Family Affair was a much-loved ’60s sitcom – and among the first to use the “non-nuclear family” setup that would become so popular. But over the years, many of the show’s cast have met tragic ends. In fact, only two of its main actors are still alive. Now one of them, Kathy Garver, has opened up about this supposed “curse.”
Family Affair wasn’t Garver’s first role in a big production, mind you. As a child she appeared in 1956’s epic The Ten Commandments alongside Charlton Heston. And that experience set the stage for further forays into the world of show business.
Garver was actually 20 when she was cast as the 15-year-old Cissy in Family Affair. But despite the prospect of having to play a younger character, she was still keen to do the show. Garver had admired the work of Brian Keith, who would play her on-screen uncle, Bill Davis, since early childhood.
Things went pretty smoothly for the budding actress. Cissy and Garver were, fittingly, very similar in their cheerfulness and positivity. And Garver was lucky to have good family support to help her adjust to life as a young star. “I fortunately had the guidance of two very supportive parents, and I had two brothers and sisters all on whom I could rely,” she told Parade in 2014.
Keith, meanwhile, was also similar to his on-screen character. “Brian Keith was so much like Uncle Bill,” Garver recalled while appearing on Oprah: Where Are They Now in 2016. “He had three adopted children besides his own two children. So he always had a wonderful fond place in his heart for all children.”
The other two kids on the show – both played by actual children – were Johnny Whitaker’s Jodie and Anissa Jones’ Buffy. They, too, got on well with the cast, particularly Sebastian Cabot, who played Uncle Bill’s valet, Giles French. Nonetheless, the actors’ work schedule was often long and difficult over the years.
The series ran from 1966 to 1971 – and it might have gone on for longer had it not become a victim of CBS’ “rural purge” in the early ’70s. This saw CBS and other networks cancel their rural-based family shows in an attempt to draw in urban audiences.
Once the show was finished, Garver continued to appear on screen as well as doing voice work for cartoons. She also remained on good terms with her co-stars, especially Brian Keith. But, sadly, it seems as though she was the only one who had any luck whatsoever once Family Affair ended.
Anissa Jones, who’d spent most of her career playing the archetypal cute little girl, unfortunately ended up turning to drugs once Family Affair was done. The actress subsequently dropped out of high school in 1975, and the following year, aged just 18, she died of a drug overdose.
Jones’ career as a child star and the manner of her death later landed her a small place in pop culture history. Canadian band The Diodes sang about her in their 1978 song “Child Star.” And five years later, Angel & The Reruns repeated the trick with “Buffy Come Back.”
Naturally, the tragedy surrounding Jones would have been enough to upset Family Affair fans on its own. It certainly upset Garver, who wrote about the experience in her 2016 book, X Child Stars: Where Are They Now?. But it was far from the only grim misfortune to befall a Family Affair actor.
Brian Keith’s daughter Daisy committed suicide in 1997, and her father seemingly couldn’t bear the loss. Knowing that he was reaching the end of his life anyway – Keith was undergoing chemotherapy for lung cancer at the time – he took his own life with a gun.
Keith left a suicide note that read, “Now it’s time for me to join our little Daisy. She needs me. She didn’t want to be without me here, so she’ll have me again over there.” However, Garver later stated that she believed the lung cancer diagnosis was the main factor in his decision.
Meanwhile, although Sebastian Cabot’s death wasn’t self-inflicted, he still died younger than he probably should have done. Having suffered from ill health throughout the filming of Family Affair, he passed away in August 1977, aged just 59, following a stroke.
The hardships didn’t end there, either. Just like his on-screen sister Jones, Johnny Whitaker, too, began taking drugs as he grew older. In the decade following his divorce in 1988, he became hooked on cocaine and saw his life spiral out of control. The addiction would ruin both his career and his finances.
“He was almost penniless after the show, and then he was depressed and divorced,” Garver said in an interview with Fox News. “He did drugs and alcohol, and his family said, ‘Look, you get off drugs and alcohol, or we’re going to divorce you as a family.’ So he did, and now he helps people get off drugs.”
Whittaker subsequently became a drugs counselor at the Tarzana Treatment Centers in California’s San Fernando Valley. He also started a non-profit for Spanish-speaking substance abusers and performs volunteer work with the homeless.
“The only people left from the original cast,” Garver stated on Oprah: Where Are They Now, “are Johnny Whittaker and me.” But the production team had a surprise up their sleeves. They’d been in touch with Whittaker, who hadn’t seen Garver in years, and subsequently reunited the pair on the show.
With the cameras rolling, Whitaker told Garver that he was sorry if his past behavior had hurt her in any way. What’s more, she accepted his apology. “I want the future to be as positive as possible,” Whitaker said. “Heck, we’ve got 50 years together.”
At the time of writing, Garver is 72 and hopefully still has plenty of her life ahead of her. She has a loving family, too; she had her son at the age of 45 and has said that she greatly enjoys being an older mother. And she even continues to get fan mail about her work on Family Affair. So perhaps there wasn’t a curse, after all – just a long run of tragedy that eventually came to an end.