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Building a 'Family'

12 May, 2006 By: Brendan Howard

Anissa Jones (L) and Brian Keith on

In 1966, “My Three Sons” executive producer Don Fedderson began casting for a heartwarming CBS sitcom that would buck the societal and political turmoil of the late 1960s. It would show a loving, if unconventional, family working out their problems with little meanness.

Globetrotting single architect Bill Davis and his stodgy English butler, Mr. French, learned to live with and care for three children orphaned by the tragic auto-accident deaths of Davis' sister and brother-in-law.

It was a crazy way to bring together a family, and Fedderson's casting turned out to be a little crazy, too, according to “Family Affair” co-star Kathy Garver.

Fedderson snagged Brian Keith (1961's The Parent Trap) to play swinging bachelor Davis by offering to cram in a season's worth of work each year into 29 days so Keith could continue his film career. Filling the shoes of Davis' English butler met with a snag when their Mr. French found out he'd have to work with children — no go. Once Sebastian Cabot took that role, 8-year-old Anissa Jones became young Buffy, with her famous Mrs. Beasley doll in tow. Looking for an older brother, Keith recommended 6-year-old Johnny Whittaker, who was changed to Buffy's twin. An actress for 15-year-old Cissy was cast, and everything was ready to go.

But when “Cissy” gained 10 pounds on a trip to Europe, Fedderson was on the lookout for a new one. A couple of on-set screen tests later, and 18-year-old UCLA freshman Kathy Garver had the part.

“I'd just finished a show with June Lockhart, ‘Death Valley Days,' where I played a 12-year-old, so I could do an 18-year-old playing 15,” Garver said.

The show's first season hits DVD June 27 (prebook May 22) in a $39.98 five-DVD set from MPI Home Video. An interview with Garver appears on the set.

The show would run until 1971, rating among the top 5 for three years, Garver said. Even when its ratings weakened at CBS, ABC was ready to pick it up. That was until ABC executives talked among themselves and discovered a conflict.

“The person who was going to pick us up didn't realize they'd taken on ‘The Brady Bunch,’ she said. “Even the little girl wore pigtails [like Buffy].”

And just like that, it was done. Cabot died in 1977. Whittaker starred in some Disney productions, but eventually retired from the limelight to Salt Lake City, Utah. Jones retired from acting and lived quietly until a drug overdose at age 18. Keith continued his career until he took his own life in 1997. Garver finished at UCLA while she worked on the show, then went on to theatrical training in London. She reprised her role in stage productions of the show in Israel, of all places, and now does voiceover work and directs and reads for audio books.

Garver is glad the show is coming to DVD and has learned to appreciate how important the show was for people, even fielding questions about the lives and deaths of her co-stars.

“They live along with you, with what happens on the screen,” she said of the show's audience. “Especially when they see you in person, they're very concerned and upset. It's like one of their friends they knew so well, it's terrible they had to die this way. But they still want to see the show. It doesn't affect that.”

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