Family Affair: When Indiana and New York Collide

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 cast of Family Affair Photo: decades.com

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.

Cast with Mrs. Beasley. Photo: tvseriesfinale.com

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.

Keith with his youngest costars Photo: closerweekly.com

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.

The Reboot Photo: imdb.com

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.

The Many Roles of Brian Keith

We are right in the middle of our “Men of November” blog series, and today we spend some time getting to know a prolific television and film star, Brian Keith.

Photo: wikipedia.com

Brian Keith (Robert Alba Keith) was born in 1921 in New Jersey. His parents were both actors. They divorced shortly after his birth and at age 2, he moved to Hollywood and made his acting debut in a silent film, Pied Piper Malone, at the age of three.

While his mother was relocating for stage and radio work, his grandmother raised him on Long Island, New York.

His father remarried in 1927, but his second wife, Peg Entwistle, was involved in a tragic incident which is one of the Hollywood legends. She committed suicide by jumping of the H of the iconic Hollywood sign.

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Photo: pinterest.com

After high school graduation, Keith joined the US Marine Corps from 1942-5. He served as a machine gunner and received an Air Medal.

In an interview with the Press and Sun-Bulletin in 1966, Keith related that he had no intention of becoming an actor. He had a passion for a career at sea and wanted to go to school at the Merchant Marine Academy. He said unfortunately, “You can’t be a ship’s officer without passing a few math courses and I came up with a big fat zero in algebra. In fact, no matter how many times I repeated the course, it still came up zero. So, it was goodbye Navy career.”

After the war, Brian decided to follow in his parents’ footsteps and made his Broadway debut in 1948 in Mister Roberts. His father played Doc in the same production.

While working on television, Keith also began appearing on the big screen. During his career, he would he would make 65 movies. In the fifties he was in Storm Center with Bette Davis and The Young Philadelphians with Paul Newman.

Crusader Photo: sitcomsonline.com

While continuing to appear on the stage, television was starting to pull him in that direction. He was given his first television role in 1951 in Hands of Mystery. He did a variety of television work in the 1950s, starting off in more dramas and ending the decade in westerns. Last week we learned a bit about Gale Gordon. If you remember, Gale starred in a short-lived series called The Box Brothers, and Brian happened to be in one of those episodes in 1957. From 1955-56, he received a regular role on Crusader, making 52 episodes. He starred as Matt Anders, a journalist who, in the aftermath of his mother’s death in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II, travels the world to battle injustice.

The Westerner Photo: nostalgiacentral.com

Moving into the sixties, Keith continued his western appearances and was given the lead in Sam Peckinpah’s television series, The Westerner. Unfortunately, it only lasted for 13 episodes. Keith said that “only four or five of those were any good, but those four or five were as good as anything anybody has ever done.” He played Dave Blassingame, a cowboy drifter who sometimes does questionable things trying to earn enough money to buy a ranch, but in the end, always does the right thing.

The Parent Trap Photo: pinterest.com

It was also in the sixties that he began his connection with Disney, starring in The Parent Trap in 1961.

During this decade, he was offered a show of his own that he is probably best known for—Family Affair. From 1966-1971, he appeared as Bill Davis, an engineer, who takes in his two nieces and nephew when their parents are killed. Kathy Garver, Anissa Jones, and Johnny Whitaker played the kids and Sebastian Cabot was Mr. French, who helped raise the children. Keith received three Emmy nominations for Best Actor in a Comedy Series, but lost to Don Adams for Get Smart from all three years, 1967-1969, (In 1968 Sebastian Cabot was also nominated for Best Actor and the show was nominated for Best Comedy in 1968 and 1969, losing to Get Smart.)

Photo: dailytimes.com

Brian received the same type of contract as Fred MacMurray did in My Three Sons. It allowed him to tape his work in two-three months, leaving three-quarters of the year for traveling, relaxation, and film work.

With Six You Get Eggroll Photo: pinterest.com

During the series’ run, he continued to make films including With Six You Get Eggroll with Doris Day.

The Brian Keith Show Photo: pinterest.com

When Family Affair ended, it set off a rapid production of shows starring Keith, most of them with short runs. The Brian Keith Show was on air from 1972-74; Keith was pediatrician Dr. Sean Jamison and worked with his daughter played by Shelly Fabares. Keith said he accepted the role because the show was produced by Garry Marshall and it was shot in Hawaii.

Photo: amazon.com

In 1974 he accepted the lead in a six-part miniseries, The Zoo Gang about a group of underground French resistance fighters. In 1975 we saw him in Archer, a television series about a detective which also ran only six episodes. Keith described Archer as “an underdog. He gets beaten. He’s no superhuman. He drives a broken-down Mustang. He’s not particularly fond of the finer things in life. Music is noise to him, painting is decoration, sculpture is ‘that stuff’ and he doesn’t read books.”

Hardcastle and McCormick
Photo: pinterest.com

In 1983, Keith co-starred with Daniel Hugh Kelly in Hardcastle and McCormick. Keith portrayed a retired judge Milton Hardcastle while Kelly was ex-con Mark McCormick. The duo team up because the ex-judge was tired of people getting off on technicalities. The show was on the air for three years.

Photo: sitcomsonline.com

The following year, he began a stint on The Pursuit of Happiness which only lasted for ten episodes. In a different role for him, he played Professor Roland Duncan who taught at a small college in Philadelphia.

Photo: sitcomsonline.com

1989 found him on Heartland which was also cancelled after ten episodes. On this show, Keith played BL McCutcheon, an older farmer who loses his farm and moves in with this daughter and her family, a bit of a rural Archie Bunker.

During the 1990s, Keith showed up on a variety of shows including Young Riders, Evening Shade, Major Dad, Cybill, Pacific Blue, and Walker Texas Ranger. He tried his hand at one more sitcom, starring in Walter and Emily. After 13 episodes, the show was finished. Keith is Walter Collins. He and his wife Emily (Cloris Leachman) help raise their grandson while their son Matt travels for his sports writing career.

Keith lived on a 200-acre ranch in Redlands, California. Brian had a lot of hobbies including golfing, swimming, cooking, sailing, horseback riding, spending time with his family, painting, and reading. When asked about whether he wanted to live a long life, he said, “If I live to be a hundred—and I hope I do—I won’t have time to read all the books I want to read or talk to the people I want to know. Not party talk. That’s a waste of time. Real talk.”

While Keith had a successful career, his personal life was not as sunny. He was married three times to Frances Helm from 1948 to 1954, to Judy Landon, an actress who made an appearance on Family Affair from 1954 till 1969, and to Victoria Young, another actress who showed up on The Brian Keith Show as a nurse, from 1970 till his death.

See the source image
Photo: pinterest.com

He also suffered from several physical problems. He had been a long-time smoker, and suffered from both emphysema and lung cancer. He had been a spokesperson for Camel Cigarettes in the 1950s but quit smoking in the late 80s.

Brian’s son, Michael died from pneumonia when he was eight. In 1997, his daughter Daisy committed suicide when she was 27. Daisy had also entered the acting profession and worked with her dad on Heartland. Daisy’s death and financial problems pulled Keith into a depression and he committed suicide in June of 1997.

Early in his career, Keith established a stereotype as the handsome, burly guy with the gruff voice, but he transitioned into that character who also had moments of warmth and humor.

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Photo: amazon.com

I love his performance in The Parent Trap, and I like to picture Keith as being Mitch in real life, a guy who loves his kids and his ranch and takes pleasure in a variety of outdoor activities but also savors reading on the porch.

Keith remained close to Maureen O’Hara, his costar in the Parent Trap as well as with Kathy Garver and Johnny Whitaker. (Anissa Jones died from a fatal overdose in 1976 at age 18.)

See the source image
Photo: pinterest.com

With more than 166 acting credits, Keith had a full and successful career and brought a lot of enjoyment to generations of fans during his six decades as an actor. He had to endure a lot of heartache off the camera. Both Family Affair and Hardcastle and McCormick are worth watching if you have a free weekend. You can also see a lot of amazing performances of his on the large screen.