A few weeks ago, the fabulous Miss Gran and I were talking about our childhood daytime hours lost to television shows, and one of my favorites was old reruns of A Family Affair, which I remember distinctly as being a central touchstone in my early childhood–so much so I can picture the color palette, the thickness of its bright colors, like coils of oil paint.
The show’s premise was that architect-and-man-about-town has “family” thrust upon him when he must raise his brother’s orphaned children–the red-haired twins, Jody and Buffy, and teen sister Cissy. Sebastian Cabot famously played Mr. French, the butler (later replaced by John Williams as Mr. French’s brother).
The show had so many of the common fantasy elements of children’s books/movies: beautiful orphans living in a palace (in this case, a sleek urban bachelor’s apartment, which was always my idea of a palace as a kid), cherubic twins and a gorgeous and caring older sister, gruff but kindly caretakers. Everything was yours.
Funnily enough, when I told Sara about it, I think I was framing it as one of those “sexy dad” shows–in large part because Brian Keith was the male lead and Brian Keith has a strong place in my Ralph Meeker-Sterling Hayden-William Holden pantheon. But, of course, I later remembered he wasn’t the dad at all but “Uncle Bill,” which is even better. All of this is sort of summed in this picture, rather perfectly.
One of the reasons, I will admit, that I think the show absorbed me so much is that it had the tinge of tragedy. I remember learning that the real-life Buffy, Anissa Jones had died in her teens from a drug overdose. (Brian Keith had a sad end of his own.) To me, it seemed impossible even to believe she’d grown up at all, much less died. So doll-like was she, with what one TV critic calls the “saddest eyes on television, even at age eight.”
Like so many childhood fixations, the things that have stuck with me are kind of random, but the physical space of Uncle Bill’s apartment looms very large. I’m not the only one, as this post on TV party references the interiors, even directing me to a House Beautiful spread from 1970 that showed rooms “inspired” by the show.
It’s so interesting, these shows we watched as kids. I don’t actually remember any of the plots now and had even forgotten the name of Buffy’s famous doll (thank you, Alison Gaylin, for reminding me: Mrs. Beasley).
Yet I am sure I could walk through the family’s whole apartment and feel utterly at home. In some ways, I feel as close to it as to the house I grew up in. The candy-colored children’s rooms, the warm, Eames-style wooden paneling, the modernist sleekness of Uncle Bill’s den, which announced “man” to me. It was mine.