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Kathy Garver is most famous for her role as orphaned teenager Cissy Davis in the hit comedy Family Affair, which aired on CBS from 1966 to 1971. But Cissy was not Kathy's first role. In fact, by the time Family Affair premiered, Garver was already a Hollywood veteran who always seemed to play characters younger than her actual age. At 11, for example, she could pass for a 6 year old child when standing next to Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments. But young Miss Garver made her mark on the small screen too, appearing in over a dozen TV shows before she reached her teens. And while she excelled in comedies and dramas, Kathy's favorite roles were in Westerns, like The Rifleman, The Big Valley, and Daniel Boone.
KG: I love Westerns. I'm a cowgirl at heart, and I love to be outside. And I love animals, and so it was really fun for me to ride the horses and to be shooting outside instead of being in a stuffy studio. It was just a delight. I also liked the stories and I liked the people. I liked it when men were men and women were women (laughs) and we were all forging forth. I'm an adventurer and a romantic, so all of that mixed together to make me really like Westerns.
Kathy liked Western stars, too, so it's no surprise that she had great chemistry with Family Affair patriarch Brian Keith, himself a veteran of TV and movie Westerns. But in order for CBS to land Keith as Bill Davis, bachelor uncle to Cissy and her younger siblings Jody (Johnny Whitaker) and Buffy (Anissa Jones), the tiffany network had to pay Brian a big salary, give him a piece of the profits, and make him a promise that he would only have to work 29 days a year. That last condition was great for Keith, but not so much for Garver and the rest of the crew.
JL: It's hard enough to learn lines for one show, but due to Brian's schedule, you had to keep 32 episodes in your head at once. What was that like?
KG: Well that was a challenge (laughs). It was one of those things that one learns to live with. In reality though, I think it was more of a test for the wardrobe ladies' abilities to try and match things. There was this one episode (season 3, eps. 27 Flower Power) a hippie episode that we shot during Brian's 29 day "visit" to our show, and I filmed in an outfit with this necklace, and we shot all of his scenes. Fast forward two months later, and I had taken some of my wardrobe home. Well, I didn't realize we were picking up that scene, and I didn't have the necklace with me. So poor Thelma, our wardrobe lady, had to speed out of there and go all around Hollywood. She did not find the same necklace, but it was quite similar, and if you have an eagle eye, you'll see it on that episode.
Despite a challenging work schedule, though, Garver recalls her time on Family Affair with great fondness.
JL: What made Family Affair so popular and so enduring?
KG: Classic story lines. We had fabulous writers on our series including Edmund Hartmann who oversaw the scripts, and was also President of The Writers Guild, and had written wonderful movies. But it was the classic story line of, here's the problem, how are we going to solve it? Then there's the climax, and the denouement. We also had wonderful actors. And it endured because it was something to which anybody could relate to today, no matter what kind of family you have. And the characters all loved each other, so love to me is all enduring, classic, and will be around forever.
Nevertheless, Family Affair was canceled by CBS after five seasons. ABC was then poised to pick up the popular show for a sixth season, but went with a new family comedy instead. That new sitcom was The Brady Bunch. Kathy was disappointed, but not deterred.
KG: I think everyone was kind of surprised because it was not expected. But then you say, "OK it's time for the next move." I had graduated college, so I thought, "Should I be a lawyer? Should I do a play? Should I go back and work in films?" So I was ready for my next step.
That next step included more TV and film jobs, and a career in voice-over work. Kathy has also written a book titled Surviving Cissy: My Family Affair of Life in Hollywood, which is being released in September. She sent me an advance copy of the book which is chocked full of entertaining stories, like the time she appeared alongside Burt Reynolds on Hollywood Squares.
JL: Burt asked you to spend the weekend with him, but you turned him down. Why?
KG: Dumb (laughs). He was darling and he was nice. Maybe I was a little afraid, a little timid. I don't think I was ready to make that next big step, spending the weekend with a movie star, no matter how appealing.
That kind of maturity and restraint was an indication of how well rounded and well grounded Kathy was, despite her celebrity status.
JL: You wrote in your book that you never wanted to be a star, that you just wanted to be a working actress. So how did you stay so level headed? And how did you avoid the tragedies that had befallen so many other young actors, including Anissa who died of a drug overdose at 18?
KG: It was my parents who did not spend all my money, but saved it all for me. It was my education. I went to school and found out there's more to the world than just acting. I learned how to control my finances so I wouldn't spend $2,000 on a pair of shoes, then when a series is canceled, not have any money. And I invested wisely. And it was not doing drugs.
These days when Kathy's not acting or teaching other actors the art of voice-over, she is a popular fixture at nostalgia events, such as the upcoming Western Film Fair in Winston-Salem.
KG: I love to meet the people at those events. It's a real ego boost when someone says, "Oh I watched you on Family Affair. It was my favorite show!"
So it's kind of nice. I like that.
Yes, but do Kathy's fans know she was really 21 years old while playing Cissy as a 16 year old?
JL: You're famous for being able to play characters who are younger than you are in real life. Since you look so young, will you be playing 90 year olds when you're 100?
KG: (laughs) I hope so, Jim. I can only hope.
Surviving Cissy can be pre-ordered from Amazon.com. The Western Film Fair runs from July 8-11. For more information, visit www.westernfilmfair.com