Today is the birthday of Brian Keith (1921-1997). Keith’s was an interesting and memorable presence on screens big and small, somewhere between a leading man and a character actor, mostly because he was a little too gruff and manly to go over big as a romantic lead. People older than me, I would imagine, might associate him with many westerns and war pictures, of which he made many without ever becoming a major marquee star. Much like Glenn Ford, though, who played similar kinds of roles, Keith made a secondary specialty out of playing fathers or father-figures, often single parents trying to juggle career, love life and raising kids in rapidly changing late 20th century society. For someone of my age, this is PRIMARILY what we associated Keith with, for he played Uncle Bill on Family Affair from 1966 through 1971 (and in syndicated re-runs thereafter).
In the late 60s, there was a subgenre of shows and films about broken (or sometimes simply busy) families, with kids at least partially being raised by a servant or similar helper (who sometimes, in a sub-sub-genre) possessed magical powers!: Among these: Mary Poppins, Nanny and the Professor, My Three Sons, The Brady Bunch, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, etc etc etc. In Family Affair Keith, who had played a similar role in The Parent Trap (1961) and would do so again in With Six You Get Eggroll (1968), plays a swinging wealthy bachelor who suddenly gets saddled with raising his orphaned nephews and nieces, Buffy (Anissa Jones), Jody (Johnny Whitaker) and Cissy (Kathy Garver). Helping him navigate the chaos is his English Butler Mr. French (Sebastian Cabot). Uncle Bill was a civil engineer who always seemed to be coming home from engineering projects from all over the globe utterly exhausted. He’d sit there and rub his throbbing temples while Cabot related the latest atrocities the adorable children had committed. Cissy was the wayward teenager. Buffy and Jody were twins. Johnny Whitaker, who played the latter, with his big mop of red hair and freckles was one of the most successful child actors of the 1970s, going on to star also in Sigmund and the Sea Monsters and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, among other things. (He has a web site – -check it out). But certainly the biggest star of the show (at least amongst the kindergarten and first grade set I ran with) was Anissa Jones — one of the cutest children ever to be in show business, and the source of a veritable bull makret in Mrs. Beasley dolls in the early 70s. (My sister, like every other girl we knew, had one I believe). Sadly, Jones died of a drug overdose in 1976 at age 18. (The full story on that is here).
Here is the distinctly Lawrence Welkian theme song, which I had no trouble recalling after not hearing it in over 30 years:
To find out more about show biz past and present consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc