Read an excerpt from the Kathy Garver memoir
The actress offers a look into her life on the 1960s sitcom 'Family Affair' and beyond in 'Surviving Cissy: My Family Affair of Life in Hollywood.'
Read to Me
From 1966 to 1971, Kathy Garver portrayed Cissy on Family Affair, the cherished sitcom about a bachelor and his English butler raising his three orphaned children on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Garver made for one of the most memorable teenagers of 1960s television.
The actress continued to have a fruitful career beyond the series, especially in the world of voice acting. Garver gave life to animated characters in cartoons such as Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, Fonz and the Happy Days Gang, The Richie Rich/Scooby-Doo Show and many others. She continues to work in television, film, audiobooks and more.
Now Garver, one of just two surviving cast members of Family Affair, is looking back on her life and work with a memoir, Surviving Cissy: My Family Affair of Life in Hollywood. The book provides a behind-the-scenes look at Family Affair and offers insight into the life of a young actor who made it from young sitcom star to seasoned veteran.
Naturally, Garver recorded the audio book as well, and you can listen to a clip with this link.
Garver was studying at UCLA when she earned her role on Family Affair. We begin our excerpt there…
It was my third year as a student at UCLA; I was sharing a room at the Pi Beta Phi sorority with my good friend and the president of the house, Sandy Blue. At 2:00 p.m., the phone suddenly jangled me out of my concentrated study, having reread paragraph one in my Psych 101 textbook three times. Half-falling out of my single bunk, I stumbled over to the prized private phone, courtesy of my roommate’s vaulted political position. I mumbled a hoarse, “Hello?”
Hazel McMillan, my theatrical agent, excitedly told me she had an audition for me. It was for a new television series called Family Affair. The show had already been sold to CBS, thirty-two episodes, an interesting anomaly in show business where pilots are usually made and then hawked.
Now fully alert, I listened raptly as Hazel explained the setup. It seemed simple: A bachelor uncle and his valet live in a posh penthouse in the sophisticated city of New York. Suddenly they become caretakers of the bachelor’s two orphaned nieces and a nephew from the countrified town of Terre Haute, Indiana. The show was cast except for one remaining family member. The front office had to quickly complete the main cast with a blond teenager. The producer wanted to see me that afternoon.
There was a slight problem: I wasn’t blond, and I wasn’t a teenager. Well, I am blond now, but back then, my hair was a very dark brown. It was panic time. But I was sure my mother had the solution; or rather she had the can. That’s right, an aerosol can of Streaks and Tips. Streaks and Tips was the name of a sticky spray in the Sixties that, spattered onto the hair, would instantly change its color.
I confidently told Hazel that yes, of course, I would be there for my appointment at 4:00 p.m.
I quickly called my mom and asked her to hurry over with a can to the sorority house from her home twenty minutes away; we had to be across town in two hours. Rushing to the drugstore to buy the aerosol, my mother then sped to the sorority, fully armed. I held my hands like a double salute to my forehead so that the streaky substance would not get into my eyes or dye my eyelashes blond. Thus protected, I peeked as my mother then attacked me and my short hair with professional velocity. She quickly moved the spray to and fro, painting glistening, golden streaks onto my brunette locks. The dark curls eventually lightened, but it seemed as if a steel helmet had been plastered to my head; my Vidal Sassoon do was immovable to the touch, and I felt like one of the gilded characters from the James Bond movie Goldfinger.
I dressed as young as I could in my best preppy outfit; my character was supposed to be fifteen years old. I had just turned twenty. I felt that I could pass as a teenager, though. I was still going up to Mammoth Mountain in California on weekends, scrunching low at the ticket office and buying a twelve-and-under child’s ski-lift ticket. Who can tell one’s real age under all those bulky layers? Having a baby face and being five-foot-one also helps.
The producers wanted someone older who could play younger—always a plus for productions, because once a juvenile hit the magical age of eighteen, he or she could work the hours of an adult and not be restricted by the child labor laws. I planned on telling them I was eighteen.
I hurriedly put on my maroon crewneck wool sweater and matching skirt as my mother urged me to “make haste slowly,” and we then sped away from the comforting pastel sorority house. Next it was time to fight the traffic from Westwood to Hollywood and meet with Edmund Hartmann, one of the creators and producers of Family Affair. Virginia Martindale, the efficient casting director, had hired me for several previous roles and knew my skills; Hazel had confidently coaxed her into having me go “direct to producer.” The powers that be were anxious to find a perfect girl quickly for the starring role of the teenage Catherine Patterson Davis.
So, there I was in Mr. Hartmann’s office with my resplendent streaked hair. The pleasant secretary had escorted me in and left with a smile. I sat nervously, and Mr. Hartmann started chatting with me. He then executed an almost comical double take and asked, “What’s wrong with your hair?”
“My hair?” I garbled innocently.
“Yes,” he said. “It’s turning green!”
Realizing that Ed Hartmann was not doing a female remake of The Boy with Green Hair, I chuckled a little and then too brightly said, “Oh, it must be the light.”
I’m sure I was quite a colorful sight, with my yellow hair and red face. But the rigid golden bouffant broke the ice, and Mr. Hartmann and I started laughing and chatting, and he liked me a lot.
The next day, Hazel called again. She informed me that the producers and casting director had decided to order a screen test for me. Next week, I was to report to Desilu Studios, where they were shooting the pilot episode. In the interim, I was to go to Max Factor (the premier beauty salon and supply store in Hollywood) to be fitted with a hairpiece and then to wardrobe to be fitted with a dress. The hairstylist chose a long blond wig for me. The wardrobe mistress selected a frilly blue cotton dress. I felt and most likely looked like adventurous Alice, about to go down the rabbit hole into Wonderland.
The following week, my mother drove me to Desilu Gower Studios, not Wonderland, for my screen test. On set, I wandered around the fabricated living room looking at the various paintings on the faux walls, as Alice had examined her new surroundings in the rabbit warren. I admired the expensive furniture that had been chosen to decorate the interior of the luxurious penthouse apartment where Bill Davis would be residing with his manservant.
During a break in the shooting, director James Sheldon, with whom I had previously worked on The Patty Duke Show and The Bing Crosby Show, interviewed me on camera. I believe the producers basically wanted to see my personality. They had already viewed the TV episode of Death Valley Days in which I had starred the year previous. In that show, I had played the young Isadora Duncan opposite June Lockhart. I was eighteen, playing a twelve-year-old. I’m sure the Family Affair producers thought that if I could play a twelve-year-old, I could certainly play a believable fifteen-year-old, and they had told Hazel they thought I was an excellent actress, a review with which she heartily concurred. Now, could I follow direction and carry on an intelligible conversation?
Mr. Sheldon had observed me touring the set and asked me what I had seen. I told him I admired the artwork and we got into a lively discussion about creativity. He then asked what my acting experience was. With over sixty television shows, forty commercials, eight feature films, and several stage plays to my credit since I began in the business, I had lots to talk about. It helped to have had three years of college under my preppy belt and look fifteen.
Now the wait.
Hazel called the next day. I quickly dove for the phone in my room at the Pi Phi house. My agent triumphantly told me that not only had I been cast in my second role on the TV show This Is the Life (also cast by Virginia Martindale), but . . . had landed the starring role of the regular part of Cissy in the new CBS television series Family Affair. Giving a quick leap of joy, I let out a sudden small scream, which brought girls in various states of dress racing and chattering to my door.
“Shh,” I told them. Hazel was still talking.
“There is a caveat,” my proficient agent interjected.
“What?” I asked nervously.
“The producers love you,” Hazel informed me. “But they requested that you never wear that blond wig or that blue dress again!”
I heartily chanted, “No problem!”
All the girls echoed, “No problem!”
It was a very good day. And in my growing spiritual connections, it was interesting to me that a religious show, This Is the Life, was coupled with a series that was destined to become a beloved classic and make me a cultural icon.