This Kid's For Real

Fifteen-year-old TV and movie actress Kristy McNichol doesn't intend to let becoming a star turn her head

by Edwin Miller
Seventeen, February 1978

Kristy McNichol is tired. "Right now my body's three hours behind, on Los Angeles time," she announces during a visit to New York for a TV special. But she's thrilled, too, about dancing until three in the morning at a popular Manhattan disco, Studio 54. "It's got snow that drops from the ceiling," she says with excitement, describing the lighting effects. "Floating snow. It's got lights that swirl, that move up and down. It's got a dance floor as big as this whole restaurant!"

A casual girl, with a head of tousled brown hair, wearing a loose-fitting hopsack blouse and pink pants, Kristy has brought a friend, Lisa, along to share lunch. Lisa tells how she and Kristy had sat up the night before in Kristy's hotel room, tossing a bag of chocolate chip cookies back and forth, eating one with each catch. Kristy grins and says, "I ended up with the crumbs!" Kristy loves chocolate desserts, but her favorite food comes from McDonalds.

"I try and get away with eating there every night," she says, "but my mom says no." Kristy dramatizes the confrontation. " 'Mom, please, I'm not hungry, I want to go to the movies, I'll get something later.' Right! Then I go to McDonald's before I hit the movie. Then the next day she makes me stay home because she knows I went! Cokes and French fries and fried food are bad for your face, bad for your body. But I love them!"

A couple of gold medallions hang around her neck on a gold chain. One is new, a tiny replica of the Statue of Liberty that she has just acquired, the other, her astrological sign, was given to her as a birthday present. A Virgo, she was born on the ninth of September, 1962.

After making two movies (The End opens at Easter, but her first part, in last year's Black Sunday, was left on the cutting room floor), spending three seasons in a successful ABC-TV series, Family, and making dozens of appearances on TV in commercials or features, Kristy has met lots of celebrities. Once she spent a weekend in Las Vegas as the guest of the Osmonds. "I like Donny and all the other Osmonds because they're a beautiful family," she declares. "They're real." And she treasures the day Kate Jackson, of Charlie's Angels, tapped her on the shoulder at a TV party. "I turned around and said, 'Oh, wow! Kate Jackson!' " Kristy recalls. "She said, 'I love your work,' then just walked away."

Kristy has appeared on TV as an orphaned petty thief in Starsky and Hutch, and as a girl who possessed telekinetic power in The Bionic Woman. She enjoys playing parts that give her the chance to express strong emotions because, she says, "I like to get mad sometimes, which you can't do in real life, and I like to yell. But I don't like anything as much as being normal, like Buddy in Family." Last September, "being normal" won her a coveted TV Emmy Award for an Outstanding Continuing Performance by a Supporting Actress in a Drama Series.

Kristy is particularly proud of that part because, she explains, "I made Buddy into me. I made her like Donny Osmond, I made her like purple" -- Donny's preferred color -- "I made her wear her hair the way I do mine, wear clothes I like. My character's name is Lititia [sic] Lawrence, but I thought that was too much for a tomboy like me, so I asked to have a nickname, Buddy. Just like my real name is Christina Ann McNichol, and my friends call me Kris." She loves her part -- and the show as a whole. "It's so real," she says. "It has the ups and downs of a family, the arguing, the hugging and the kissing." But she adds, "Sometimes I think it's kind of slow. It's hard to keep someone young glued to the TV unless it's really exciting. I like everything peppy. I'm a real go-go-go!"

Occasionally she cracks up with laughter while watching herself in Family. But not always. "My character used to have a false retainer on her teeth," she remarks. "It was very dumb. You didn't see it, but it made me lisp, so you couldn't understand what I was saying." Kristy asked them to write it out of the script. "If I want to change a line -- like kids at school don't day 'home ec,' they say 'foods class' -- if it's nothing serious, the script lady says okay." James Broderick and Sada Thompson play her parents on the show. "If I could write the scripts," Kristy says, "I would change Sada's character from being so perfect in the morning. I've never seen a real mother who just got up, in a dress with her hair and makeup done, cooking breakfast for five."

Kristy has two brothers. Tommy, thirteen, makes TV commercials and works as her stunt double, and Jimmy, sixteen, acted in the recent CBS-TV series The Fitzpatricks. "Everyone has spats," she says. "My brothers and I have quarrels but not to the extent of punching each other. In my family, boys cannot hit girls. It's illegal. My brothers never hit me anyway. We have the weirdest fights -- wrassle fights, tickle matches, just for fun. The best thing in the world is to laugh," Kristy observes. "I've never felt a better feeling than laughing so hard I couldn't stand it. I go through spells when I start laughing for no reason, looking at someone's face or thinking of something that happened to me once."

She also enjoys playing gags on people. While Lisa and her mother were visiting the McNichols during their stay in New York, Kristy tried a trick on her friend's mother, describing it as "the worst kind of joke." She offered her a cup of thick Turkish coffee into which she had poured salt instead of sugar -- and with a free hand. Kristy chortles as she tells about it. A self-confident laugh crinkles her face, putting a glint into her dark brown eyes.

Without sounding egocentric, Kristy can make objective statements about herself. "Every day of my life," she remarks, "I'm told that I'm so good. Everyone says, 'Don't let it go to your head.' Sometimes I can't even hear them say it because I've heard it so much. Everywhere I go I'm treated as if I'm the biggest thing that ever hit their lives. I appreciate that, but it can get to you. I say thank you, but it's strange."

Burt Reynolds, who both directs and stars in The End, an offbeat comedy about a sick man who contemplates suicide, cast Kristy in a key role. "I fell in love with her on Family," he explains. "She is vulnerable; she's like an open wound. You don't need any long-winded speeches about what her relationships are with the other characters, you just sense them by the way she looks and talks. Her role in The End isn't big, but it's terribly important. Her character is the most mature of all -- she's one of the main reasons the man decides not to take his own life. Kristy is a tremendously instinctive actress. She makes acting look terribly easy, which is the greatest compliment you can pay an actor."

Kristy remarks, "People say that playing yourself is the hardest thing to do, and I think it's the easiest."

When she finished the film, Burt gave her a purple ring because she has a crush on Donny Osmond, and she gave Burt a red leather belt she made herself because he loves red. "Kristy plays my daughter," Burt says, "and I wish she really was."

Kristy is nice to everyone she meets. "I make sure of that," she explains, "because people can start rumors. Like they write: 'Tatum O'Neal is hard to work with.' If someone doesn't hire me because of a story he read, I'd be upset if it weren't true. If you can't get the truth in an interview, it's just a waste of time. Sometimes people will start writing things about you that are exaggerated, or they make little things big. I make sure I don't say anything that can be switched around. I have nothing to hide, but even at home and around normal people, I'm cautious."

Kristy's father, a studio carpenter, and her mother split up when she was born. "I had the children," Carollynne McNichol says, "and I was on my own as a secretary and doing extra work, so the kids would always come down to the studio. They saw other kids work and wanted to do the same thing. The more they did it, the more they liked it, and that's how it started. It's been great because it's kept us all close." Mrs. McNichol manages her three children's careers and invests the family earnings in real estate. She owns and rents several houses in the Los Angeles area.

Kristy has made dozens of commercials, but she prefers acting in noncommercial roles, which she began doing four years ago, when she was eleven. "Commercials aren't acting," she says. "They're corny. You say, 'Dear Mom, this toilet paper's too thin, get something thicker.' Normal people don't do that. Acting is a form of life. It gives me a great feeling. It's fun. A challenge."

Kristy doesn't attend public school anymore; she prefers having her own tutor to being looked at with awe by other kids. When not at work or studying, she plays with her two dogs, goes to the beach, skis, and rides a motorbike her mother bought her. She doesn't date. "I'm not allowed to go out with a boy until I'm sixteen, so I'm not rushing it. I like mature guys, a couple of years older than I am." And she enjoys going to the movies. "Never alone. I go with my friends, my brother's friends, my aunt, my mom, her girl friends. We all know each other," Kristy adds. "It's like one big happy family."

Kristy, who's amazingly level-headed, is well aware that millions of girls her age would love to be in her shoes. They write her so many fan letters she can't keep up with them anymore. "They always ask for autographed pictures," she relates, "and want to know how they can go about getting to act. I can't write them all to explain, so I give the letters to ABC, and they send out postcards with a picture of the cast on the front and our signatures on the back."

"It wasn't hard for me to get into acting," she says. "I'm a natural. A lot of kids aren't. They get nervous. They go in and put on an act. Being a TV personality is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. It's very exciting to go to all the big award shows and travel around, but I'm not a big star in my own eyes. Actors are just flesh and blood," Kristy goes on, digging into an enormous chocolate sundae, "like everyone else. We're just entertaining people to get them to watch our show. They are the ones to decide who's who -- who's good, who's not. We're doing it for them -- they are much more special than we are!"