The Essential Kristy McNichol

by Lawrence Eisenberg
unidentified magazine, circa 1982

When they're in their teens, most girls dream of being movie stars. Kristy McNichol dreams of being a hairdresser. "I love cutting hair," she says. "People say to me, 'Oh, you're crazy, you're too talented to be a hairdresser.' I think, Hey, hold everything! If I like to cut hair and feel it's fun, then I'm going to do it. Just because I'm special in one area doesn't mean I can't go and pick up scissors and cut people's hair. And I think, Wow, I could have this, too, as a career if I wanted to."

The setting for this revelation is a booth in the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Kristy McNichol, the runty tomboy who dislodged America's heart in such films as The End, Little Darlings, and Only When I Laugh, as well as on TV in "Family," is now nineteen. The chipmunk cheeks are gone, the hair is sun-streaked, and the familiar ironing-board figure, while still undernourished, is veering towards womanhood. Her outfit is L.A.-androgynous -- pink pants, white sweatshirt -- but her ears bear diamond studs. It is a look that could be a metaphor for the ambivalence inside.

"Let me tell you something," Kristy is saying. "Acting is the kind of career that's so hard to keep in perspective when it comes to your personal life. So I have the feeling if I got into more of a normal-life career, I'd have a balance and it would keep me thinking normally." She lets loose a cascade of giggles. "Because I'm so afraid of starting to think and act like I'm some kind of star and some kind of rich person."

Except that Kristy is a star, and she is a rich person -- if earning more than $1 million a year is still considered rich. As affirmation of her status in show business, consider the opinion of Ken Annakin, Kristy's director in The Pirate Movie, set for release nationwide next month: "She's amazingly professional in everything she does. In this film, she does a lot of things she's never done before -- but her timing is always perfect." Or recall Neil Simon's comment when he hired her to play Marsha Mason's daughter in Only When I Laugh: "My own enthusiasm notwithstanding, Marsha is one of the best actresses of our time. Unless we had a feisty, funny actress who could go toe to toe with her, the relationship wouldn't come off."

Yet for all the critical kudos, Kristy didn't receive an Oscar nomination for Only When I Laugh. She says, however, that "I don't feel bad. When they decide to nominate me, they will. I can't live by thinking [here, her voice assumes a melodramatic, tearful tinge], Oh, my God, how could they not nominate me? I'm going to cry alone in my room and not face the world [belly laugh]! Yeah, maybe I am a great actress, but maybe, personally, I'm not ready to have an Academy Award sitting in my bedroom. I've got to live my life. What is this life for if not to live?"

During this speech, Kristy has clapped her hands, pounded her chest, and hit the table. Her pretty little urchin face has reflected a kaleidoscope of emotion, especially in the eyes, which seem to predate the Sphinx. Her fingers touch the plate in front of her but don't go near the toasted bagel on it, though you desperately wish she would eat something and put on a little weight. Indeed, if you spend more than six minutes with Kristy McNichol, you'll probably not only want to feed her but ask her to look both ways before crossing the street -- she seems that vulnerable. So how does she protect herself, you wonder?

Kristy offers a mischievous smile, then gets serious. "The trick is to keep real people and only real people around you. Honest, open relationships. My whole family is very close. My friends, the few that I have, are incredible friends. They like to keep out of my business life, and I keep them out. I have a sixth sense of knowing if I can trust someone and if they're worthy of me or if they just want to be around me for who I am, and that's why I have very few friends. I don't know where I got the ability. It's scary sometimes." Has she ever been mistaken? Kristy explodes with laughter. "Everyone makes mistakes. I don't want to be perfect. That would just be too much pressure!"

There are, to be sure, pressures enough on a nineteen-year-old who's been working for two-thirds of her life, including the tacit pressure of keeping up with her peers -- Tatum O'Neal, who was sophisticated in diapers; Jodie Foster, who was playing a hooker at twelve; Brooke Shields, a sex symbol by virtue of the media and her Calvins. "They have their life and I have mine," Kristy tells you. "Do you know what I'm saying? They're all real great in their own way. But would I do commercials for Calvin Klein? It would all depend upon where my career was going or how close I was to Calvin Klein. Right now I wouldn't, because I'm heading in more of a... I want to be respected, and I don't know if I want to rush into being a woman too quick. I haven't become a woman yet. I have time for that in a couple of years."

You mention interviewing Julie Harris a dozen years ago and asking if she had one wish, what it would be. And you tell Kristy her answer: "I'd want to look like Elizabeth Taylor." This from a woman who had won several Tonys and Emmys and was considered one of the great actresses of her generation... This woman who would "give it all up if I could look like Elizabeth Taylor."

"Oh, that's so neat!" says Kristy, her whole body seeming to embrace the story. "Me? I'd like to look like Jacqueline Bisset. Her features aren't just pretty. She has other qualities. You know, she's not so perfect that it's ridiculous."

Would Kristy give up all her accomplishments for that? She ponders the question a moment. "Well, I don't know. I think I'm all right. I'm not a great beauty, but I'm not ugly. My hair is normally dark brown and the summertime makes it lighter on the ends... I was a blonde in The Pirate Movie. Three months before we started shooting, I made it that way. I just wanted to see what it would be like to have blond hair. I din't have more fun, but it was fun -- though it kind of made me look a little washed out. But in the movie, it looked great. You are going to die when you see it!"

What you learn very quickly about Kristy is that there is no false modesty here, no movie-star humility, just a keen recognition of what is and what isn't. "When I was doing Buddy in 'Family,'" she is saying, "I took the character -- the inner part of her -- and made it me. The moment I said I was Buddy, I became her -- I didn't just act. But when I got home at night, I never thought about Buddy. When I go to work, I work. And when I'm done, I move so fast you don't know what happened to me. I like to get back to where everything is -- my dog, my family, my car, my room, my posters on the wall, my friends. We all pile into my jeep and go to the beach -- all kinds of beaches everywhere, it doesn't matter. I also love to play basketball. There's this guy I'm dating on and off, and we play basketball a lot. I also love dancing. I love to go motorcycle riding. I love to go to Palm Springs [where her family has a condo] and lie in the sun."

Kristy has been more or less on her own for two years now, having moved from her family's home at the age of seventeen to her own house, where she was eventually joined by a young man named Chris Daggett. "We became friends, and then he ended up moving in [enormous blushing, enormous laughter]. We were really good friends, and then it turned into something more. And then we decided we shouldn't live together. We're still friends now. He's a special guy."

These days, Kristy lives alone in another house in the hills. "It's so cute. It's a classy house, but it's got me in it. And it's very clean. I'm fantastic about that. I have one big bedroom and a beautiful bathroom. I love bathrooms. Not because of the mirrors -- it's not that I dig looking at myself. I just like all the things you have in a bathroom. I like taking bubble baths. I also have a nice-sized kitchen and a guest bedroom and a screening room that's really quaint. It's not big, like this is the star's screening room. I have a collection of all kinds of movies, from old to new to weird to emotional to great. My aunt gave me a popcorn machine. She thought, What do you give the kid who was everything?"

The kid who has everything was born Christine Ann (known to friends, she says, as Kristy, Chris, Chrissy, Christianne, Christine, and Christina) on September 11, 1962, in Los Angeles, the second of three children of Carolynne and James McNichol. Three years later, the McNichols were divorced. With a trio of toddlers under the age of four to support, Carolynne took a job as secretary at the William Morris talent agency and worked as a movie extra on the side, often toting along Kristy and brother Jimmy, both of whom presently began auditioning for commercials.

And so it was that at the age of seven, a hysterically frightened Kristy did her first commercial. It seems to have gone all uphill from there, with a regular role on TV's "Apple's Way" and appearances on "The Bionic Woman," "Starsky and Hutch," "Love American Style," and several "Afterschool Specials." In 1976, she was cast as Buddy, the youngest daughter in "Family," and spent several of her formative years growing up in living rooms across the nation. As Jay Presson Allen, creator of "Family," recalls, "She came in to audition for Aaron Spelling, Mike Nichols, Mark Rydell, and myself. She was -- what? -- eleven years old? The minute she came in, the search was over. She has an enormous range, and I don't believe she's even begun to plumb it yet, as varied as her performances have been. Her outstanding characteristic? I'd say honesty."

Several TV movies later, it began to occur to a number of directors, Burt Reynolds among them, that Kristy also had big-screen potential. "I wanted Kristy for The End," says Reynolds, "because I thought she was a young Jane Fonda, and I cast her as my daughter. Soon, I found the idea of incest creeping into my brain. [!!! - S.E.] She's a very sexy and a very, very talented lady."

This talent that has brought in millions of dollars and the admiration of Burt Reynolds -- has it also brought unending joy and excitement? "Well, sometimes I feel like I missed out on a lot," Kristy says. "I didn't go through high school -- I had a tutor the whole time. And, honestly, from the bottom of my heart, I'd never try to persuade someone I cared about to be in this business. There's a certain level of maturity and emotional input from yourself you have to have in order to handle all of this, and unless you have it, don't even touch this business." She pounds her chest, glances at her shirt, and pulls it down. "Stick to going to school, meeting people, getting to know yourself."

"I've worked my whole life. I've grown up in this business around adults. And that's probably why I'm a good actress -- because I'm so old inside." Kristy shrugs. "But I also have a young person inside me that's not going to grow up. Still, I'm doing the best I can with all I'm going through, and I've done a real good job -- and that's all I know!"

Tears sit tentatively on Kristy's lower lashes. Then she smiles. It seems as though the old person is surprised at what the young person has just said. "That was a good speech," she remarks. One of her small hands heads for the orange juice, touches the glass, then withdraws. You urge her to take a sip. "No," she says. "I like talking. I like talking better than anything."

Good. So maybe now is the time to talk about love. Kristy assumes a serious expression and says, "Well, it's a splendid thing!" Then she breaks up, so that her voice sounds like a 33-rpm record played at 78 speed. "Love? Oh, God, if you're not ready, don't do it! If it hits you in the face, then it means something... Love can really get in the way, it really can -- in the way of a career, family, everything. I have been in love. It's an incredible experience, something I wish I could have gone through later. Then again, I think, Wow, I'm ahead of the game, because I went through it so young. Well, not so young, but young. What I learned was there's nothing you can do about it, and when you fall out of love, you have to move on and try to find another love as good as that. I don't know if I'm ready to do it again right away, but I'm open to meet the kind of guy who'd care about me and love me so much that nothing could stand in his way -- nothing. The world could come to an end and he'd be right there."

Warming to her subject, she raises her voice, causing the Polo Lounge to take on the look of an E.F. Hutton commercial, with all ears in the immediate vicinity turned to Kristy. "I want to get married," she is saying. "I want to have kids and live on a ranch with pigs and cows and horses. I want these kids to grow up in clean air -- no show business, no money. Well, not no money... You know what I mean. I don't want money to cross their heads. I just want to have kids so I can know that I have brought something into this world that I think is worthwhile."

Still, don't even contemplate the possibility that Kristy plans to give up acting. Come September, she leaves for France to begin filming Edouard Molinaro's I Won't Dance, a love story in which she'll play a lame girl who learns to overcome her handicap. And in the past year alone, she has completed two other movies. The first, Sam Fuller's White Dog, based on a Romain Gary novel drawn from the involvement of his wife, the late Jean Seberg, in the civil-rights movement, stars Kristy as an actress who adopts a stray German shepherd, then discovers its previous owner had trained it to kill blacks. The film has had problems: groups for whom it's been previewed consider it racist, and it's now being recut. "The truth is," says Kristy, shaking her head, "I was dying to work, and maybe that was a mistake. But I was attracted to the character. In the end, I meet the person who trained the dog, and I really let him have it. I get to yell and scream and tell him where to go. Hopefully, when they finish recutting the movie and put it out, people will see that it's antiracist."

Her forehead smoothing out, Kristy launches into a nonstop soliloquy on her other film, The Pirate Movie, a modern version of The Pirates of Penzance: "When I was little, I saw The Swiss Family Robinson, and I went crazy, because I wished I could have been in that situation with this family, shipwrecked and thrown onto this island and building this tree house. I fantasized about that movie like you would not believe. I saw it sixteen times. And when I was offered The Pirate Movie and found out that its director, Ken Annakin, had directed The Swiss Family Robinson, I went crazy!"

At this point, Kristy grabs the microphone attached to your tape recorder. "I have to tell America: this is from me, guys and girls of the world. The movie is fun, outgoing, crazy, off the wall! It's another side of me, and the other side is a crazy young person. Don't go in there thinking, just go in and enjoy it. Relax, kick back, have a little fun. The music is wonderful -- I sing four songs. The look is incredible -- we filmed it in Australia. And Chris Atkins is just gorgeous, the most gorgeous that he's ever been, in my opinion. And funny. He's so full of emotion and realness -- and going through so much so quickly, I hope he's okay."

(Says Christopher Atkins of his co-star, "I'm in love with that girl. She's so neat. I can't say enough. She's so truthful, so honest. In Hollywood, everybody's afraid to be wrong. If Kristy makes a mistake, she admits it right away. And she's so full of energy -- if you could harness her energy, you could light up New York City for a year.")

Kristy has finally noticed her attentive audience in the Polo Lounge, and she smiles. "I just can't keep myself from doing things that I like to do... I feel sorry for older people who are walking with a cane. I pick up stray dogs that don't have a home... I don't care what people say or think from the outside of me. I know what I've got going on inside, even if people want to distort it."

What could there possibly be to distort? "A million things. What does a celebrity go through? You know, you hang out with someone you think is great in some way, and if it's the wrong person to hang out with, people right away think you're doing something wrong. Or that you're taking drugs or that you're doing this or that. God, it's just sick -- it's sick and it makes me really sad how people can just make you look like you're so ruined inside when you're the opposite. I mean, everyone has problems, and if more people would give time and love and care to people who have problems, it would be a happier world!"

And now, with no discernible break, Kristy segues into telling you how she "quit smoking four months ago. I also quit biting my nails, which was hard. You can't put anyone down for doing it, because I can relate to why people do it. Look, I'm very much opposed to young people getting involved in drugs and alcohol. I've made radio spots against alcoholism. I'd tell my own children, 'Don't do it, don't experiment.' I'd talk to them and warn them about the dangers. At the same time, I don't have the right to tell people what to do with their lives. Everyone has little habits, bad and good... I have so many sides to my mind, and there aren't many people who can cope with what I'm all about."

Least of all Kristy, it would appear -- what with the oldster and the youngster clashing within. Still...

The essential Kristy McNichol, while elusive, is not beyond pinning down. Witness this story told by Ken Annakin: "We have a scene in The Pirate Movie where Kristy is in an old-fashioned suit of armor. The armor was very heavy, a great strain on her shoulders, and she couldn't move her arms. We closed the visor and were all ready for Chris Atkins to come in and start the scene when Kristy's voice came out of the armor, saying, 'Hold on, somebody better take my gum.' The prop man had to reach in and get it. And just as the visor was about to snap shut again, she looked into the camera and said, 'I just want to say that it's not all sunglasses and autographs in this business.'" And that, in essence, may be what Kristy McNichol is all about.