Well-known for her role as ‘Cissy’ in the ’60s sitcom “Family Affair,” Kathy Garver began her film career a decade earlier as a child actor with appearances in three 1950s classic movies, “The Night of the Hunter,” “The Bad Seed,” and “The Ten Commandments.”
This month she returns to the big screen in “Mom, Murder & Me,” a film written and directed by Heather Donnell and part of this year’s California Independent Film Festival Association. The world premiere will be held at the Orinda Theater, Orinda, Calif, on September 14 (seewww.mommurderandme.com).
Graver says the film’s director approached preparation for filming a little differently.
“On many films and TV shows you often meet other actors for the first time on your first day of shooting,” said Garver from her home in San Francisco. “But for this movie during rehearsals, the director had us do improvisations as well as some yoga. So by the time we started shooting the movie, we knew the other actors quite well. I loved working like that.”
The film, she says, is also a “family affair.”
“It’s a fun movie and I play the ‘Mom’ who helps her daughter (Sarah Klaren) investigate a possible murder,” said Garver. “It’s a comedy-mystery and actually based on a true story that happened to the writer.”
One of Garver’s earliest films was also based on a true story – according to the Christian faith – and was one of Hollywood’s greatest Golden Age epics: “The Ten Commandments” (1956).
“I was hired as an extra for the scene where all the slaves are leaving during the Exodus,” she recalled. “I played Rachel, who sits in a wagon with a lamb. During the scene, I heard a loud voice suddenly boom out ‘Don’t let that little girl’s face get in the camera!’”
Garver says the associate producer came running over to cover her up, but she wondered about the voice. “This was ‘The Ten Commandments’ and I was only 8 during the filming so I thought, ‘Was this God talking?’”
But then a large crane descended on the set and “out gets Cecil B. DeMille!”
The director took an instant liking to young Kathy’s features, and wanted to save her for use in future scenes he was planning.
“He wrote a scene into the Exodus for me, where the slaves are getting ready to go on their long trek,” she recalled. “He had me start from the top of a stone stairwell and continue down the steps to the fountain where I try to fill my water vessel.”
In another scene, she was cast with “Moses.”
“I was holding my doll, Rebecca, on a paper mache mountain as the Red Sea closed,” she said. “Charlton Heston (Moses) asks me ‘Are you afraid?’ And I answer ‘No, but Rebecca is.’ As I hold out the doll, he picks me up and carries me away. Unfortunately, that scene was cut from the film!”
Over the next decade, Garver concentrated on TV roles and was 20 when hired for “Family Affair” (see www.kathygarver.com). While she enjoyed the show’s five season run, the work could prove challenging for a young adult.
“I was too old to play with the little kids,” she said, referring to younger costars Anissa Jones who played “Buffy” and Johnny Whitaker who was “Jody.” “And I was too young to hang out with the adults!”
She says Brian Keith, who played her uncle, loved the kids and was great to work with, and the two remained friends until his death from suicide in 1997. However his mood changed throughout the series.
“Brian was a lot of different personalities during the show. He was married to Judy Landon at the beginning, but she was very high society. He was much more down to earth and didn’t like all that hoopla, and they eventually divorced.”
Keith filmed “Krakatoa: East of Java” (1969) while still working on “Family Affair,” and met actress Victoria Young.
“He became much happier then and they eventually married,” said Garver.
In addition to acting, Garver published “A Family Affair Cookbook” in 2009 and plans to release another book, “Surviving Cissy,” in 2015.
Having survived the often difficult years as a child actor and now progressed to parental roles, as in “Mom, Murder & Me,” Garver is also planning a compendium of former child star actors from the 50s, 60s, and 70s for 2016, the 50th anniversary of “Family Affair.”
“We lost two wonderful former child stars in the past year – Shirley Temple and Mickey Rooney – so I think that book will be dedicated to them.”
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., with features, columns, and interviews in over 400 magazines and newspapers.