A Millionnaire In the Family

Kristy McNichol may look like an ordinary tomboy, but she has two important things going for her -- a world of talent and a fiercely ambitious mother with a passion for making money

by Diane de Dubovay
McCall's, July 1979

Up close, tiny, pixieish Kristy Mcnichol -- who plays Buddy Lawrence on ABC's popular TV series "Family" -- seems just like any ordinary 16-year-old tomboy off the street, with her snug-fitting jeans, man-tailored shirt, white sneakers and breezy insistence on "being normal and having a good time." But her string of accomplishments is far from ordinary -- the more-than-a-million-dollar television, film and recording careers, the Emmy she won at 15 for her role in "Family," the spin-off sales of Kristy dolls, Buddy posters and Kristy T-shirts. Now she is co-starring in a movie, "Little Darlings," with another precocious Hollywood star, Tatum O'Neal, for a reputed six-figure salary.

Much of Kristy's success is directly related to the superior quality of the "Family" show itself, which takes family life seriously instead of using it as the framework for mindless comedy. The educated, affluent Lawrences -- Mom, Dad and four bright, headstrong, though essentially sensible, children -- may not be typical of Middle America, but the ways in which they discuss their problems and communicate their feelings are the ways most of us wish we could relate to our families.

There is another important reason for Kristy's success, and that is her mother. Carolynne McNichol has wheeled and dealed for her daughter -- and her actor-singer son, Jimmy -- since they were Hollywood kids auditioning for commercials. She didn't plan to be a stage mother; in fact, Kristy and Jimmy got into acting almost by accident.

At 22, with three small children to raise and no particular skills, Carolynne left an unhappy marriage and took a job as a talent-agency secretary in Beverly Hills. She soon discovered that she could earn just as much money and have more time for her kids by working three days a week as a film extra.

Still, those were lean days. "Every time we had to move into a smaller place or get rid of more furniture because we were running out of money, I tried to make it seem like a party," Carolynne remembers. "We'd just light a few candles and crawl into our sleeping bags. The kids thought it was like camping out."

Fate seemed to be on their side, though, even from the beginning. "One time I went on an interview for a part as a TV extra at Desilu Studios," Carolynne recalls, "and they turned me down flat. I came out crying, and this funny little man with a hat and glasses and a strange foreign accent grabbed my arm and asked, 'What's the matter, young lady?' 'I'm flat broke,' I told him, 'and I've got three kids to support and I can't find any work.' 'Are you an actress?' he asked. 'No,' I sobbed, 'I'm an extra.' He looked at me in a very commanding way and said, 'Go back to the director, young woman, and tell him I said you have one week's work.' 'What's your name?' I asked. But he refused to tell me. So I went back to the set, pointed to the man and said to the director, 'You see that man over there? He said to tell you that I have one week's work.' And do you know who he was? Desi Arnaz."

While Carolynne did not feel that her sporadic work as an extra was getting her anywhere, Jimmy and Kristy were fascinated by the world of show business. At first, when they talked their mother into letting them tag along while she was working, they were about as welcome on studio sets as a pair of rambunctious Saint Bernards. But, enthralled with the fantasy and excitement, the McNichol kids quickly learned that staying quiet and following directions were small prices to pay for the privilege of being allowed to hang around. Soon they were doing more than that.

"When I was working on 'Family Affair,'" Carolynne recalls, "there were two kids featured on the show, and my kids said, 'If those two can act, why can't we?' I didn't see anything wrong with letting them try. At the very least, I thought, it would give us a chance to be together when we drove to the studios for interviews."

Kristy and her older brother were a plucky seven and eight when they got their first jobs. Soon their work in commercials and bit parts in television series began to overshadow Carolynne's own small-scale career, and she realized she could parlay her children's natural talent and love of acting into lifetime security for the whole family. She gave up her career and went to work full-time on theirs.

As the years passed and Kristy's and Jimmy's earnings unexpectedly skyrocketed, Carolynne, obsessed with the transitory nature of Hollywood success, began investing their money in real estate. She acquired condominiums at Big Bear Mountain and Malibu Beach, and changed the family's own homes five times, while renting out each vacated residence to family friends. Today, the McNichols' rambling four-bedroom house in semi-rural Tarzana, an unprepossessing Los Angeles suburb, is a sports enthusiast's paradise, complete with tennis court, swimming pool and California's newest obligatory rage, a family-size wooden hot tub. In the driveway: the family's station wagon, Carolynne's sleek white Corvette and Kristy's fire-engine-red VW Scirocco sports car, the jazzy accompaniment to her newly acquired driver's license. Her Honda XR 75 for dirt biking and electric golf cart for tooling around the studio lot are docked in the garage.

One casualty of the climb, however, may have been the kids' nonacting brother, 14-year-old Tommy McNichol. He has been raised by Carolynne's parents and doesn't live with the others.

But Carolynne has had plenty of time for Kristy, and their relationship is both genuine and close, if somewhat unorthodox. "My mother is the greatest," says Kristy. "Anything that has come up in my life, she's chosen the right way to go. There's nothing I can't discuss with her. She's so young at heart that me and my friends and my mom just always have a great time together."

"My daughter's confidence amazes me," says Carolynne McNichol, who at 37 has an earthy Linda Ronstadt type of beauty that makes her seem more like Kristy's older sister than her mother. "And to think I gave it to her. With my kids' careers and real-estate investments, I can't seem to make a wrong move. I seem to have an angel on my shoulder. But when I'm emotionally upset, I'm paralyzed. I can't do anything." Symptomatic of this darker side of her personality are her fingernails, bitten down to the quick.

Carolynne is almost exclusively protective when it comes to her own and her daughter's home lives. Every time she gets an unexpected call, she promptly changes their unlisted phone number.

Kristy, in turn, is protective of her mother. Knowing how depressed Carolynne has been over her recent breakup with Max Morrow, the 33-year-old actor who had been living with her, Kristy gave Carolynne a Lhasa Apso puppy so she wouldn't be alone in the house while Kristy was in Georgia filming Little Darlings. (Her brother Jimmy, now 18, has recently moved down the road to his own rambling ranch-style spread.) For Mother's Day she offered Carolynne a trip to Tahiti. But Carolynne, who prefers freebie celebrity junkets to paying for plane tickets, turned her down. "Why should I waste my kid's money when I might get the trip for free some day? I love making a deal. I've had to live that way so much of my life that by now it's just habit."

Though "Family" celebrates the joys of the conventional nuclear family, Kristy seems to have no problems with her mother's preference for singlehood or her choice of long-term, live-in lovers. "I think that all of my mom's boyfriends have been adorable," she bubbles. "I think Max was great for my mom, and my mom was great for Max. He's got so much feeling, and he cares so much about people. I really love Max, and I'm terribly upset that he's gone. She needs someone to calm her down. When Max was around, it was like she was the happiest person on this earth. I know how he felt -- like he was overwhelmed by Jimmy's and my success, and felt that his own acting career wasn't getting anywhere. But it was worth it to have him living with us because what he was doing was making a lot of joyous days. Since he moved out, my mom's upset, I'm upset and I'm pretty sure Max is upset. I don't know if they want to get married or anything, but it would be just great if they could get back together."

But if Kristy does not have a conventional family life of her own, you would never know it by watching Buddy Lawrence. On screen, she's a natural. "It's easy," Kristy explains, "because I'm just playing myself." Yet Academy Award-winner Jane Fonda pronounced her acting "brilliant" when she visited the set to watch her work. "I want to be just like her," Kristy says, "someone real and down-to-earth, who fights full out for what she believes." Passing Kristy at a Hollywood studio party, Kate Jackson tapped her on the shoulder and whispered, "I think your work is great." And Burt Reynolds was so impressed with Kristy's instinctive acting style that he telephoned her personally to ask her to play his film daughter in The End. "She has a quality that is so vulnerable," Reynolds observed. By the time they had finished shooting, Reynolds was telling everyone he wished he could adopt his young costar as his real-life daughter, to which Kristy responded, "I'm ready!"

Although Kristy insists that she wouldn't play any of "those prostitute or weirdo roles" that are constantly being offered to her, skeptics who predicted that she didn't know how to play anyone but herself were surprised last fall by her skillful work in a made-for-TV movie, "Summer Of My German Soldier." Cast in the role of a shy Jewish girl who falls in love with a German P.O.W. in rural World War II Georgia and helps him escape, Kristy revealed a depth and maturity that even her mother hadn't suspected. "Before I saw her in 'German Soldier,'" Carolynne McNichol confesses, "even I wasn't aware of her potential. But when I read the script, I knew it was the chance we'd been waiting for, for her to break out of her 'Family' image. After all, I don't want her stuck in Doris Day-type roles the rest of her life." There are many who believe that Carolynne's savvy will pay off with yet another Emmy award for Kristy.

With all this adulation, how does young Kristy manage to stay so level-headed? Luckily, perhaps, she has neither the breathtaking beauty that can force a child star into early on- or off-screen romantic maturity or the intellectual precocity that could lead to neurosis. Kristy's conversation is strewn with teenage expressions like "hot," "bitchin'," "great" and "yukah." She frankly admits, "I know it sounds terrible -- but I simply can't read a book."

Bright and instinctive but clearly not an intellectual, Kristy is tutored four hours a day on the set. "A lot of things they teach you in school right now, like all this stuff from way back -- history, philosophy and literature -- I mean, when are you gonna use it?" she complains. "I think if I were a teacher, I'd just try to teach the basics -- like math and how to balance a checkbook, and learning how to get along in life."

Still too much of a tomboy to have any deeper feelings for boys than an occasional superficial crush, Kristy is not interested in alcohol ("I hate the taste"), sex, drugs or cigarettes ("I hate the smell -- especially pot"). "I don't have time for all that," she says, "and that's good because I don't want to have time for it. I get high on a lot of things. Acting gets me high because it's different each day. That's what makes it exciting -- it's not boring. Dancing gets me high. Being hyper and laughing gets me on the biggest high. It's the best feeling in the world to laugh and not stop laughing."

"Sometimes Kristy seems like twenty-five; other times she seems like ten," says Carolynne. "She's just getting out of tomboyhood and into clothes. Sure, she has a car and a charge card with a five-thousand-dollar limit. She loves clothes, and I let her buy as many as she wants. But I wanted to give her something for working six days a week, for being responsible. I wanted her to have the feeling, my mom trusts me."

Last year, inundated with phone calls, scripts, rents to collect, corporate decisions ("Kristy is a corporation now," Carolynne muses, "a tax game"), paper work and household chores, Carolynne finally succumbed to hiring both a live-in maid and Alice Pike, Kristy's godmother, to help out with secretarial work. She also hired a top-notch public-relations firm ("It took me years in Hollywood to realize you had to pay for publicity," she says), a business manager, plus a separate agent/manager to take over Jimmy's career. "I couldn't say no to Jimmy," she admits. "He was always manipulating me into getting his own way, I guess boys without fathers do that."

Twenty-to-25 percent of each youngster's earnings is funneled into trust funds, while Carolynne contents herself with a well-deserved 15 percent of Kristy's income for managing her daughter's burgeoning career. (In addition to TV movies and lucrative film-recording contracts, Kristy gets $15,000 per episode from "Family.")

"I believe in life and beauty," says Carolynne, "not in the idea that money is everything. All that money can do is make life more comfortable and bring beauty closer through travel, clothes and certain luxuries you can enjoy in your home." But, as she says herself, it does take money to get those goodies. And -- from her real-estate deals to her insistence on getting every freebie that comes her way -- she's pushed aggressively for every penny.

Kristy is very much her mother's daughter. "I live by loving my family the most," she says, "and being close with all my friends comes second. Hollywood and all material things come last." Yet she is as adept as Carolynne at wangling free trips, and equally conscious of her income. "I have more freedom than any other sixteen-year-old in the world," she points out with satisfaction. "I get money... I mean I can really get a lot of it. When I want something really bad and it's not stupid or out of this world, my mom says I deserve it. I can do anything I want with my money. The investments my mom has made in property have tripled, so my life ahead, if I had to stop acting, would be set. And if I keep on working, which I intend to do, I can have it on my terms."

Fortunately, she has a love for her craft that has nothing to do with dollars. "Success is not money and it's not how many people like you or how many fans you have -- that has nothing to do with it. It's when you know that you've really done a project well -- watching the end product on the big screen, and knowing all the work that went into it -- and you see people reacting and really being moved."

That, and her innate good nature -- she has nothing unpleasant to say about anyone, at least for publication -- should assure her success. Asked about her famous colleagues, particularly her controversial Little Darlings costar, Tatum O'Neal, the 15-year-old others have described as spoiled and temperamental, Kristy becomes enthusiastic. "Tatum is great. She's taking care of my dog, Lulu, this weekend. Sure, I've heard a couple of rumors about Tatum, but I never believe anything until I meet the person and get to know them. Tatum is precocious, but that's good because she's got a lot of class. It's hard to believe what people say about Tatum because she seems such a health freak. I mean, she's really into health food. So is her dad [actor Ryan O'Neal]. He's got juices all over the place. She and her dad have this house on the beach at Malibu, and it's great. There's this whole wall of glass that looks right over the sea. I like her dad a lot, too, because he's really into his kids, which is nice, and they really look up to him." And Kristy adds, typically, "He's investing all their money into property and stuff, like my mom. That's the smartest way to do it."

"I kinda believe in fate," she says. "If you have a disappointment, it means that you're gonna learn something or experience something else. Everything has a reason." With that kind of inner security, it seems likely that Kristy McNichol will be around for a long time and that she'll have a good time in the process.

"But how are you going to feel at twenty-five," she is asked, "when a lot of your contemporaries have graduated from college and acquired an education and an intellectual discipline that you don't have? How do you think you're going to be able to keep up with them?"

For a moment, Kristy is speechless, her eyes widening in amazement. "But I'm going to be an actress!" she exclaims. She is already that. One can only hope it is enough.