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February 19, 2016

A Classic Family

Family Affair at 50: The third in our series of golden television anniversaries 

Herbie J Pilato, Special to the Television Academy
  • The cast of Family Affair

  • Kathy Garver

  • Johnny Whitaker

  • Nancy Walker, Sebastian Cabot, and Brian Keith

  • Johnny Whitaker, Anissa Jones, John Williams, and Heather Angel

  • Eve Plumb, Anissa Jones

  • Mrs. Beasley

“The writing was excellent.  The structure was classic.”  

That’s how actress Kathy Garver defines the iconic 1966-1971 CBS-TV show, Family Affair, in which she played Cissy, the eldest orphaned sibling to pubescent twins Buffy and Jody, portrayed by Anissa Jones and Johnny Whitaker, and all surnamed Patterson-Davis. 

As explained in the show’s pilot and second episodes (titled, “Buffy,” and “Jody and Cissy,” respectively), the children lost their parents Bob and Mary Patterson in a tragic car accident, and were subsequently adopted and cared for by their beloved Uncle Bill Davis, a laconic bachelor assuredly performed by Brian Keith (who had great success portraying Hayley Mill's father in Disney’s 1961 film classic, The Parent Trap).

Into the mix, was the eminently British housekeeper, Mr. Giles French, elegantly portrayed by Sebastian Cabot, whose best-known TV persona became the medium’s first major household “man servant” or “manny” since Sammy Tong’s portrayal of Peter Tong on Bachelor Father (which ran on ABC, CBS and NBC from 1957 to 1962), and Victor Sen-Yung’s adored Hop Sing on Bonanza (NBC, 1959-1973). 

Debuting September 12th, 1966, Family Affair from the start was opulently shot on film, like a movie, produced by the famed family TV mogul Don Fedderson (My Three Sons), and displayed both light-hearted and poignant moments in one of the most elaborately-decorated television living rooms in the medium’s history (a New York high-rise apartment, similar in presentation and style to the Los Angeles-based backdrop utilized on ABC-TV’s The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, 1969-1971).

“The look of the show is timeless,” Garver declares of Affair’s welcoming and meticulous esthetics.  “The wardrobe, settings and interior decor were selected specifically for a long running series.  Indeed, watching the show today one could walk onto the set and think they were in a contemporary locale.”

As the actress further says, the series was one of the first half-hour sitcoms to be shot in color for its entire length, with a conventional film technique that “revealed a softness and gentleness that is still appealing, even more so today in contrast to the hard edges and grit of video and high-definition.”

Family Affair stood out,” she says, “because of its [overall] quality which was based on the talent and experience of the creators, producers, actors, writers and directors.” 

The reasons for Affair’s now 50-year success are clear, and a key ingredient undoubtedly rests with the fluidity of its scripts.

Garver continues, “The stories on Family Affair followed a [traditional] writing scheme where a problem was introduced, steps were taken to solve the problem, the problem was resolved or a climax reached, and then there was the denouement or slide ending.  

"Mixed in were sub-plots which kept the attention of the viewers…that type of structure gave the returning audience comfort in that it knew what to expect in the structure so they then could concentrate on the relationships of the characters.”

In many ways, Family Affair was similar to another classic family half-hour, Father Knows Best, which originally aired on ABC, CBS and NBC from 1954 to 1960. 

Technically, both shows may be described as sitcoms, but also as two of TV’s first family dramedies, decades before the term was introduced with programs such as The Wonder Years (ABC, 1988-1993) and Doogie Houser, M.D. (ABC, 1989-1993).  As with these two relatively newer classics, Affair and Father were more dramas curved with comedy, than straight comedies.

Such is the case with two Affair episodes in particular, “Christmas Came A Little Early," which first aired November 11, 1968, and “The Language of Love,” which debuted January 29th, 1970.

“Christmas” featured guest-star Eve Plumb (on first-season loan from her role as Jan on The Brady Bunch which, like Family, filmed on the Paramount Studios lot) as a dying young friend to Buffy, who asks Uncle Bill if they could all celebrate the December holiday early – before it’s too late (certainly not the average sitcom storyline of the day).

In “Language,” Buffy once more befriends a young girl (this time portrayed by Diane Holley) who is also confronted by a physical if not life-threatening challenge - a hearing-impairment. The segment is additionally notable because it features a guest-appearance by heralded deaf actress Audrey Norton (who died in 2015), who turns in another remarkable performance (here playing an empathetic Dr. Robinson). 

As one online review so eloquently stated, this episode is “just about the perfect example of Family Affair’s ability to blend childhood whimsy with sentimental drama.”

According to Family Affair scribe Rita Lakin, producer Don Fedderson did not delineate any particular criteria to those who wrote for the series, other than “make all the characters seem like real people you’d like to spend time with…with the understanding of how these well-known characters behaved at the time.”

“The 1960s was a wide-open time for ideas,” Lakin says, “because TV was relatively still new enough to be exciting for viewers.”

Lakin also penned TV scripts for other shows, such as Dr. Kildare, Peyton Place and The Mod Squad. She contributed to Family Affair early on her career when “writers weren’t usually invited to sets.  A writer met with the producer, got assignments and went home to write.  That was all.  We weren’t even invited to dailies in those early days…or even to lunch in the commissary.”

However, that didn’t stop her from composing two very well-received and different episodes of the series, “Uncle Prince Charming” (October 9, 1969) and “The Baby Sitters” (April 1, 1968). 

“Sitters” had to do with Cissy watching-over Buffy and Jody one night when both Uncle Bill and Mr. French were unavailable.  As Lakin recalls, this segment “was for fun only.  Like revolving doors, people getting wrong signals and taking turns to babysit.”

“Charming” involved Cissy’s friend Carla (played by Darlene Carr), who became infatuated with Uncle Bill.  “This was more serious,” Lakin assesses.  “[It’s] about puppy love for an older man…and how understanding Uncle Bill was.”

The father figures of Uncle Bill and Mr. French “were unique,” Lakin says, the latter a “novelty of an English butler who guided the children…who were really lovable kids,” and in whom French made every attempt to instill with only the highest manners. 

As to Uncle Bill, in particular, Lakin says, “The idea of a single father was new,” while show’s stories in general were “quite often…touching [detailing] life in a big city, and family issues of that time.”

Kathy Garver agrees, clarifying how the series was one of the first to focus on a dysfunctional family.  “On Family Affair, the head of the household was a single man [Uncle Bill], and his right hand man [Mr. French] was part of the household and was a warm, strong personality.  The show relied on long close-ups and a slow pace which made all stand out and made it and the cast members especially memorable.”

While Cabot and Keith had certainly left their mark on the series, both were initially reluctant to appear on it, but once on-board, they each embraced their roles.

At one point, however, Cabot had fallen ill, and fellow British actor John Williams, stepped in as his on-screen brother, Niles French.  [As explained on the air, Giles had been summoned to England to assist the Queen.] 

In the show’s final year, Nancy Walker would join the Davis household as part-time housekeeper Emily Turner, assistant to Mr. French (just prior to her fame as housekeeper Mildred on McMillan & Wife [NBC, 1971-1977], and Valerie Harper’s mother Ida on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rhoda [both on CBS, circa 1970-1978]), while Heather Angel periodically appeared as Miss Faversham, a friend to Mr. French.

“The cast was excellent and melded well,” Garver states, “Each personality had a strong and warm spirit at the core.”

The repertoire of actors weren’t a particularly close-knit group off set, Garver acknowledges, but while filming “all were congenial.” 

“The affection was never outward,” she admits, “unless there was a specific occurrence which wielded an outpouring of true feeling.”

Case in point: when Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968, Katy learned of the tragedy while filming Affair, and “was devastated and tearful.”  At which point, Keith departed from his role as Cissy’s Uncle Bill and related to Garver “as a friend.” 

“[He] comforted me and consoled me,” she intones.  “I shall never forget that.”

In turn, Garver served as a solace to her younger on-screen sibling Anissa Jones who, as documented in the book, From Abba to Zoom: A Pop-Culture Encyclopedia of the late 20th Century, died on August 28th, 1976, from a combined drug intoxication at only 18 years old.

Fortunately, Garver has many happy recollections of working with Jones in several spirited Family episodes, particularly those like “Somebody Upstairs,” which first aired December 11th, 1967 (and which featured guest-star Joan Blondell).  As Garver recalls of this segment, “Anissa and I laughed and sang, and I played the piano.”

“Anissa was very dear,” Garver remembers, “and when we spent the night at each other’s houses we frolicked like real sisters and discussed as only members of the cast of a successful TV show can what we thought of the show and each other.”

Unfortunately, after the series ended (on March 4, 1971), the majority of the cast experienced their share of tragedy. 

According to The Los Angeles Times, Keith was found dead at age 75 on June 24, 1997 in his Malibu home of an apparent suicide from a self-inflicted gunshot.  He reportedly had suffered from emphysema and cancer, and left a note that allegedly contained the following message:  “Forgive me, but I don't want to live anymore.  The pain is too bad.  There's no point in trying to prolong this agony.”

A sad close to the life and career of a respected actor who had appeared in over 50 feature films, and starred in several TV series before and after Affair.

Keith's series roles included Crusader (CBS, 1955-1956), The Brian Keith Show (initially titled The Little People, NBC, 1972-1974), Archer (NBC, 1975), Hardcastle and McCormick (ABC, 1983-1986), and an early stand-out titled The Westerner, which ran on NBC for only one season in 1960. 

The Westerner was a joint-effort with writer-director Sam Peckinpah. The series featured Keith as Dave Blassingame, a Shane-like drifter of Southwest, whose main companion was his dog, Brown (the same canine who played Old Yeller in that 1957 film of the same name).

Cabot, meanwhile, had also made several TV appearances on westerns like Gunsmoke, as well as countless other guest-shots on shows such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, while he had previously starred in the heralded CBS-TV detective series, Checkmate (1960-1962).

During his Affair days, Cabot was featured, too, as a semi-regular on The Red Skelton Hour (CBS/NBC, 1951-1971), and post-Family Affair, he was a memorable no-nonsense Santa Claus in the 1973 CBS movie remake of Miracle on 34th Street

Shortly thereafter, he hosted NBC’s horror anthology Ghost Story (which he later exited after a format and title change to Circle of Fear).  Around this time, he also became known for his voiceover work in animated productions like the 1977 feature The Adventures of Winnie Pooh.  He died that same year on August 22, in a Victoria hospital, succumbing to a second stroke in three years.

Whitaker, although devastated by the demise of Jones, began a struggle with his own substance abuse issues over the years. 

After Family folded, he made five feature films for Disney, and won the lead in the big-screen musical The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1973), the classic 1969 NBC-TV special, The Littlest Angel, and producers Sid and Marty Krofft’s hit Saturday morning TV series, Sigmund & the Sea Monster (NBC, 1974-1976).

Unlike Jones, however, Whitaker (the only surviving cast member besides Garver) fortunately conquered his demons, and now serves as a substance abuse counselor/advocate, and is working on a documentary about the Portuguese Drug Policy.

Garver, meanwhile, remains a dynamic force in the industry, acting in and producing films such as Mom, Murder and Me and SOLD, as well as shows for television, and the stage, most recently as Aunt Polly in the new musical River Song: the Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

She is also a motivational speaker and, like Cabot, has a successful career in voiceover (which she also teaches); has recorded over 60 audio books (with four Audie Award wins); starred in five animated series (including the voice of Firestar in Spiderman and His Amazing Friends; NBC, 1981-1983).

She recently published her top-selling memoir, Surviving Cissy: My Family Affair of Life in Hollywood (with her newest book X-Child Stars: Where Are They Now? to be released in April 2016). 

It’s a fitting tribute to Family Affair that its two living stars are contributing much to the world, proving in the process just how positive an influence the show has made for those who worked on as well as watched it.   

“The entire series was comforting,” says Garver who, along with Whitaker, made a guest appearance in a brief Affair reboot produced by Sid & Marty Kroft, starring Gary Cole (Uncle Bill), Tim Curry (Mr. French), Caitlin Wachs (Cissy), Sasha Pieterse (Buffy), and Jimmy “Jax” Pinchak (Jody), and which aired on the now-defunct WB network from 2002 to 2003.

With relatively subtle sentiment, accented for example, by Buffy’s affection for her now famous and still-popular doll, Mrs. Beasley, the original series, Garver says, “…touched the heartstrings of the audience who did not realize that the underpinning of the show was based on the tragedy of three children who lost both their parents [as well as affecting Keith’s Uncle Bill].

The core message of Family Affair she maintains “was love…that love and caring for another overcomes problems and enables one to carry on no matter what.”

Family Affair remains a personal favorite for Rita Lakin, along with other classic shows such as M*A*S*H, Northern Exposure, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

“But I don’t think we’ll ever see their likes again.”

Lakin says Family Affair “wasn’t gimmicky like Gilligan’s Island, The Addams Family, Gomer Pyle and Mr. Ed,” while the show differs from contemporary programming because it “thrived in a time of innocence and belief systems that no longer seem relevant.  Too many sitcoms today suffer from forced humor, too much canned laughter, and bad language and smarmy sex talk.”

Along with millions of original viewers of Family Affair, Lakin’s fondest memory of the show was simply “watching it with my kids on TV.”


For more 50th Anniversary stories, click here.

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