Question: Hello. My father and I disagree: I thought Kristy McNichol was just in movies until Empty Nest, but he seems to think she was in a television series prior to that. Is that true? If so, what was the name? Thank you for your help. — Holly
Sorry, Holly, but the sentiment holds true in this case: Father knows best. Teen superstar Kristy McNichol made her first splash as a nationally known celeb playing 13-year-old Letitia "Buddy" Lawrence on ABC's groundbreaking Family in March 1976. And her tale resembles that of other child stars — stardom without a real-life perspective was a tough way to grow up.
"Everybody wants a piece of you," the actress, who did commercial work at eight; Love, American Style at nine and was a Family regular at 13, told TV Guide of her youthful stardom in 1985. "And before you know it, in every sort of situation there are 10 people on your body, touching your makeup, moving your hair, telling you that you gotta carry this in that hand. And there are people wanting your autograph... And everybody wants to hear your story... Everybody is after a piece."
Family left the air in June 1980, the same year McNichol starred opposite Tatum O'Neal and Matt Dillon in Little Darlings. The following year saw her with Marsha Mason in Only When I Laugh and Dennis Quaid in The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia; White Dog, which never saw a U.S. theatrical release, and the disastrous The Pirate Movie followed in 1982. In 1983, when she walked off the set of MGM/UA's Just the Way You Are and didn't return to finish shooting for a year, her publicists said she had a "chemical imbalance." Unfortunately for the actress, the press and public weren't quite as conversant in the lexicon of depression as they are today — even TV Guide termed the description "a cryptic label" — and word spread that she simply had a drug problem and was difficult.
McNichol returned to the public eye in NBC's Empty Nest in 1988, but left the show in 1992 due to her struggle with bipolar disorder. "I have a chemical imbalance and it's not a fun thing to have," she said. She returned for the show's final episode, which aired in July 1995, but since then has stayed out of the biz. "The time she has taken for herself has been well deserved," brother Jimmy McNichol told an interviewer last year. "I haven't seen her happier."
For its part, Family was a refreshingly frank and realistic portrayal of an American household when mega-producer Aaron Spelling and partner Leonard Goldberg put it together. Created partly as a reaction to the public implosion of the Loud family on PBS's An American Family — "I just don't buy this premise that the American family is disintegrating," Goldberg pronounced when explaining the series' genesis — it was lauded for its honesty. TV Guide called the show, which revolved around the Lawrences of Pasadena, "a sort of urban, updated Waltons," focusing on "real people with real problems in a real home, all of which sounds much too fine and upstanding to be any good — let alone renewed."
Yet renewed it was, even if it eventually fell into the dramatic trap that catches any realistic family show at some point: After a season or two, how do you keep it interesting without breaking utterly from real life? Well, you don't, which is why just about everyone on screen either had an affair, contracted cancer, went blind, ran away, drank too much... you get the picture.Come to think of it, though, that could've been my house.