Kathy Garver managed to impress the legendary producer Cecil B. DeMille as a child in 1956’s “The Ten Commandments,” but it was one sitcom that forever changed her life.
The actress is fondly remembered as Catherine “Cissy” Patterson-Davis in the hit TV series “Family Affair,” which starred Brian Keith, John Whitaker, Sebastian Cabot, as well as child star Anissa Jones. The show aired from 1966 until 1971. After that, she has kept busy pursuing her passion for entertainment and even chronicled her adventures in a memoir titled “Surviving Cissy.”
Garver spoke to Fox News about how she got the iconic role, befriending Jones before her tragic passing and whether a so-called sitcom curse really exists:
Fox News: You released your memoir a few years ago. Looking back, what compelled you to come forward?
Kathy Garver: I was actually working on it for many years. Then I got an agent... If you have a deadline, that really helps you get it out there. I also took some classes in memoir writing, and I had to produce pages each week. That also helped me. I was able to meet the deadline and get it out there, and it has been seemingly very well indeed.
Fox News: How did you get the role in “Family Affair”?
Garver: Well, I had been working as a child for a long time, since I was 8 years old. From “Ten Commandments” and “Night of the Hunter” all the way up. When this audition came along, I was at UCLA and Pi Phi in the sorority. My agent says, "They are looking for a girl with blonde hair and about your age." I was a little older than they were looking, but they always like someone over 18. I was supposed to be 15 on this show, but as an 18-year-old I was looked at as an adult. I could work longer hours.
So, here I was. I had dark hair at the time, and my mom comes over and she sprays my hair with this streaks and tips kinds of things that they had in the late ‘60s. It instantly turns your hair a different color. In this, we were looking for a blonde. Well, it turned out to be gold. I felt like I had this helmet of gold on, like something out of “Goldfinger.” I was talking with the producer and she said, "What's wrong with your hair? …it's turning green." It was quite embarrassing, but it broke the ice and we laughed. That was the beginning of a long affair with the CBS family.
Fox News: What was your relationship like with the cast?
Garver: We liked each other a lot, and we got along very well. Of course, when you're with somebody all day, it's nice to go home to your own family, so we didn't spend a lot of time outside of work. Anissa [Jones] came over to my house a couple of times and spent the night. But it was a really good professional, warm, working relationship.
Fox News: What caused the show to end?
Garver: I think there was a change in the times. We'd been on for five years. Then in the early ‘70s, they were going towards more of a realistic kind of show. Our sitcom was a dramedy, and they wanted something like “All in the Family” instead of “Family Affair.”
Given that though, our producer was going away from CBS, which was our network. He went to ABC, and he was just about to sign on the dotted line to transfer “Family Affair” to ABC when they got another show that was very similar to ours, which was “The Brady Bunch.” They had six kids. If you look at “The Brady Bunch” the first year, you see the youngest child has her hair in little ponytails just like Anissa and is carrying around a little doll. She's admitted, and they have admitted, they were trying to emulate Anissa and her success, as well as our success with the show.
Fox News: Anissa Jones passed away when she was just 18. How did you cope with that?
Garver: Not well. It was such a tragedy. I had gone to her 18th birthday party, and her mom had said, "Kathy, I wish you'd spend some more time with Anissa because I really think that she's in with a bad group of people.” Also, we had seen that they were taking drugs. But at that time, I was leaving the next day to go for six weeks to do a “My Fair Lady” musical on the East Coast. It was during that time, just about three weeks later, when I was notified that she, unfortunately, had died.
I had an interview on the show called “Autopsy.” Because there was always the question of "did she commit suicide or did she just take an overdose?" This show, I thought, without being exploitive or macabre, really did a whole autopsy in a forensic way, because they had a forensic pathologist. … And it was an overdose. They concluded that, and I believe that. She was a darling little girl and a lovely teenager, and I don't think she would have taken her own life. During the circumstances and how many drugs she took, and she was little — that was just too much for her little body to handle.
Fox News: Do you remember the last time you spoke to her?
Garver: Yes, that was after her 18th birthday party. She was fine and happy to see me and enjoying her party in Playa del Rey. It was at her house with her friends. It was just ... You see today with all the opiates, all the drugs. I lost two of my friends, their sons, in the same year from that fentanyl, about four or five years ago. And it's just tragic.
Fox News: What’s one memory of Brian Keith that still sticks out to you?
Garver: It was when Robert Kennedy was assassinated. I was just so upset. Yet he was just so comforting. He gave me a hug and was just so understanding. It's unfortunate that sometimes something that's very tragic can bring people together, but he was very supportive. He was a very warm, warm and sensitive man. At the same token, being a very macho guy. It was a great combo.
Fox News: What about Sebastian Cabot?
Garver: Probably when I had dinner at his house. He had invited me over to have dinner with his family. It's so funny because his character was so together and stern, and when he was on the set, he was very professional and he would be looking at every line to make sure he got them. So when I get to his house, it's very, very comfy and he's got on just ... Not a sweatshirt, but that kind of slouchy material and was cooking. It was just a warm kind of atmosphere and setting to be in. He loved his wife and his children. That's my clearest memory of him. A family man.
Fox News: What do you make of this rumor about a so-called "Family Affair” curse because of all the unfortunate deaths associated with the show?
Garver: I don't think there's any curse. But if one can put something in a single word or a single sentence, that I think explains the unexplainable to many people. No, of course, there's not a curse, but for some people, coincidences or different lifestyles that happened to people. So, I don't think it's a curse.
Fox News: Have you stayed in touch with John Whitaker?
Garver: No, not really. We're living two kinds of different lives, and I just moved down to Los Angeles. I had been living in San Francisco, just south of it for a long time…. So, geographically I didn't see him and although I kept working in the entertainment business and he didn't, he had kind of a drug alcohol problem that he admits. But he was able to get off drugs and he became a drug counselor, which is really good. I'm not into drugs at all, so it's just that we didn't converge. We really don't see each other very often, if at all.
Fox News: It sounded like after “Family Affair,” you pursued theater more.
Garver: After the show, I went to Israel to do an Israeli version of “Family Affair” in a musical comedy on stage. I learned Hebrew for this role, and it was really fun. After that, I just went segue from Israel up to London, where I studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. When I returned from that stint, it was really at the height of dinner theater, and they were really big. So I just kept starring in different kinds of comedies and dinner theater there after my Shakespearean experience. I found that lots of fun and very much to my liking.
Then I started doing a lot of voiceovers and animation. I also teach voiceover and I tell my students, "If you want to sustain a successful career in the entertainment business, develop all the skills you can in all of the different areas." … And truthfully I just keep busy as much as possible.
Fox News: Life sounds pretty good for you.
Garver: I've been married for 36 years and I have a 28-year-old son … who is a fabulous cook, so we cook a lot together… He taught me. I'm learning from my son how to cook some more because I measure everything and have to have everything correctly. He'll go into the kitchen and cook something very nice. It’s been really fun. … I work, have a glass of wine, make dinner and spend time with my husband.
Fox News: You’re also doing a new play called “Dinner at Five.” What’s that like?
Garver: … It's a delightful sitcom play, and it stars four classic TV stars. Chris Knight from “The Brady Bunch.” … Also in our task is the Soup Nazi from "Seinfeld" and Caryn Richmond, who was in “The New Gidget.” And of course, me. … People are just delighted by it. It’s just a really nice thing to do.
Fox News: What’s your relationship like with the cast?
Garver: Very good. It's always interesting doing a brand new play and working out some of the lines and working out the blocking. It's also very nice when you work with seasoned pros. Beyond everybody being known on television, they're all stage pros as well. We all come from different styles. It's interesting the way that we approach the characters. But it melds, and I think that also adds to the dynamic of it.
Fox News: What has kept you going as an actress?
Garver: Making money *laughs*.
Fox News: Your book implies that you survived playing Cissy. But do you miss her?
Garver: No. Because she's never left me. The whole character of Cissy was probably 80 percent of me anyway. My style of acting, my way of looking at acting ... I think you can't be anybody except for who you are. You can put on a character and you can change your hair and change your wardrobe, and change the way you speak. However, your heart and your spirit, always a major thing.
I think that that is maybe one of the reasons that someone can inspire others. That's the way someone can warm an audience. In my estimation, you can't be anybody except for the spirit that you are. So, Cissy never left me. I'm still her.