No More Kid Stuff

Once she was the little darling of Family. Now, at 18, Kristy McNichol sheds her tomboy image and takes a live-in lover.

by Christopher Stone
Us, June 23, 1981

"I could never be a sex symbol," claims Kristy McNichol. "Look at my nose." She wrinkles it. "It's fat! Sex symbols have thin noses, high cheekbones and big boobs." The actress glances despondently at her chest. "I've got a little bit of things, but I've got a long way to go."

Devoid of decolletage, McNichol is, nevertheless, intent on rounding out and losing her tomboy image -- on screen and off. "I don't want to be 14 and the tough girl down the block," she says. "I've been type-cast as a tomboy and I don't like it." Then, in an aside, she adds, "Now I don't want you writing an article on how Kris is trying to be a sex symbol and 30. All I want is a cute, sexy, little-bit-older look. I'm 18 years old. I want to act 18."

To project that desired sexy persona on screen, she'll have to look beyond her current role in The Night the Lights Went Out In Georgia. In this movie, loosely based on the Bobby Russell song recorded by Vicki Lawrence, McNichol is the tough kid sister of a would-be country music star, played by Dennis Quaid. As Amanda Child, she spends most of the movie dressed in sloppy clothes, bailing her brother out of sundry sexcapades.

Though Georgia does nothing to further her grown-up glamour-girl goal, McNichol does realize another ambition in the movie. "I get to sing! That's one of my dreams," she chirps enthusiastically. "I'd love to be a rock star, a Pat Benatar."

Her many admirers would argue that being Kristy McNichol is good enough. By the time she was 16, McNichol had already been a working actress for eight years; she had won two Emmys for her role as Buddy Lawrence in Family, the long-running ABC-TV series, and earned kudos for two theatrical films, The End and Little Darlings. Next month she appears with Marsha Mason in Neil Simon's movie Only When I Laugh and later this year in White Dog.

If McNichol is cursed with perennial pubescence on screen, in real life she acts her age and then some. According to the ingenue, "People think of me as wiser than my years," she says, "probably because I played Buddy for so long, and the world believed I was like that in real life." She sighs deeply.

"I guess I am an all-American girl in many ways. My head's on straight. I'm not into drugs. And I'm not on an ego trip." She pauses. "But I don't want to be considered a goody-goody all my life, like Shirley Temple."

What about the rumor that she's "Shirley Temperamental" at work? "That's not true!" she says emphatically, her brown eyes full of sparks. "I've never had a big fight on the set. I'm a perfectionist, but I always get along with the crew. I'm not demanding. I'm polite and I'm always on time."

"I understand those stories," she says stoically. "They say, the bigger you get, the more people want to knock you, because they're jealous. And I think that's sad. No one really knows me."

"Some people think I'm stuck up because I'd rather stay home with friends or go to a private club. The truth is, I think the world is getting sicker and I don't want to see what's going on outside."

"People are being killed right and left, and no one is doing anything about it. The laws are too weak. I think people who kill someone should be killed themselves." She lights a cigarette, then adds, "I wish someone would come from another planet, zap these weirdos out of the world and make it nice."

McNichol smoked her first cigarette for her role in Little Darlings, and she's been trying to quit ever since. She credits her mother with raising her "to be honest and respectable. She had the strength to be a father and the sensitivity to be a mother. She always pounded it in my head to stay away from drugs. She said, 'I'll disown you if you ever get into drugs.' That scared me. I think more parents should scare the living daylights out of their kids to keep them from drugs."

Because she spent so much time in front of the cameras, McNichol had private tutors most of the time. But she doesn't feel she missed anything by not being in school. "Growing up in school can be painful," she says, "because there's constant pressure to do what everyone else is doing. If you don't go along with the crowd, you're considered a freak. I would have been unhappy in that environment because I don't like copying everyone else."

Did her early stardom and critical acclaim ever seem like too much, too soon? "It took me ten years to get where I am," she observes. "I don't think that's too much, too soon. I think that's just about perfect."

Kristy McNichol began her acting career at age 8, appearing in TV commercials and signing on for Family when she was 10. Her own family was unlike the series' placid, Pasadena-based Lawrences. Her parents divorced when she was 2. Kristy and her brother Jimmy were raised by their mother, Carollyne, a secretary at the William Morris Agency, who also moonlighted as a motion-picture extra.

Carollyne McNichol, her daughter says, was never the stereotypical stage mother. "Even now, she says, 'If you ever want to quit -- if show business ever gets to you -- you should.' I've never been pushed by her in any way."

Retirement is the last thing on McNichol's mind. "I wouldn't want to win an Academy Award tomorrow. I don't want to be on that level yet. I want to take my time and do it right. I don't want to be an overnight superstar, then go down the drain the next week."

She adroitly handles an accelerating career, has her own home in the hills above Sherman Oaks, Calif., and steadily dates her hairdresser, Joe Cassaro [sic].

She won't rush into marriage, either. For now, the actress and her boyfriend are content traveling, camping, dancing, seeing movies and frequenting Japanese restaurants. Later, she envisions a "Brady Bunch type of family, a husband, six kids, animals and a big ranch."

When that time comes -- "probably when I'm between 25 and 30" -- Cassaro [sic, etc.] may be the man. The couple met when he did her hair for a magazine layout. Later, after another hairdresser gave her a bad perm, the frazzled McNichol called Cassaro, who flew to her rescue. What first attracted her to him? "He's got a cute butt," she jokes. Then, in a serious voice: "I was attracted by his sensitivity. He cared about me and my damaged hair, not the money."

Today, McNichol calls the 23-year-old hairdresser "my everything." She elaborates: "We're not just lovers. We tell each other everything. He can talk to me like a father; I can talk to him like a sister."

They lived together in Chattanooga during the filming of Georgia. Explains McNichol: "I couldn't think about marrying a man I hadn't lived with. I'd have to know how compatible we are in every way." The Brooklyn-born Cassaro passed the test. Her only complaint: "Sometimes he talks too much." She smiles. "You know New Yorkers!" Cassaro, she confesses, was irritated by her passion for neatness. "I've got to have a clean house or my brain doesn't function right. Virgos are like that."

McNichol thinks of herself as a typical Virgo, but not as a star. "My job is being an actress, and my life is separated from my work. When I come home from the studio, I don't want to talk show business. My friends love Kris. They don't care that much about Kristy, the celebrity."

"Sure, it's great to be rich and famous," she says, "but that's not everything. To me, everything means being healthy, being loved by your family and friends, and finding a nice man somewhere along the line."

By her own definition, Kristy McNichol has everything.