Saturday, August 20, 2016

Whatever happened to Johnny Whitaker (Jody on Family Affair)?



Remember that re-headed, curly-haired, freckle-faced child on Family Affair?  Wasn't he just as cute as a button?  That was Johnny Whitaker.  He's 56 years old now and has survived some very difficult times. Johnny was born John Orson.Whitiker, Jr. in Van Nuys, California, on December 13, 1959, the fifth of the eight children of Thelma and John O. Whitaker, Sr.  His father, John Sr., was a Mormon junior high school teacher.

Johnny first displayed his talents while singing in his church choir.  He began appearing in television commercials as a three-year-old.  In 1965, at the age of five, he initiated the role of Scotty Baldwin on the daytime drama General Hospital.  That same year, he appeared in Slattery's People, a political drama starring Richard Crenna.  Young Whitaker played a character named Douglas Styx in an episode of the series entitled "Question: Is Democracy Too Expensive This Year?" (Season 1, Episode 20, Air Date: February 26, 1965).

Johnny made his film debut as Jerry Maxwell in 1966's The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming.  It's interesting to note that Brian Keith, Johnny's future co-star on Family Affair portrayed Police Chief Link Mattocks in that film.  According to the Internet Movie Data Base (IMDB), Johnny and Brian got along so well that Keith was influential in arranging an interview for Johnny with the producers of Family Affair.
 
It was Family Affair that made Whitaker a star.  When the show premiered on CBS on September 12, 1966, the youngster quickly catapulted to fame.  He was cast as Jody Davis, a 6-year-old orphan who lived in a luxurious high-rise apartment in New York City with his "Uncle Bill," his two siblings and Mr. Giles French, Bill's "gentleman's gentleman." Uncle Bill , played by Brian Keith, was a successful engineer and a bachelor. He and Mr. French (Sebastian Cabot) had suddenly became surrogate parents to the three children of Bill's relatives who had been killed in a car accident. The eldest sibling was a perky teenager named Cissy (Kathy Garver).  Jody, the only male child, had an adorable twin sister named Buffy, portrayed by Anissa Jones.


The cast of Family Affair in 1967

In June of 1969, Family Affair reached Number One in the U.S. ratings.  At the height of the show's popularity, there was no end to the merchandising.  Stores were filled with "Buffy" paper dolls, Family Affair colouring books and lunch boxes and a "Buffy" line of children's clothing. Buffy's doll, "Mrs. Beasley," was a best seller during the show's run.

In an interview with Rodger Mullen for the Fayetteville Observer (September 29, 2014), Johnny Whitaker provided his perspective on being a child star.  'Today, it's common that individuals are recognized for the money that they make and the status that they have in the world," he said.  "When you're making $150,000 a year at 11 and 12 years old and everybody knows your name and you're on the front of a couple of teen magazines at least twice a year if not more . . . you hit your peak at 13 or 14. It's difficult to live the rest of your life chasing that peak."

As for the popularity of Family Affair, Whitaker told Mullen that one of the  reasons it was so well received was the appeal of "these two cute little kids."  "You didn't watch the television show to find out what happened to Uncle Bill and Mr. French," he declared. "You watched the show to see what happened with Buffy and Jody.'








During the run of Family Affair, Johnny Whitaker had guest spots in such series as Bonanza (1968), Bewitched 1969, The Virginian (1969) and Green Acres (1970).  In the Bewitched episode, entitled "Sam and the Beanstalk" (Season 6, Episode 1, Air Date: September 18, 1969). he portrayed Jack in a story in which Samantha must bring back Tabitha who has run away into the book Jack and the Beanstalk.


Johnny as Jack and Erin Murphy as Tabitha in Bewitched episode

In 1969, Johnny starred in a television movie entitled The Littlest Angel.  He played Michael, a little shepherd boy who falls off a cliff, dies and goes to heaven.  A Christmas story, The Littlest Angel aired on December 6, 1969.  It featured Fred Gwynne, Cab Calloway, E.G. Marshall amd Tony Randall.




After five seasons and 138 episodes, CBS aired its last original episode of Family Affair on September 4, 1971.  When the show ended, Johnny went on to make five Walt Disney films and to star in the 1973 musical Tom Sawyer.  Below is a publicity photo of Johnny Whitaker promoting the 1975 CBS television broadcast of the United Artists feature film in which Jodie Foster played Becky Thatcher to Johnny's Tom Sawyer.




Johnny appeared in a 1971 episode of Marcus Welby, M.D. entitled "Cross-Match" (Season 3, Episode 15, Air Date: December 14, 1971).  In 1973, he had a guest role on the TV police series Adam-12  appearing as Eddie Roberts in an episode entitled "Northeast Division" (Season 6, Episode 11, Air Date: December 5, 1973).  That same year, he also starred as Johnny Stuart in a Saturday morning children's show called Sigmund and the Sea Monsters.  Below is a photo of him with Scott Kolden in an episode of Sigmund and the Sea Monsters from 1973.




On August 28, 1976, Anissa Jones, 18, was found dead of a massive drug overdose at the home of a friend in Oceanside, California.  Her death was later ruled accidental. Johnny Whitaker, of course, was devastated by the loss of his Family Affair co-star.  In November of 1994, he told People magazine that during the run of the show "we were like brother and sister.  When I heard that she was dead, my heart fell to my toes."  The tragedy caused Johnny to turn inward and examine his life. "I'd been working for the past 15 years," he explained to the magazine. "I needed to stop and think about what I wanted and what was going on in my life."

Whitaker's other TV sister, Kathy Garver, was also deeply saddened by Anissa's passing.  "That was a real tragedy," she told Susan King in a Los Angeles Times interview (September 2, 2015).  "She got into the wrong crowd."

Johnny with Anissa Jones in 1967

After Anissa's death, Johnny spent two years in Portugal as a volunteer Mormon missionary.  When he returned to the United States, he had difficulty finding acting roles. He eventually enrolled at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah and graduated in 1986 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communications.

In 1984, Johnny Whitaker married Symbria Wright of Reseda, California, a former talent agent.. The couple divorced in 1988 and Symbria later wed Johnny's best friend.  After the collapse of his marriage, the actor went through a very dark period in his life.  He told Roger Mullen of th Fayettevillle Observer that his divorce was "the precipitous event which caused me to lose faith in God and faith in myself and whatever else and kind of went to the dark side, Luke Skywalker.  I started hanging out in bars and smoking and smoking marijuana and then going from marijuana to cocaine and methamphetamine and smoking heroin and losing three cars, four apartments, five jobs and a company that I'd started and ran into the ground."

In an interview with Nicki Gostin for Fox News (June 2, 2016), Johnny discussed those troubled years further:: "I started a business in Utah for my wife and then she turns around and says, 'I don't love you anymore and I want to marry the man who gave you your bachelor party.' So with that I lost my faith in God and man and the world. I didn't ever have a thought of suicide but I did the second best thing which was to drop into sex, drugs and rock and roll. That lasted about seven, eight years and then my family said you have a choice between getting clean and sober or getting excommunicated from the family."

That family intervention was the wake up call Johnny needed.  He told Fox News that it provided the impetus for him to stay clean and sober for over 18 and a half years. Whitaker also discovered a passion for helping people recover from substance abuse. He became a certified drug counsellor and he currently runs the Paso Por Paso alcohol and drug rehabilitation centre.  Paso Por Paso (Spanish for "step by step"is a non-profit organization for recovering addicts.  It was founded by Johnny himself and provides support and treatment services in Spanish, Portuguese and English.




Due to his past behaviour, Johnny was excommunicated from the Mormon Church.  In his interview with Nicki Gostin, he said that he now sings in his congregation's choir and is "working towards getting reintegrated."


END NOTES

* Johnny's sister, Dora Whitaker, is a prominent talent agent in North Hollywood.

WHAT HAPPENED TO THE REST OF THE FAMILY AFFAIR CAST

* Sebastian Cabot, the English actor who played Giles French, Uncle Bill's valet on Family Affair, passed away on August 22, 1977 at the age of 59.  He died of a stroke in a Victoria, British Columbia hospital.  He lived his final years in Canada where he resided in Deep Cove, in the Victoria suburb of North Saanich, B.C.

Sebastian Cabot

* Brian Keith, the actor who played Uncle Bill Davis on Family Affair was found dead on June 24, 1997.  According to authorities, he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his home in Malibu, California.  He was 75 years old and was reported to have had serious health problems.


Brian Keith

* Kathy Garver, who played older sister Cissy Davis, was born on December 13, 1945 in Long Beach, California, USA.   Now 70 years old, she is the author of The Family Affair Cook Book (2009) and is a television host on Backstage with Barry and Kathy.  Her 2015 autobiography is entitled Surviving Cissy: My Family Affair of Life in Hollywood.  She has been married to David Travis since 1981.

Kathy Garver 


More recent photo of Kathy Garver





* Johnny has directed and written and directed a documentary about Portugal's drug policy and its treatment of addicts.


Johnny in recent times

- Joanne

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