I was thrilled to learn that her career included audio books and that she has won “Audie” awards for her recordings (i.e. the audio book “Oscar”).
So, whether you are a fan of the show, a nostalgia freak, or a young actor looking for role models who have worked steadily in the business all their lives, Kathy’s book is for you.
Surviving Cissy: My Family Affair of Life in Hollywood by Kathy Gaver, foreward by Patty Duke.