“When a person is on a series or in a movie, they tend to remain in your mind as that image, that character,” Kathy Garver says, “so you always expect them to look like that, to talk like that.”
Kathy Garver knows all about this. She played teenaged Cissy Davis on the sitcom classic, Family Affair, from 1966-1971.
Of course, there is a flip side to this phenom as well:
“My son will look at the television show and is startled to see me as a child,” she says, “because he never thought that I would be that age. The tricks of the mind!”
Our minds may not have moved on from imagining Kathy as that iconic Sixties teenager with the endless capacity for hairdos, but Kathy sure has moved on: She now lives in the Napa Valley, and is an accomplished actor, a UCLA graduate, and teaches audiobook narration. She also lends her magnificent voice to audiobooks and other voiceover projects.
But first, the hairdos:
“It was really fun for me,” she says of her Family Affair looks. “I’m a real girl’s girl. I love to have my hair done and I love wearing pretty clothes. I loved having my hair up, I loved having my hair to the side. I didn’t realize that I was hair hopping. I didn’t have the same thing as Mr. French, who always wore the same thing, or Anissa [Jones, who played Buffy], who always wore her hair in ponytails. There was some [fashion and cultural] change as I was growing up, but they never let me wear super miniskirts. It added to the agelessness and timelessness of the show.”
Family Affair made Kathy a teen idol, but when the series premiered in the mid-Sixties, she was already an acting veteran, appearing in countless TV shows and commercials, as well as an obscure, quickly forgotten little film: Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments.
“[DeMille] picked me out of a crowd of hundreds,” she recalls of her Commandments audition for one of the young slaves. “With these great big epics, there was something that he also wanted to tell, and it was the story of each character. Because often when these grandiose films happen, we often get lost, as we do today, in the special effects. He picked me out to help engender humanism that people would see and connect with. I’m very grateful to him for doing that.”
What would the legendary director think of Kathy today, with her long resume and layers of success? Kathy is pretty confident that he would say, “I knew it!”
Variety is the spice of her life, and this eclectic quality is also the style of her memoir, Surviving Cissy. She explains it his way: “My life has been eclectic, and I do jump around [in the book]; that’s what I do in my life. There are so many aspects, but I think that’s true of everybody’s life. I have a Type A personality and I like to do a lot of different things. I get bored easily, so I love to live my life to the fullest and really grab all the interesting things that I can.”
One of those accomplishments include voiceover, where her Beatrix Potter tales have sold over two million copies. She’s also lent her voice to countless animation projects and audiobooks.
“It really is fun,” she says. “I teach audio narration, how to do characters. I won all these awards narrating books. I majored in speech at UCLA. My family was from Oklahoma, although I wasn’t. I remember very vividly in a speech class, I was reading something and the instructor said, ‘well, you’re saying sayin‘.’ It really takes stepping back and listening to yourself when you are pronouncing words. I love the voiceover career. I have my own little studio, which enables me to do auditions and put them on mp3s and send them into the ether or actually record audiobooks at home. It’s the type of career that can be interspersed with other things.”
Of course, as busy as her current life is, with her husband and adult son, she is remembered — and reminded — constantly about that little job she held about forty years ago. Family Affair holds up because of its aesthetic beauty and tranquil vibe, as well as the sentimental story lines that would get lost in today’s snark-filled, overcrowded TV landscape.
“Family Affair was great because we primarily shot on film,” she says. “Everything was softer and gentler.”
For star Brian Keith, who played Uncle Bill, the deal was sweet.
Kathy explains, “It was different from the shows of today in that Brian Keith was offered this deal to shoot everything that he was going to be in within like 35 days, for 32 episodes. And then he was off to do the movies. So we had to shoot scenes from maybe four different shows in one day, everything that he was in. It was kind of specific and peculiar. Fred MacMurray on My Three Sons had the same deal. They made the same deal with Henry Fonda [The Smith Family] and John Forsythe [To Rome, With Love]. But by the time those shows were coming along, television was heading more toward realism and video.”
Which brings Kathy to share a little-known tale about Family Affair‘s demise as The Brady Bunch took shape.
“We did not know that Family Affair was not going to be on for a long time,” she says. “As a matter of fact, [series producer] Don Fedderson had gone to ABC and offered them the show. They were just about to sign, and then [Brady Bunch producer] Sherwood Schwartz had this new show with more kids and this little girl [Susan Olsen, who played Cindy Brady] who looks just like a younger Buffy. So they opted for The Brady Bunch over the aging Family Affair. And we were off to do other things.”
As with most long-running-series veterans, the adjustment was not always smooth.
“I’m an actor and I love a steady job,” she says. “You get a job, and then it’s over. Then you have to go and get another job.”
Easier said than done, especially for Kathy’s on-screen younger sister, Anissa Jones, who played Buffy. Her post-Family Affair life was racked with pain, drug abuse and the wrong friends. Anissa died of a drug overdose in 1976.
“On her 18th birthday, I went to her birthday party,” Kathy recalls. “Her mom took me aside and said, ‘Kathy, can you spend some more time with Anissa because I really think she’s in with a bad crowd.’ And that crowd was taking drugs. So I said, ‘I certainly would. I love Anissa.’ Unfortunately, the next day, I was going back home to do a musical for two months. During that time is when I got the call that she had died. It’s just heartbreaking. Some people have addictive personalities and cannot break those chains of addiction. It’s not just child stars, but for a lot of our population, we have to find some way to help that particular malady.”
Unlike many child stars, Kathy did not fall victim to drug abuse.
“I’m on the edge as it is,” she says, “and I don’t need anything to perk me up. If anything, I have a little glass of wine, a little Chardonnay. I live near Napa. I take a little bit to relax. I love to sip Chardonnay and I cook a lot. But I can’t take drugs.”
How about a little life philosophy?
“You know what? We get through things,” she says. “I tell myself, ‘I am just going to get through this.’ God does not give us more than we can handle. And I believe that life goes in cycles. It makes you much stronger when you get over those obstacles, and so many other things just lose their importance. Bigger things take one’s attention.”
Find out more about Kathy here.
Check out Kathy’s book here.