(originally presented in August 2017 on popcultureaddict.com)
In 1966 CBS unveiled a different type of family sit-com when Family Affair made its premier. Starring Brian Keith and Sebastian Cabot, it was the story of a rough around the edges bachelor and his British gentleman valet taking charge of three orphaned relatives who nobody seemed to want. Filled with heart, the show was more drama then comedy, and it never lost that little hint of sadness. A risk for CBS at the time by developing a sit-com with a non-traditional family situation, Family Affair paid off and became a big hit for the network.
Somewhere settled between the precocious adventures of Buffy and Jody, played by Johnny Whittaker and Anissa Jones, and the juxtaposition of the adult world of Uncle Bill and Mr. French, was fifteen year old big sister Cissy Davis, played by actress Kathy Garver. Mature for her age, Cissy’s journey to securely fit into her new world became a part of the early episodes, creating a unique place in the series to endear her to fans. Family Affair ran for five successful seasons until 1971, where it continued in reruns to charm generations of viewers for decades to follow.
Starting her career as a child, Kathy Garver appeared in television series such as Our Mrs. Brooks, The Red Skelton Show and The Millionaire before transitioning into small roles in classic films as Night of the Hunter and The Bad Seed. But it was while standing among a plethora of extras in Cecil B. DeMille’s epic The Ten Commandments that Kathy caught the eye of the legendary director, who pulled her out of the crowd and gave her her first big break on the screen by writing her into scenes with the film’s star Charleton Heston. More television followed including roles on The Patty Duke Show, The Rifleman, Father Knows Best and Dr. Kildare, giving Kathy a wide range of acting experienced and making her a seasoned pro before finding stardom on Family Affair. When Kathy took the role of Cissy for Family Affair, she was attending UCLA as a speech major. Twenty years old at the time, she lied about her age to get the role of fifteen year old Cissy. However, she was perfect for the part, and brought an edge of maturity and depth to Cissy which other sit-com daughters lacked.
A regular at autograph shows, Kathy Garver continues to keep “Family Affair” in the hearts and minds of fans. Still active on stage and screen today, Kathy has become an award winning voice actress and has authored three books.
In the years that followed Kathy has kept busy on stage, in films and television and has had a successful career as a voice actress for cartoons and reading audio books. Winning awards for her voice work, Kathy teaches voice acting and diction today. Kathy is also the author of three books – The Family Affair Cookbook, a memoir titled Surviving Cissy, and her latest book, X Child Stars: Where They Are Now. A regular at autograph shows all over North America, Kathy keeps Family Affair in the hearts and minds of the public by meeting fans and signing autographs.
On August 20th and 21st, Kathy will be amongst more than 50 former child stars at the Hollywood Museum in the old Max Factor Building at Hollywood and Highland. Celebrating the new exhibit “Child Stars – Then and Now,” Kathy will be displaying some of her mementos from Family Affair and The Ten Commandments through to December.
A smart and well-spoken lady, I was lucky to speak to Kathy about her career as an actress, and have her share her thoughts and memories of Family Affair, her co-stars and about being Cissy.
Sam Tweedle: You are participating in the “Child Stars – Then and Now” exhibit at the Hollywood Museum, as well as the autograph show celebrating the opening. What did you submit to the display for the museum exhibit?
Kathy Garver: I live in Northern California, so I Fed-Exed some of my memorabilia to the museum this week. I gave them a scarf that I wore in Family Affair, as well as a little red patent purse that I carried around. I gave them my life achievement award to display, as well as some photos from The Ten Commandments. It’s the fiftieth anniversary of Family Affair and the sixtieth anniversary of The Ten Commandments, which was one of my first movies. This year they made a special Ten Commandments stamp, and I’m exhibiting that. My books are also going to be available through the museum including my Family Affair Cookbook, my memoirs Surviving Cissy and, my latest book, X-Child Stars: Where Are They Now.
Sam: Tell me a bit about your latest book.
Kathy: X-Child Stars: Where They Are Now takes the TV child stars of the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s and gives a brief synopsis of the series they were in, like Leave it to Beaver and My Three Sons, and then gives the character’s backgrounds and then what the actors are doing now. My next book, which is called X Child Stars: The Movies will take the child stars that were not on TV per se, but were in the movies. There is also a television series we are developing about it too. It’s an ongoing process.
Sam: Before you did The Ten Commandments, you appeared in one of my favorite films Night of the Hunter. I am a huge Robert Mitchum fan. Do you have any memories of working on that film?
Kathy: That was really my first film and it was so exciting. What I do have is a copy of the book Night of the Hunter which I brought to a wrap party, and Charles Laughton and Shelly Winters and Robert Mitchum were all very nice to sign it for me, and Hilyard Brown, who was the art director, drew a picture for me. It was a wonderful movie.
Sam: It’s been written that it was Cecil B. DeMille who picked you out of a crowd scene in The Ten Commandments and gave you your first real break. What do you remember about Mr. DeMille?
Kathy: Well I was originally hired on The Ten Commandments as one of the hordes of extras, and I was riding on a wagon and all of a sudden I heard this big voice boom out “Don’t let that little girl’s face get in the camera!” I thought “Uh oh! What did I do wrong?” Well, it was Cecil B. DeMille up above on a big crane, and he was very wont to do this when he was filming a big epic, to make them more accessible to people. He would pick out people from on the set, and he picked me out and wrote scenes for me into the movie with Charleton Heston. I do remember Cecil B. DeMille very well, but sort of like how a child remembers things, through the senses. I remember the scents and the touch and the feel of it very vividly. I’m doing the Mid-Atlantic Convention next month, and Debra Paget is going to be there. Well, when I was a very small child, even before I was in The Ten Commandments, I was performing in the Shrine Auditorium in LA and I remember going down the aisle and meeting her, and I remember thinking she was the most beautiful being I had ever seen. So I am very excited to see her next month.
Sam: Have you seen her since you did The Ten Commandments?
Kathy: No. I haven’t seen her!
Sam: I didn’t realize you were twenty years old when you took the role of Cissy, who was fifteen. She was a lot younger than you were. What was it like being an adult playing a teenager?
Kathy: It certainly did help the production company, but I did lie when I went into the interview and told them I was eighteen. That was a good thing for them because I could work longer. But I was a young woman, and a very naïve woman I must say who was very protected by my family, but my age gave me a certain depth and maturity for that character.
Sam: So do you feel that being an adult help you develop Cissy more than if you were actually her age?
Kathy: Well, one of the reasons I believe that child stars have such a hard time making the transition is that when you’re young you are primarily asked to learn your lines and hit your mark and say the words. There is no character development or any of the things that an adult actor is required to do. Then the child actor says to themselves “I did a series. I’m a wonderful actor.” Well not so fast, kiddo. Not necessarily. The child actor might have been hired because they are cute, or outgoing, or looked like a part. Well, I think that a fifteen year old would have been more in the guise of Buffy and Jody. They might have been talented, and that’s fine, but they would have hit their marks and say their lines. So I had that three or four other layers where I would analyze my part and realize that Cissy was this kid who lost both of her parents and is going from this small country town into the big city of New York and how is one going to deal with all of that. Well that’s the contrast of being and adult and a child. There are more layers.
Sam: I remember there was always a hint of sadness and melancholy to Family Affair. It was a lot different than the other family comedies at the time. How would you define Family Affair’s difference?
Kathy: Well Family Affair had a lot of firsts. It was the first sit-com that was in color. Color came in in 1966. Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best was all in black and white. So that was different, and that kaleidoscope at the beginning was a way to remind people that it was in color and that it was different. Also, it was one of the first shows to have an unrelated male as the head of the household. So in Father Knows Best you had the Mom and the Dad and the kids, and you had Leave it to Beaver which was kind of the same thing. You had The Brady Bunch which was a little bit different, but still had the Mom and the Dad and the kids. Well here was Brian Keith and Sebastian Cabot who were two guys raising these kids. I have a lot of gay friends and fans who love that concept. Another reason was that we were so accepting of everything. That made a big difference. My co-author of X Child Stars, Fred Ascher, is gay and he was also a latch key kid. So he would come home and nobody would be there and he would go in and watch the show and that gave me a lot of comfort and acceptance. That kind of emotion stayed with him until he was grown. So those were big distinguishing factors. But ours was also more of a dramedy because we were orphans. Our parents died, and that feeling never left the series. It made it more real.
Sam: I read that you worked with Brian Keith prior to Family Affair and that you really looked up to him as a mentor. What lessons did you learn from Brian Keith?
Kathy: Well especially during the time of Family Affair, and going forward, he had a big influence. At that time I had worked all the way to going to UCLA, and I had seen all sorts of styles of acting. I just soaked in the way that Brian was so low key and very relaxed. When he’d get a script he contrasted a great deal to Sebastian Cabot, who was English. Later on I went to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and I learnt what he was doing. So Sebastian would analyze each scene, and he would learn and he would spend so much time each weekend learning every single word and then he would recite them on the set. Brian would come in and say “Okay. What are we doing today?” He would look at the script and then say “Okay, let’s go.” It was really a good example for me to see the contrasting styles. As I further developed as an actor, I incorporated both styles. I analyze and learn the scene, but then when I get up to do it I just do it naturally.
Sam: Sebastian Cabot was a larger than life character actor with a great voice. What else can you tell us about him?
Kathy: He was very professional, and it was interesting because I think all the characters on the show were good people inside. They were very loving people. Brian Keith loved kids. He was a big Irish man who loved to drink and he could be a bit rowdy on occasion, but he had a very soft spot for kids. Sebastian loved his family, and again he cared about kids. So that came through. Brian could be tough, but he had that soft spot, and Sebastian was playing a nanny, but he had to be sophisticated but underneath he had that warm heart.
Sam: When fans think of the series fans immediately think of Buffy and Jody, and Johnny and Anissa were very much fan favorites that made most of the marketing. You were really stuck in the middle, because the kids were so much younger and the adults were so much older. Did you have any sort of relationship with them? Where did you fit in the dynamics of the show?
Kathy: Outside of the series I went to a lot of discos. Inside of the series I became the ultimate big sister. Johnny Whitaker had seven brothers and sisters, so he had a lot to take up his time, but Anissa and I had a very nice relationship and she would come over to my house and spend the night, or we would hang out together. But most of the time the kids were in school for three hours and weren’t on the set. I was over eighteen so I didn’t have to go to school. So I would read and do needlepoint. If we had iPhones or computers back then it would have been difficult to get me off the phone. So I was primarily the big sister helping out.
Sam: After Family Affair did you find that casting directors still thought of you as an adult and had a hard time thinking of you grown up?
Kathy: Well whenever that happened I just changed my focus and my emphasis a little bit. After the series was over I went to London to go to the Royal Academy, because I hadn’t suffered enough for my art. So I really had the basis and the ability. Then I came back and did stage plays for a long time. So once we got through that transitional hump as picturing me as a grown up, what I could go back to the casting directors with was all this wealth of experience on the stage which I then had at that time. So that was able to change their minds, and I was able to take on various characters that were believable.
Sam: I was looking at a list of your voice over work. You’ve had a great career as a voice actress. How did you get into doing voices for cartoons and book work?
Kathy: Well I had a commercial agent, and on one audition they were sending me on they said “This is a voice over.” I said “What’s that?” They said just go on the audition. So I went and the fellow said “Here’s your line. Just say the line.” The line was “I like tuna fish.” So I said “I like tuna fish.” He said “Say it a different way” so I said “I LIKE tuna fish” in a different voice. He said say it again. So I said “I like TUNA fish.” I clearly wasn’t getting it and I didn’t get the part. So I signed up immediately for voice over classes where I found out that I do have a prepotency for being able to change my voice and doing a lot of cartoons. I have a lot of energy in my voice, which fit in well in doing animation. Then I also started doing audio books which I love doing. I’ve done over seventy audio books. So it was something that fit well with my talent. I teach it now. I teach how to do audio books and how to do voices for toys.
Sam: Now I’ve got to nerd out for a moment. I’m a big comic book fan, and I saw that you did the voice of Firestar on Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends. Firestar was created specifically for that series, but she is a character that has endured and his still beloved by comic fans today. Cartoons series may be a short gig, but their impact on the kids that watch them is massive. Do you get Firestar fans contacting you?
Kathy: Oh, absolutely. This is a character that has endured as you say. This was Marvels first time where they had created a character for animation instead of bringing her over from the comic book. In October I’m going to Comikaze which is Stan Lee’s comic book convention. I love going to comic book conventions. People were inspired by Firestar. I have three or four beautifully drawn renditions of the character that fans have given me. It’s interesting how a character can touch people.
Sam: She’s been a favorite of mine since I was a kid watching the show. When you get a character like Firestar, how do you design a voice for her?
Kathy: Well, the way I look at it is that a character is only part of yourself. To me the only way to make a character real is to go inside yourself and find where those particular characters live. We all have different characters in ourselves, and we present them differently if we are in a church or a synagogue or to a partner and so on. So for Firestar, there are times when I feel very strong. I was a cheerleader. So I had to have a lot of strength to cheer the team on so that they could win. So I have that voice inside of me. Then, to be Angelica Jones, who was the sweeter person and the shy part of myself, I would call on that part. But it’s that inner strength that I believe that we all have but we are reluctant to call out. That’s the joy of playing characters.
Sam: A number of years ago the WB tried to revive Family Affair but the series failed. How did you feel when you found out they were going to do it, and why don’t you think it succeeded while the other one is still being watched today?
Kathy: Well, I wanted to do it myself. I had actually gotten the rights to do a Family Affair movie. But it just do happen that a friend of Johnny Whittaker’s was sitting at the next booth at the Smoke House, right near Warner Brothers, and had heard me discussing this with the producer. Well, he told Johnny who immediately told Sid Krofft, who said “Well, we’re going to do a series then.” So they started putting the series together before I could start getting my movie out. So I wasn’t very happy about it. That’s how I felt about it.
Sam: I don’t blame you for being unhappy.
Kathy: But I personally don’t think that remakes do very well. That’s a pointed statement. Sequels do great, like Brady Bunch Grows Up and Brady Bunch Goes to Mars or whatever. Leave it to Beaver had two sequels where they used the same people. That is what I think is more acceptable to the audience. Excuse my language but I think the Family Affair remake sucked. It was just awful. The reason it didn’t succeed is that it didn’t have the heart of Family Affair. It didn’t have the good casting of the people we discussed that loved playing the characters that they got to play. So you had Tim Curry, who is a wonderful actor, overplaying, and only playing, the phonetic part of the nanny. You had Gary Cole, who was totally flat. There were no layers to his character, so you couldn’t see the swashbuckler that Uncle Bill was. The kids were cute, but they weren’t twins. They were so different in height that they didn’t look like twins. And then the girl changed her name from Cissy to Sigourney and she was rocking out. Even my son, who is now 25, would watch it and go “Mom! Cissy would never do that!” (Laughs) My son was looking out for his Mom and Cissy. But I think the main thing is that it had no heart.
Sam: Well the thing is that you need to grow and develop characters to love them. You can’t just cookie cutter them. You can’t just get another actor to step in a role and be a character that has already been organically developed by someone else. A character is more than just a name.
Kathy: That is very insightful. You just can’t just take whatever is there and replace that.
Time has proven that you can’t replace Family Affair in the minds and the hearts of the fans, and the show continues to endure five decades after it first made its debut. Since her days playing Cissy, Kathy Garver has never stopped working and reinventing her place in the entertainment industry. A quick look at her imdb page reveals that she has continued to find a place in film, movie and animation continuously since, and that list doesn’t include all the theater she has done, or the work she has become noted for audio books. But fans will always love her in the role of Cissy Davis, and she continues to keep the flame of Family Affair alive in her many appearances at autograph shows and comic book conventions across North America. For more information on Kathy, her career and books, and her appearances visit her web-site at www.kathygarver.com.
NOTE: Special thanks to Harlan Boll for facilitating my visit with Kathy Garver. I’ll admit that I had maybe a bit of a crush on Cissy Davis the one summer that Family Affair ran in my area back in the 1980’s, so it was fun to revisit the show and talk to such a wonderful and smart actress. Thank you Harlan for this opportunity. For information on Harlan Boll Public Relations visit his site at http://bhbpr.com/.