Kathy Garver was riding high as the perky teenager Cissy on the popular 1966-71 CBS sitcom “Family Affair.” But then the series ended and Garver found herself typecast as “this lovely, wholesome, sweet girl.”
She asked herself, “How do I go beyond that image to show this is a really good actress?”
It wasn’t easy.
Not long after “Family Affair” ended, Garver was mulling a job offer to be James Caan’s assistant on the 1971 film “T.R Baskin.” But when she discovered she was basically going to be his gofer on the set, Garver turned down the job.
Instead she got her master’s in theater arts at UCLA and attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. “I thought, ‘Maybe this will help.’ And it did in many ways. Not that I became a big star, but I have done some incredible parts in all aspects of the business.”
And after six decades, the 69-year-old actress is still going strong. Earlier this year, she appeared in the premiere of a new musical “River Song: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” in Tennessee, finished roles in two films and is set to appear in the feature western “Heaven With a Gun.” She’s also much in demand as a voice-over actress and teaches audio narration and voice-over.
Her recently published autobiography, “Surviving Cissy: My Family Affair of Life in Hollywood,” certainly isn’t a tell-all. Though Hollywood often devours child stars, Garver managed to avoid most of the pitfalls of growing up in front of the camera.
Her parents were a key to avoiding the pitfalls of many child stars.
“They were wonderful not only with moral support but also guiding me,” said Garver during a recent phone interview from the Bay Area, where she lives with her husband of 34 years, David Travis. “That is where I think a lot of the child stars go off the tracks. They don’t have that real guidance and psychological guidance.”
Her “Family Affair” costar Anissa Jones, who played her adorably winsome younger sister Buffy, died of a drug overdose i at the age of 18 in 1976.
“That was a real tragedy,” said Garver. “She got into the wrong crowd.”
Garver said her mother “was very financially savvy and found a house for my brother and I to buy as an investment property.” But Garver paid a price for not listening to her parents when they told her not to hire a money manager.
The manager ended up taking a lot of her money, Garver said. “I had to assert my newly found adulthood. That was a mistake.”
Garver began singing and dancing at the age of 3 when her parents enrolled her in the Meglin Dance Studio in Hollywood run by Ethel Meglin, who had trained a young Shirley Temple. Every year, Garver performed in the Meglin Kiddies variety act at the Shrine Auditorium.
When she was 8 her aunt told her mother that film producers were looking for a young girl for Charles Laughton’s 1955 classic “The Night of the Hunter” with Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters and Lillian Gish.
“My mother took me over and I met Charles Laughton,” noted Garver. “Sally Jane Bruce, who played the main character Pearl, was just 6 and really had no experience at all.... I primarily did all of her scenes except for close-ups. I was her stand-in, double and appeared at the end with Lillian Gish. It was a really a fascinating introduction to filmmaking.”
She also worked another legend — director-producer Cecil B. DeMille — on the 1956 epic “The Ten Commandments.”
DeMille, Garver noted, “was up in this great big crane. I was doing my scene. I heard this big voice — ‘Don’t let the little girl’s face get in the camera!’ I said, ‘Who is that?’ I thought he was God.”