Me-TV Summer of Classic TV Blogathon: Family Affair
I’ve got a confession to make: I’m having an affair. No, I’m not talking about some illicit rendezvous in a sleazy motel. In fact, some might even describe this affair as wholesome. I’m sure you know where I’m going with this. My affair is with Family Affair!
Yes, Family Affair, the show about a swinging bachelor whose life is turned upside down when he unexpectedly becomes guardian to his orphaned nieces and nephew. The show airs weekdays at 7 a.m. on Me-TV.
Let’s get started by watching the opening credits, with music composed by Frank De Vol, who also composed the themes for The Brady Bunch, My Three Sons, and Gidget. The shimmering kaleidoscope background underscores the fact that Family Affair was one of the earliest color TV shows.
Family Affair opening credits
Now, let’s meet our characters and the actors who play them: First off, there’s Uncle Bill (aka “Uncle Beel,” for reasons I’ll get to), an engineer who travels to exotic locations all over the world for complex construction projects. At the start of the series, he lives alone in a swanky Manhattan apartment with his manservant. After all, a single man who’s never home and has no kids or pets or plants still needs full-time domestic help. Someone has to take in the mail. The sprawling apartment has masculine wood paneling to make sure we understand that it is indeed a bachelor pad.
Uncle Bill is played by the ruggedly handsome Brian Keith, who in 1961 starred in the original version of The Parent Trap with Hayley Mills. Keith apparently studied the Touch Your Face method of acting, because he touches his face constantly, not just as Uncle Bill, but in every role I’ve ever seen him play. He relies on this device to show irritation, deep thought, resignation, exasperation, anger, and a host of other emotions. Sometimes he starts with his palm on his forehead and slides it downward. Other times he touches two fingers to his temple. I’ve also seen him scratch his ear and wipe his nose. And it’s not just because I happen to work in public health that I feel compelled to mention: That’s a great way to spread flu germs! Or get zits.
Is there something on my face?
There’s something else about Brian Keith, and it’s the elephant in the room: his toupee. As a child, I never noticed his rug, but as an adult, it’s ridiculously obvious. For one thing, the hair on top is a different color than the sides. TheDamienZone offers a story about Brian Keith’s vanity disrupting the shooting schedule and doubling the budget for The Parent Trap. The story alleges that Keith insisted an extra scene be added to the film showing him emerging from a lake with his hair intact, proving that it’s his own. I’m not sure if this is satire or just gossip — it doesn’t really ring true — but it’s a funny story anyway.
Uncle Bill’s “gentleman’s gentleman” is Mr. French, a stout, stuffy, bearded Brit, who, at the start of the series, does not seem overly fond of children. He’s a delightful foil to the syrupy youngsters. As far as I’m concerned, he makes the series. Mr. French is played by the great Sebastian Cabot, who imbues the character with a wonderful dryness and dignity, despite the indignities inflicted on him as unwilling nanny to the little urchins. My belief in Sebastian Cabot’s awesomeness was cemented when I heard this non-Family Affair spoken performance of Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe.”
Sebastian Cabot gives a spoken-word performance of Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe” (1967). It’s from an entire album of Cabot reciting Dylan songs.
The eldest of the three minors left in Uncle Bill’s care is doe-eyed ingénue Cissy, played by Kathy Garver. Twenty years old when she started playing 15-year-old Cissy, Garver had some impressive acting credits. She was a slave girl in ancient Egypt when God gave Charlton Heston The Ten Commandments. She also had a part in The Bad Seed as one of the main character’s classmates. I saw her a few years ago at San Francisco’s Castro Theater, where she made a guest appearance with The Bad Seed’s star, Patty McCormack, at a special screening of the classic film. It was a campy good time, with Garver judging a Bad Seed lookalike contest.
Left: Charlton Heston (Moses) and young Kathy Garver in The Ten Commandments (1956). Right: Kathy Garver as Cissy on Family Affair (1969).
Cissy’s younger siblings are six-year-old fraternal twins Jody and Buffy, who are your typical ’60s family-sitcom moppets. In real life, Anissa Jones, who plays Buffy, was more than a year older than Johnny Whitaker, who plays her twin brother Jody. That’s what I call a long labor. Jones is also a much better actor and outshines Whitaker in all their shared scenes. Whitaker seems to have some sort of mild speech impediment and pronounces his uncle’s name as “Uncle Beel.” Whenever Uncle Bill enters the swanky bachelor pad, the twins come rushing up to greet him, squealing “Uncle Beel, Uncle Beel!”
Buffy’s constant companion is a creepy, bespectacled doll named Mrs. Beasley, who sometimes is the focus of the plots (e.g., Mrs. Beasley gets lost; Uncle Bill worries that Buffy thinks Mrs. Beasley is real; Mrs. Beasley’s arm gets broken.) The doll became very popular at the time and is now a collector’s item. Apparently, most of the them have lost their trademark eyewear over the years, so the glasses are rare. Poor Mrs. Beasley is nearly blind without them.
Mrs. Beasley is also featured prominently in Me-TV’s Family Affair promos. Now, I’m sure our blogathon sponsor, Me-TV, won’t mind some gentle criticism: The promo where present-day Kathy Garver sits with Mrs. Beasley on her lap and intones that we should watch her on Family Affair is even creepier than Mrs. Beasley herself. Garver comes across as the crazy old aunt who’s hidden away in the attic, surrounded by mementos of her youth. I’d hate to think that’s how Cissy wound up.
Today, Garver and Whitaker are the only two surviving members of the core cast. Jones died tragically of a drug overdose at age 18; Keith of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at age 75; and Cabot died of a stroke at age 59.
Favorite Family Affair Moment #1: The Bite
Family Affair’s characters are well developed right from the start; this isn’t one of those series that takes awhile to hit its stride. In fact, one of my favorite moments in the series is in the pilot episode. To set the stage: Buffy has been living in Terre Haute, Indiana, with her Aunt Fran and Uncle Harold following her parents’ death in an accident a year earlier. Uncle Harold and Buffy “don’t get along” (which is disturbingly vague), so Aunt Fran dumps Buffy with Uncle Bill and then vanishes. We don’t know about the existence of Cissy and Jody yet, but they’ve been staying with other relatives. Aunt Fran, by the way, is played by Louise Latham, who was Tippi Hedren’s dreadful mother in the Hitchcock film Marnie. She is really good at portraying unlikable women.
The great moment comes when Mr. French tries to escort newly arrived Buffy out to the terrace. He says to her in a condescending, British sort of way, “Don’t just stand there like a little clot” — and she just runs up to him and bites his leg like a rabid dog. The unexpectedness of the bite is pretty great, but it’s Sebastian Cabot’s reaction as Mr. French that really makes this memorable.
“Oh, sir!” he complains to Uncle Bill. “I gave her absolutely no provocation to fasten her little teeth in my gastrocnemius muscle!” Uncle Bill, apparently unconcerned about French’s wound, asks him to bring Buffy some milk and cookies. “Cookies, sir?!” says Mr. French, incredulous that the imp would be rewarded for her actions. Better get used to it, French — you’ll be waiting on her and calling her “Miss Buffy” from now on. One can only assume he gets a tetanus shot offscreen. Watch the scene below. (You might notice that it’s a different Mrs. Beasley in the clip; I guess the role was recast after the pilot.)
Buffy bites Mr. French in Family Affair series pilot (Sept. 12, 1966)
Favorite Family Affair Moment #2: The Snood
It’s no coincidence that another of my favorite Family Affair moments also centers on Mr. French. It takes place in the Season 3 episode titled “A Matter of Privacy.” That’s “privacy” pronounced the British way, with a short “i”. In this one, Buffy and Jody, egged on by a no-good friend, Norman, bug the apartment and tape-record Mr. French making a private phone call to order a very personal item.
“Well you see, this is a rather personal matter, and one that is not easily discussed without some embarrassment…
“I should like to inquire concerning the purchase of a beard snood… A beard snood… Well, perhaps that is not the exact title.
“You see, sir, one of my distinguishing features is a rather full set of whiskers. On occasions, I’ve awakened with it in classic disarray. And it occurred to me that I might purchase something similar to, well, a woman’s hairnet, to be worn in the privacy of my bed-chamber, thus keeping my hirsute adornments in order throughout the night.”
The twin scamps and their loser friend listen to the tape of Mr. French’s very personal call and giggle in a mechanical way that tells me they are simply laughing on cue and have no idea what they’re laughing about. Uncle Beel finds them and is disappointed. Norman, the trouble-making friend, is unrepentant, but he gets his comeuppance later when he finds out via tape-recording that his parents are divorcing. I guess the trouble at home is supposed to excuse his misbehavior.
Brady Bunch fans will remember that Peter Brady misused a tape recorder two years later in “The Private Ear” and got his comeuppance as well. In his case, his siblings tricked him into thinking Mom and Dad were throwing him a surprise party to celebrate his getting an “A” in geometry. That’s why you should never give your kids one of those newfangled tape recorders. I confess that I committed a copycat crime with my own cassette recorder; I’m sure I’m not the only kid who did. But I never got my comeuppance… at least, not yet.
We never find out whether Mr. French succeeds in finding a beard snood. It’s a loose end. The viewer is left to wonder.
Now, here’s a little tangent about snoods. Beard snoods actually exist; today, Mr. French could just order one online and spare himself all that embarrassment. In fact, there is a Beard Snood Appreciation Society page on Facebook, but it’s an archived group that only has four members now. I had a beard for a while when I was in college and never once felt the need for a snood to keep it in order. Getting food stuck in my hirsute adornments was a bigger problem. Perhaps I could have used a beard bib. Hey, maybe I should patent that idea. Oh, too late, someone beat me to it.
“Snood” is one of my favorite words, but I have really only ever heard it used on two occasions. The first was the Family Affair episode I’ve just described, and the other was in the 1968 movie With Six You Get Eggroll, starring Doris Day and — brace yourself for an amazing coincidence — Brian Keith! You see, Doris is preparing for a party at her house, to which she has invited Brian Keith as her date. Wouldn’t you know, the dog gets a hold of her wig, and it winds up looking like a wet gopher. Her own hair, incidentally, looks fine to me, but it hasn’t been styled and set. What should Doris do? Her maid, played by Alice Ghostley (who played “Esmeralda” on Bewitched), suggests, “Couldn’t you kind of push it up — do you have a snood?” Doris has obviously never heard that word before and gives her a WTF look before answering that she doesn’t have “one of those.”
My question is, why do people feel compelled to wear snoods when they are in proximity to Brian Keith? Or for that matter, wigs? Is it somehow related to Keith’s toupee and insecurity about his own hair?
Scarred for Life
There’s an image emblazoned on my mind. A little boy and girl are looking out the back window of a bus, terrified and helpless, as they are sped away from the adult who is responsible for their care. I’m talking about “Lost in Spain”! (Not to be confused with Lost in Space, another show on the Me-TV schedule that I almost wrote about.)
The three-part “Lost in Spain” episode was traumatizing to me as a five-year-old. It starts off innocently: Uncle Bill must go to Barcelona for three months to work on another of his glamorous construction projects. That’s an awfully long time to leave the kids, so Uncle Bill packs up all three of them and Mr. French and takes them to Spain with him. At first it’s great fun as they enjoy the sights of Barcelona. Cissy has an attractive admirer, and the kids like their Spanish tutor. (Two episodes later, Jody can’t speak a word of Spanish to his visiting pen-pal from Bolivia.)
The trouble starts when Mr. French takes Buffy and Jody on a trip to the seaside resort of Sitges. To get there, they must take a bus to San Juan and then transfer to another bus. As they board the second bus, Buffy remembers that she left Mrs. Beasley on the first bus, still parked right behind them. Mr. French instructs them to board the bus while he goes back for Mrs. Beasley. As he heads back, the doors to the second bus close and it pulls away, with Buffy and Jody on board!
The faces of terror! And with that, I am scarred for life.
The Family Affair Theme Song Challenge
It’s time for the closing credits. A theme song as lively as Family Affair’s should have words, don’t you think? I’ve taken a hand at writing some, and I challenge you to do the same! I’ve used the closing theme, since it is longer and has more verses.
Oh yes it’s such a fam’ly affair
Here come the twins, they’re such a cute pair
Poor Uncle Beel is losing his hair
Well don’t you know…
That Mr. French is wearing his snood
It puts him in a marvelous mood
So why not take the boisterous brood
And off we’ll go…
To have a fam’ly affair
We’ll have a fam’ly, a fam’ly affair!
My sister contributed this one: “Oh, Cissy makes me want to go puke/Who does she think she is — Patty Duke?”
But perhaps you can come up with a Cissy line that’s less hostile. And there are other characters who deserve a mention: Miss Faversham, Mrs. Beasley… Please write your own lyrics and post them in the comments. I know you’re clever enough!
This post is part of Me-TV’s Summer of Classic TV Blogathon hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association. Go to http://classic-tv-blog-assoc.blogspot.com) to view more posts in this blogathon. You can also go to http://metvnetwork.com to learn more about Me-TV and view its summer line-up of classic TV shows.