December 13 is the birthday of former child star Johnny Whitaker (b. 1959). The red-haired freckled Whitaker was memorable as young Jody on Family Affair (1966-1971), which we wrote about here, and was memorable as the title character in the musical film Tom Sawyer in (1973). He was also in one Steven Spielberg’s first films, Something Evil (1972) with Darren McGavin and Sandy Dennis which we wrote about here.
But having already written about just about all of Sid and Marty Krofft’s shows, I thought I’d give a little attention today to Sigmund and the Sea Monsters (1973-1974).
In conception, Sigmund and the Sea Monsters represents a slight “sea change”, if you will, from the earlier Krofft shows, H.R. Pufnstuf, The Bugaloos and Lidsville. It was less “psychedelic” than those previous ones, though it still had lots of humor. It was very much similar in conception to the typical tween literature of the time.
Two brothers (Whitaker and Scott Kolden) have a secret clubhouse where they stow the ultimate secret — the existence of their friend, the good hearted sea monster Sigmund, played by little person Billy Barty in a typical Krofftian costume. The scenario has much in common with magical sit-coms of the ’60s like Mr. Ed, My Favorite Martian, My Mother the Car etc. The heroes have something exceptionally weird going on in their lives that no one else is privy to, necessitating lots of quick-thinking and fast-talking to devise explanations.
Dogging their steps are Sigmund’s mean family — this element seems borrowed from Caspar the Friendly Ghost (Sigmund is nice; his family like to do pranks).
The show would have been my first exposure to the perennial Mary Wickes, as a grouchy housekeeper. Margaret Hamilton played a nosy neighbor (conceptually similar to Bewitched’s Mrs. Kravitz). And Rip Taylor played Sigmund’s bumbling magical uncle, another concept seemingly borrowed from Bewitched.
As someone who grew up watching Whitaker in family entertainment, I remember being particularly appalled when he played a confused teenager on an episode of Mobile One (1975) with Jackie Cooper, where he smoked, did drugs and committed criminal acts! That was not what I wanted to see Johnny Whitaker doing! He retired from full time acting soon after that.
In later years he develop real drug and alcohol problems, but eventually he got it all under control. His screen credits between 1977 and 2011 were rare and sporadic. But since 2011 he seems to have returned to acting and seems to be working constantly. One of his roles has been as a recurring character on the 2016 reboot of Sigmund and the Sea Monsters!