CHAPTER 5: Kristy's Other "Family"

"Family," the show that made Kristy McNichol's name a household word, didn't just happen overnight. It was a long time in the making, and actually took three years to get on the air -- from the first glimmer of an idea to the first episode.

The first of six episodes of "Family" made its debut on March 9, 1976 -- almost three full years after ABC executives first told Aaron Spelling and Len Goldberg that they loved their idea. There was no fanfare, almost no publicity, but even without it, that first episode got an incredible forty percent share of the ratings. And the TV viewing audience stayed tuned in to "Family" for the next five weeks. It was fantastic, even better than had been expected. And because of it, "Family" was given a permanent time slot for the fall.

One of the most important reasons why "Family" is such a hit is the real-life problems it deals with. It treats subjects like divorce, death, alcoholism, love, marriage, and the problems of children growing up and becoming independent. The titters and giggles, and cutesy-pie morality have all been left out.

"Family" is a show built around a typical (although pretend) American family that is modern with traditional ties, that argues and disagrees, but still stays together, loving and happy through it all.

Sada Thompson plays Kate Lawrence, the mother, with maturity, understanding, warmth, humor, and wisdom. James Broderick portrays the father, Doug Lawrence, a successful business man who is firm yet understanding, loving yet strong and sincere. The older sister Nancy is played by Meredith Baxter-Birney, the older brother Willie by Gary Frank. Kristy, of course, plays Buddy (or Leticia), youngest of the Lawrence children, an uncertain teenager growing from tomboy into maturity. Quinn Cummings plays an eleven-year-old, wise-cracking kid who is adopted by the Lawrences after her own parents are killed in an automobile accident. And to round off the cast, Leif Garrett, the mop-headed singing sensation, stars as Buddy's most steady boyfriend.

If the Lawrences seem always to be right in the path of domestic disaster, it's because the scriptwriters feel this is the way real families live. That there is usually a happy ending, well, that too is close to real-life. But "Family" is still the closest thing on TV to reality, and the ratings confirm it.

Kristy McNichol won the role of Buddy in the usual way. "Apple's Way" had been canceled, and she had no long-term commitments. Kristy was interviewed with a lot of other bright, young actresses. She was not related to anyone connected with the show; she didn't get discovered eating a hamburger at McDonald's. She stood out in the crowd because her sparkle and obvious enthusiasm appealed to everyone connected with the show.

Buddy is a very special part of the Lawrence family. Her relationship with her parents, her interaction with Willy and her confrontations with Nancy, are always vital, even though they are not the central core of a particular story. The uncertainties of a teenage girl growing into maturity are dealt with through the character of Buddy, with just the kind of understanding and frankness that makes the show real. Buddy's scenes with Willie are audience favorites. They share a very special friendship on screen that is natural and appealing.

This season Buddy is undergoing the same kinds of growing pains Kristy herself has been having. The similarities between Kristy and the character she plays have made Kristy's job easier.

Both Kristy and Buddy are sharp, outspoken, athletic teens, quick to laugh and delightful to be with, yet serious and sophisticated when the circumstances call for it.

"Buddy and I have been growing up together these past three years on the show," Kristy says happily. "I've turned Buddy into me," she explains. "I made her like Donny Osmond. I made her like purple. I made her wear her hair the way I do mine, and wear clothes I like." As a matter of fact, Kristy felt the original name of her character, Leticia, was too much for a tomboy, so she asked for a nickname -- and got it!

A typical day on the set begins at 7:00 or 7:30 am. for Kristy, although her usual call is for 9:00 a.m. A studio car picks her up at home.

Because she's still under eighteen, the law protects Kristy from being overworked and underschooled. She can't work more than five hours a day, must have a specific lunch break, and three hours a day free for school.

After the morning shooting comes her lunch hour, which gives Kristy time to relax. After lunch, it's usually off to school and on most days, Kristy zips to her lessons in a motorized golf cart!

School is in a trailer, fully equipped with desks, blackboards, plants, bulletin boards, hamsters -- and a few extras like couches, typewriters, air conditioning, and wall-to-wall carpeting.

There is only one student, Kristy, although this may change if Leif Garrett and Quinn Cummings decide to have their lessons on the set, too.

After school, it's back to the set for the rest of the day's shooting. If she's not in any of the scenes, she can go home, but she enjoys watching almost as much as she does acting. She is fascinated by the technical things like lighting and cameras. Whenever she can, she watches the director and camera people very closely, and she's learning about how TV shows and movies are made. She's filing away the information for a time in the future when she'll be able to put it to good use.

"I'd like to direct a picture with me in it when I'm eighteen and out of high school," Kristy has said. "I know it's hard work, but I still think I could do it. I'd like to produce, too."

One of the main reasons Kristy loves being on "Family" as much as she does is because it's so real to her. However, she finds it almost impossible to cry on cue. It's the hardest part of acting for her. Eventually, the tears do come, but it takes extra time for the usually cheerful Kristy to get into a crying mood.

On the other hand, the easiest thing for her to get into is anything to do with sports.

"You name it, I can do it," is her motto. She amazed the show's producers during one episode that called for her to skateboard. They couldn't believe it when she did all those fancy twists and turns with such ease. What they didn't know was that, thanks to Jimmy's instruction and her own enthusiasm, she can do anything on her skateboard, expertly.

Everyone at the 1977 Emmy Awards ceremony knew that Kristy's tears of joy and surprise were genuine. She wasn't acting that night.

"My competition was terrific, and I really didn't think I would win," she said. "I was flattered for just being nominated. I mean, after all, whoever thought that almost nine years after I decided to go into the business, I would be accepting an Emmy Award. It was a mind-blower."

Nearly everyone in the "Family" cast was nominated in 1977, and both Sada Thompson and Gary Frank also won Emmys that year. The next year, once again, nearly everyone in the cast was up for an Emmy. While Kristy was disappointed when she didn't win in 1978, she was superhappy for the cast members who did.

The "Family" family sticks together. It's the special something that has won the show the highest praise of critics and viewers alike. And Kristy is very glad to be part of it.