This month we are celebrating some of our favorite television families. Many families were single parents in the classic age. In the fifties, Bentley Gregg, a wealthy attorney, raised his niece with his houseboy Peter on Bachelor Father. Fred MacMurray raised his three boys in 1960. In 1966 Bill Davis (Brian Keith), a wealthy engineer, raised his two nieces (6-year old Buffy played by Anissa Jones and 15-year old Cissy played by Kathy Garver) and Buffy’s twin, nephew Jody (Johnny Whitaker) with his valet Giles French (Sebastian Cabot) on Family Affair.
The show was on CBS until 1971, producing 138 episodes during its five-year run.
The kids grew up in Indiana and now have to adjust to an apartment in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Their uncle has to adjust from being a carefree bachelor to a parent of three children, and Mr. French’s quiet days are now noisy and full of small crises. The five of them become a family and learn rely on each other.
The show was created and produced by Don Fedderson and Edmund Hartman. Fedderson, who had been the creative force behind My Three Sons, sold the show to CBS without having to film a pilot.
There were a lot of similarities between the two shows. In addition to two single men bringing up the three siblings, their production schedules were similar. Fred MacMurray had been promised a schedule where all his filming was done in one or two blocks for the entire season. Likewise, Keith used two thirty-day blocks to shoot all of his scenes. Garver and Cabot probably had the hardest time filming. The kids could only work limited hours, so quite often when scenes required Cissy or Mr. French, they were talking to a “big paunchy guy from New York with a cigar in his mouth,” pretending to be one of the other cast members.
On My Three Sons, Dodi’s doll “Myrtle” was sold in toy stores. Buffy’s doll “Mrs. Beasley” was also sold to its youngest fans. Buffy often took the doll with her, and Mr. French was embarrassed when he had to “babysit” the doll. The 1967 Mrs. Beasley can still be found on sites like ebay, but be prepared to pay $500 for a doll in mint condition.
Frank DeVol who wrote the theme for MacMurray’s show also composed the instrumental song for Family Affair.
Glen Ford was offered the role of Uncle Bill; this may have been because he played a single father in the movie version of The Courtship of Eddie’s Father. When he turned it down, the production crew turned to Keith.
Uncle Bill and Mr. French did not become perfect parents instantly. Uncle Bill often lost his temper, and Mr. French was not accustomed to having his tidy bachelor pad look like a cyclone hit it. Unlike other single-parent shows, the kids’ deceased parents were mentioned often and were kept a part of their life.
Kathy Garver reminisced about Keith later in life. She said that he was very much like his character: “He had three adopted kids, two biological kids and loved kids . . . He was a gruff ex-Marine, but he had a heart of gold.”
Ironically, the show was canceled during the big rural purge despite the fact that it was set in Manhattan, and it continued to do well in the ratings. CBS did air the show in syndication daily from its end until 1973.
While the cast appeared to be very close, there was a lot of dysfunction among the cast members after the show went off the air. In 1976, Anissa Jones died from an overdose; Jody Whitaker had a lot of addiction problems but then turned his life around. Sebastian Cabot had a stroke and died in 1977. Brian Keith who was devastated by Jones’ overdose and his real daughter’s suicide, was diagnosed with cancer and took his own life in 1997. Garver and Whitaker, the only survivors, both have appeared on Broadway in the past decades.
Like almost every popular show from the sixties, this one was rebooted in 2002. It was on the WB for thirteen episodes. Gary Cole took on the role of Uncle Bill while Tim Curry became Mr. French.
Garver has accepted that she will always be known for her role as Cissy. There was an announcement in 2019 that a show titled Aunt Cissy starring Garver was going into production. It was a Travis Hunt Production filmed in LA. It has its own Facebook site, but it does not look like it ever aired. Six episodes were filmed, but I have not found any other information about the series.
In addition to Mrs. Beasley, there was a lot of merchandise associated with the show. Gold Key Comics published four comic books in 1970 based on the series. You can also find lunch boxes, puzzles, coloring books, View Master reels, a board game, and even a piece of luggage.
Although the plots were quite simple, this show was a favorite for many families. It was a series the entire family could enjoy. Fans watched the kids grow up for the five years it was on the air. Although Uncle Bill was quite wealthy, the family never appeared to be a rich one. The kids kept their Indiana morals. When I was researching for this blog, I found a lot of fans expressing fond memories and giving heartfelt tributes, and that is a true legacy for any show.