Monday, July 13, 2015

An Interview with Kathy Garver on Family Affair, Her Voice Work, and Her New Autobiography

Actress Kathy Garver first achieved fame as Cissy in the classic TV sitcom Family Affair. Although it's her best known role, she has remained active in show business for an incredible 60 years (although she doesn't look it!).  She had recurring roles on Dr. Kildare and The Patty Duke Show prior to this classic sitcom. After Family Affair, she carved out a second career as a voice artist, recording dozens of audio books and providing the voices for characters such as Firestar in the animated TV series Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends. She still remains in demand as an actress and her autobiography, Surviving Cissy: My Family Affair of Life in Hollywood, was just released. She graciously agreed to be interviewed in between signing autographs for adoring fans at the Western Film Fair and Nostalgia Convention last week.

Café: You made your film debut in 1955's The Night of the Hunter at age 10. Do you have any memories of working on that classic?

Kathy Garver:  Yes. I was only 8. Don't make me older than I am, Rick (laughs). But it was fabulous. I discuss it in my book Surviving Cissy: My Family Affair of Life in Hollywood. Night of the Hunter was my debut in Hollywood. It was quite a debut with Charles Laughton directing his first and last picture, along with the stars Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, and Lillian Gish. Peter Graves was in it and so was Billy Chapin, the brother of Lauren Chapin who was in Father Knows Best. It was really a wonderful entrée into Hollywood and exciting. I was on the set for the whole film.

Café:  You appeared in four episodes of Dr. Kildare as Tracey Richards. Who was Tracey on the show and did you enjoy working with Richard Chamberlain?

Kathy Garver at the 2015 Western Film
Fair and Nostalgia Convention.
KG:  Tracey was a nurses' assistant. When I did that show, I had just started UCLA. My mother was a registered nurse so I had a special affinity for the character. Richard Chamberlain was very interesting. I saw him at an autograph show about a year ago. I kind of followed in his footsteps, in that after Dr. Kildare, he went to London, England, and attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. I thought: "Hmm, if Mr. Chamberlain can do it, so can I." After I graduated from UCLA, I went to London and went to the Royal Academy. It was really fabulous. It was another approach to acting and gave balance to it. I enjoyed that a lot. Fred Astaire was also in that four-episode storyline on Dr. Kildare--it was almost like a miniseries. You didn't have miniseries at that time. He was really delightful to work with.

Café:  On The Patty Duke Show, you played Patty's rival Monica Robinson in several episodes.

KG:  I probably did about five episodes--whenever they wanted Patty's friend to occur. Patty became a good friend. She wrote the foreward to my new book Surviving Cissy.

Café:  How did you come to be cast as Cissy on Family Affair?

KG:  I was going to UCLA. My agent called and said they're looking for a a blonde girl with blue eyes for this show in which they've already sold the pilot. Everyone is cast except the teenage sister and they are shooting the pilot next week. I say, OK, that's great but I have dark hair and dark eyes. So, I called my Mom and said: "Mom, what are we going to do?" She sped over to the sorority house with a a can of streaks and tips, and dyed my hair with the spray. It was like a solid helmet, but it was gold or yellow. It wasn't brown. When I talked with the producer, he said: "What's the matter with your hair? It's turning green." I laughed and tried to make a big joke out of it. But we got along great after that. I did the screen test and the rest is history.

Café:  How well did the Family Affair cast get along off screen?

The cast of Family Affair.
KG:  I was over 18 and I was there all day. The kids could only work eight hours and three hours were spent in school. Brian Keith had a special deal in which all his scenes had to be done in 29 days. Sebastian was not in that great of health. I was the workhorse from 6:30 in the morning to 6:30 or 7:00 at night. When you're with people that long, you like to go home to your own family. I really only spent time with Anissa (Anissa Jones played Buffy). I went to Sabby's (Sebastian Cabot) house for dinner a couple of times. We got along great when we were together.

Café:  Family Affair ran for five years (1966-71) and remains popular today. In fact, I know a blog that reviews a new episode every week. What do you think was the secret to its success?

KG:  That blog is Embarrassing Treasures? I love that blog. She's very good and gets these great pictures and puts them on her blog. I don't know how she gets such great renditions. Family Affair was popular and it stays popular for three or four different reasons mentioned in my book Surviving Cissy. We had fabulous writers that were primarily from film that did Abbott and Costello and Bob Hope pictures. Actually, our director for four years, Charles Barton, directed the Abbott and Costello shows as well as The Shaggy Dog. So, you get all of these fabulous talents to the small screen. We had classic stories that fare well today. You don't see that a lot on television. Family Affair was all about love. Oh, what a concept! You mean, people aren't putting people down, insulting them, or killing them? No, people were kind to each other. That was exemplified in the relationships among the characters. And it provided a space where people watching it could go into that cloud of love and stay there and soak it up. Sometimes, that cloud had tears. That was fine, too. A little water came down. The stories also had very classic development. They started out with a problem, reached a conclusion, and had an ending that was consistent. The audience would go there knowing what to expect. That's why people can watch it today and go: "Boy, I really can relate."

Café:  I'm sure you're asked this frequently, but what is your favorite episode of Family Affair?

The proposal in "Waltz from Vienna."
KG:  "Waltz from Vienna." First of all, I'm a quarter Austrian, as well as French, Irish, and Swiss. This episode was when we go to Vienna and a prince asked me to marry him and stupid Cissy said no. What's wrong with that girl, I sometimes wonder! I'm a romantic at heart. We got to wear beautiful gowns. That's my favorite episode.

Café:  I read where you once starred in an Israeli musical stage version of Family Affair. Can you tell us about that?

KG:  (sings a verse of a song in Hebrew) I learned how to speak Hebrew phonetically for this stage presentation that we did in Israel. It was all about faux Family Affair and they cast actors that looked like the characters. So, there was a Hebrew Mr. French, a handsome Uncle Bill, and two cute kids. And there I was playing my own part. It was a very big success in Israel.

Kathy Garver was the voice of Firestar.
Café:  When I mentioned I was interviewing you, a friend that works at the MovieFanfare blog said that half his co-workers recognized you first as the voice of Starfire on Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends. How did you get involved with doing voice work?

KG:  My agent was doing commercials and he sent me out on this first voiceover commercial. I think it was for tuna fish and my line was something like: "I like tuna fish." They told me to do it in a different voice and I said: "I like tuna fish." They said: "No, no, no. Different voice." So I said: "I like tuna fish." So, I didn't get the part, but it was a big lesson. I took voiceover lessons and I've had a big voiceover career. I've voiced over 60 audio books and I can say (using a very different voice) "I like tuna fish" in many different ways now.

Café:  You mentioned your autobiography Surviving Cissy: My Family Affair of Life in Hollywood, which has just been published. What inspired you to tell your story at this point in your career?

KG:  Well, I've been working on this book for ten years (laughs). I finally got to a point where I said: "Oh, I should really get this book out." I had previously composed The Family Affair Cookbook, which is already out and on Amazon. I took a class in writing, which further spurred me. Then, I got a book deal and an advance and (laughs) that spurred me to get it done.

Café:  Are there any upcoming projects that you want to tell our readers about?

KG:  Yes, I'll be doing two new series. One is The Comeback Kids and that is kind of a sitcom. And the other series is called Big Sky. It's an inspirational series, a Western set in the 1800s. I'm also doing a movie called Heaven With a Gun, set in that same time period. This is my year for Westerns. Besides that, next week I'm starting a movie called Unleashed with Sean Astin, which is about a girl's quest for romance. My character runs a rescue pet house. And I'm in another one called Helen's Last Chance next month, where I play a therapist. So, I have a lot coming out. My book is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Café:  Thank you so much, Ms. Garver.

KG:  Thank you, Rick.

You can learn more about Kathy Garver at her website:


  1. Busy lady!

    I remember the day after "Family Affair" first aired. It was the talk of the schoolyard!

  2. Brian Keith had a Fred MacMurray-like sweetheart deal on that shpw. Filmed most of his scenes all at once, to be integrated into the episodes. Wonder if she confirms the rumor that Mitchum directed a lot of the scenes with the kids in Night Of tHe Hunter.

  3. I adored Cissy on "Family Affair." She may have been my first crush! Sounds like Ms. Garver is still in demand. She still looks like Cissy!

  4. She sounds like a delightful person, and I'm so glad you/she gave a shout-out to the Embarrassing Treasures blog! Sounds like an interesting book, too. I'll watch for it.

  5. What a lovely interview, Rick! Ms. Garver still has the most beautiful smile. It was especially fun to read about the blonde spray that turned green. I am certain when it happened she must have been mortified! I am envious of her voice work because I think that would be quite fun.It was so kind of Ms. Garver to share her memories with everyone at the Cafe!