Little darling: Kristy McNichol, the young actress America adored in the ’70s & ’80s

Kristy McNichol 1970s

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The nineteenth summer of Kristy McNichol (1982)

By Andrea Darvi

Maybe she’s no little darling on the set, but then Kristy McNichol never intended to be America’s sweetheart. All she wants is to work hard — and play hard

It was the start of a photographic session in a New York City studio and Kristy McNichol, on orders, stepped behind a partition, yanked off her designer blue jeans and red pullover sweater and slipped into something sexier.

Once in front of the camera, she dutifully slid the new garment an inch or two down her shoulder to reveal bare, youthful skin, then screwed her face into a series of semi-coy, sultry poses.

But something still wasn’t right. The broad, toothy, trademark grin — that nationally recognized signature of America’s favorite tomboy — was missing, and her lips were clenched protectively tight, as if concealing some silly little secret. The photographer was starting to get antsy, and finally Kristy deposited a big wad of chewing gum into a tissue.

Kristy McNichol 1980s

This is Kristy McNichol — on a bridge between the spunky gum-chewing teen-age tomboy of the TV series Family, and a new adult look that Hollywood, that image-manufacturing industry, has yet to fully define for her.

These are her very last days as a teenager — she will be 20 on September 9 — but already she is a certifiable Hollywood legendette.

She won an Emmy as Buddy in Family, and has torn through a succession of good Hollywood parts, such as the reluctant virgin in Little Darlings and the daughter of an alcoholic mother in Neil Simon’s Only When I Laugh.

Now 20th Century-Fox is about to release The Pirate Movie, with Kristy in the lead as a comic, romantic singing heroine. The film is based loosely on the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera The Pirates of Penzance — rock singer Linda Ronstadt played the lead in the New York stage revival.

At the moment, Ronstadt has nothing to worry about. But Kristy’s star is on the rise. As former ’40s child star Margaret O’Brien says, McNichol is an actress with few rivals in the business today.

Little Darlings movie with Tatum O'Neal and Kristy McNichol

Growing up in show business

It wasn’t always so. For years, Kristy McNichol was just one more anonymous Hollywood kid with only two discernible assets — a toothpaste commercial-grade smile, and a mother with a determined dream: to get her cute, all-American-looking kids (Kristy and brother/actor Jimmy McNichol) into show business.

The big push for her to go out on commercial auditions began when she was 8 years old. “I said, ‘Why not?'” Kristy remembers, a bit wistfully. “1 wasn’t against it. I didn’t know any differently. “I didn’t plan when I was young to be an actress,” she adds, her voice rising slightly in anger. “I wanted to be a doctor. I just kind of grew up in the business.”

What this has meant is that Kristy McNichol, the all-American kid, never had much of a chance to be a kid herself.

She began work on Family at 12, and today she’s a 19-year-old pro going on 30: “I didn’t really have a childhood. It’s not that I don’t care. It’s just that, if I didn’t have it, what can I do about it? I can’t change it. I can’t be a child now.

“People who are 40 and 50 talk to me, and say, ‘You’re so old when you’re only 19.’ They don’t understand it. But what has made me 30 is working with older people all my life.”

It’s not that she didn’t try to be a teenager. “She used to bring friends to the set to have someone her own age to talk to,” remembers actor Gary Frank, who played Kristy’s brother Willie on Family. “She needed someone to confide in. She was quite afraid of some of the things that were happening to her so rapidly.”

Kristy & Christopher Atkins in The Pirate Movie
Kristy & Christopher Atkins in The Pirate Movie

Playing the role of Buddy didn’t help when it came to sorting out the paradoxical role of child-woman.

Hollywood was insistent on marketing Kristy as a child (“They wanted to keep me really young — in case the show went on for 10 years. It was like they didn’t want me to grow up”). But it also demanded that on the set Kristy be an adult. It was a tough time for a teenager who sometimes just wanted to have a little fun.

Recalls one former child actor who guest-starred in a Family episode when Kristy was only 13: “She used to hop into carts [golf carts used for transportation around studios] and drive off,” he says.

“I’d say, ‘Kristy, what are you doing?’ She’d say, ‘Just hop in!’ The director would go crazy, screaming, ‘Where are they?’ Then Kristy would open up cars at the studio and sit in them, wishing she had a key so she could drive away. She was rebellious and arrogant back then.”

Kristy McNichol on cover of Dynamite

Kristy McNichol’s independence and her own interests

Hollywood wasn’t amused by her independent streak. The producers of Family cast Quinn Cummings — then a big contemporary talent — as the adopted orphan Annie Cooper, in part, says one of Cummings’s representatives, “to keep Kristy McNichol in line. Kristy felt that her own interests were as important as those of the company.”

The production company, this source says, made plans for the time when they might have to eliminate Kristy’s role altogether. “They wanted Quinn as a stopgap in there.”

That never came to be. Family went off the air in 1980, and Kristy decided to try to make her mark in feature films.

Through it all, she hasn’t lost her independent streak.

“I have a strong drive to get out and have fun,” she says vehemently. “I’m impatient… I want to get my hands into everything. But I don’t get into things like ‘my generation.’ I try to stay away from the women’s movement, detach myself from the political world. My desire is to work hard and play hard. I’m taking time off between movies and I want to do a lot of playing.”

Dynamite magazine covers (1981-1983)

Men, she says unabashedly, are her ideal playmates, because “they’re like little kids — they don’t grow up.” Her current boyfriend, Joey Corsaro, is a hairdresser and a playmate who likes to surf, boat and ski. (They met on the set of Little Darlings when he was called in to correct a “terrible perm” she had.)

All this playing doesn’t mean Kristy Is afraid of paying her dues in front or the camera or accepting the travails of stardom. “Everyone I meet wants to be an actor or actress,” she says. “Everyone wants to be a star. It’s a lot harder than they think.

“You’re living for the world. The world owns you — which I accept. If you want privacy, you stay home sometimes, or you go to an island. Everybody is always coming at me.”

Kristy McNichol 1981

Hopes for music and comedy

Her ambition? She would like to cut a record album and do more films. “I would love to do comedy,” she says excitedly.

“If I could wake up tomorrow and say I wanted to do — a movie with somebody — it would be Dudley Moore. But I wouldn’t want to be Bo Derek. She doesn’t get to get into a lot of the fun.

“I’m 19, and I don’t feel that I want to be sexy and suave. I don’t look in the mirror and get sexy. I don’t even know if I am or not. On the street, all the time, I get approached by parents who say, ‘I wish my daughter was like you.’ All I say is, ‘Thank you very much.'”

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She is not certain how she would feel if the questions stopped coming and the attention ceased: “You can’t say that it’s going to go on forever, because you really don’t know. I don’t want to say that if it ended I would freak.”

Would Kristy McNichol want her daughter to be like her? “If it was my child, I would probably not want it to be in the movie industry,” she says.

“She had her gum in her mouth all the time,” recalls Ken Annakin, director of The Pirate Movie. “We had a constant battle. She would hide it in her cheek. I’d say, ‘Come on, you’ve got the gum!’ And she’d say, ‘No, I don’t!’ Then I’d make her open her mouth and give it up. Perhaps she needed the gum with her as comfort. Well, that was her only sign of insecurity.”

Or perhaps the gum, hidden deep within her jaw, is a symbolic link to a virtually nonexistent youth.

Annakin remembers another scene from the movie. Kristy was wearing a heavy suit of armor, her face covered by a closed visor. Just as they were about to roll the cameras, a forceful but very young voice peeped forth from behind the visor:

“Will someone please take my gum?”

Annakin was only too happy to oblige.

Kristy McNichol and Tatum O'Neal Little Darlings 1980
Kristy McNichol and Tatum O’Neal in Little Darlings (1980)

Kristy McNichol: Is she a ‘young twerp’ or a hero to youth? Kristy-watchers receiving mixed signals (1984)

By Clifford Terry

For years, it seemed that Kristy McNichol was one of those sun-kissed, heaven-ordained juvenile actresses — talented but not mannered, cute but not cloying — who seem to have the world by the ponytail.

She was the quintessential California child — the girl-next-door who could set up a spike at the net — with a touch of Mississippi mud. Becky Thatcher amid the abalone.

In 1977, at the age of 14 — her seventh year in show business — she won the first of two Emmy awards for her performance on the ABC-TV series, “Family,” on which she played Letitia (Buddy) Lawrence, an outspoken tomboy-type who introduced a new Nielsen-household word: “Yucka.” A year later, she was reportedly getting $15,000 an episode. Jane Fonda visited her on the set and pronounced her “brilliant.”

“When she was 15, she made her film debut as Burt Reynolds’ daughter in “The End.” Burt Reynolds said he wished he could adopt Kristy McNichol.

Two years later, the All-American Girl image had begun to tire a bit, so she decided to put it in its rightful place. In the opening scene in “Little Darlings,” her first starring role in motion pictures, she kicked a boy in the crotch.

The film got its share of negative reviews, but McNichol came up smelling like the evening air in Beverly Hills.

Her subsequent performance in Neil Simon’s “Only When I Laugh,” said one critic, put leading lady Marsha Mason to shame. The movie grossed $12.3 million in just three weeks. McNichol’s price per picture was said to be $1.6 million.

Kristy McNichol actress

An “organic chemical imbalance”

But things started to change in December 1982, with three weeks of filming left on the romantic comedy, “I Won’t Dance” (since retitled “Just the Way You Are“). MGM announced the $16 million production was being suspended “indefinitely” — it would turn out to be a year –because its 20-year-old star was suffering from an “organic chemical imbalance” that made it impossible for her to continue to work.

More recently, McNichol watchers have been getting other mixed signals. According to which publication you read, she is one of the “current heroes” of American adolescents, or one of Hollywood’s “young twerps.”

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With the news of the production shutdown, of course, rumors immediately started ricocheting around the canyons and down the freeways. The word was out that Kristy McNichol was on drugs — one more addition to the list of “snow” bunnies.

“It was a pretty stupid thing to say about me,” McNichol responds, as she sips tomato juice in her Chicago hotel suite. “I’m not a drug user, and I’ve even made radio spots against alcoholism. So it was pretty dumb. We all know the names of those magazines and newspapers that print those distortions. That’s what they’re best at: lying.

“Basically, what happened to me was exhaustion. Stress. Pressure from working a long time without taking a year or two off. It all caught up with me. My doctor advised me to rest and not work, and that’s what I did, because my health is more important than a movie.”

Asked about reports that she had suffered from bouts of manic depression, she hesitates. “Um… no. No. That wouldn’t be it. There’s really no specific name for what I had.” [Editor’s note: In 1992, Kristy stated that she had eventually been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.] No medication was required, she adds. Nor was analysis.

“I knew something was wrong, of course. I didn’t feel good. I was depressed, I was tired, I didn’t want to do anything, I didn’t want to work. It all just hit me at the wrong time: right in the middle of a movie.”

Little Darlings movie Tatum O'Neal and Kristy McNichol

Brother Jimmy MacNichol talks

When she returned home to Los Angeles, her older brother, Jimmy — now a regular on ABC’s “General Hospital” — moved into her house.

In an article in People magazine, he said that his sister had to leave the production “or she would have been in a mental hospital. She was completely blacking out and losing her memory.”

This summer, he was quoted in Us magazine: “She had some real wild ideas at the time. She thought she was hemorrhaging in her brain, her weight dropped till she was thin as a rail and she cried nonstop.”

“It isn’t true,” she says matter-of-factly. “My brother didn’t say that. I wasn’t blacking out. Another exaggeration from one of those stupid magazines. I mean, yeah, he moved in with me, but we were going to do that anyway. Not just because of that. We had a good time together. We went on his boat a lot. Hung out a lot. It really was no big deal.”

In “Just the Way You Are,” directed by Edouard Molinaro (“La Cage aux Folles”) and scheduled to open Nov. 16, she plays a flute player who wears a brace on her leg, devises a scheme to conceal her handicap and heads off for the French Alps, where she falls in love with a handsome photographer (Michael Ontkean).

“Actually, I was ready to go back to work about three months after we shut down,” she said, “but there was no snow at Megeve (the ski resort where the remaining scenes would be shot), and we had to wait until the next January. So the rest of the year I played. Just played. Something I hadn’t done in a long time. Picking up where we left off was no problem. The snow was the only hang-up.”

Much of her appeal has been based upon her cuddle-me, big-eyed, non-threatening, size 3 looks.

When Jodie Foster was playing pubescent hookers and Brooke Shields was squeezing into her Calvin Kleins, Kristy McNichol was saying things like, “I’m just a cute wimpette. My lips are lopsided and my hair sticks up like a chicken.”

If she had any choice in the matter, she says now, sitting there in her sweatshirt and jeans, she would look like Jacqueline Bisset.

Like the characters she plays on screen, she smiles easily and frequently. Her answers are cordial, but frequently perfunctory and sometimes downright scanty, especially when tiptoeing is going on around the periphery of her private life. (No steady boyfriend, thank you, and no serious thoughts about marriage and family at the moment. As to an offhand question about her relationship with her mother: “Why should the world know these things?”)

Jimmy and Kristy McNichol on cover of Co-Ed magazine 1978

A child star

Her career choice was made when she was 7, after her mother — a former secretary for the William Morris Agency who had divorced her carpenter husband when Kristy was 3 — took her and Jimmy to movie sets to watch her work as an extra.

Her first work was in commercials, which led to small parts on “Love American Style” and “The Bionic Woman,” and bigger ones on “Apple’s Way” and “Starsky and Hutch.” Then came the big break, when she was 13, in “Family,” which ran for five years.

In her first big-screen assignment, “Little Darlings” (1980), she played the street-smart toughie who hooks up in a summer-camp bet with the rich kid (Tatum O’Neal) as to which one loses her virginity first.

She followed with “Only When I Laugh,” as the daughter of an alcoholic trying to make a comeback as both an actress and mother, and “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” as the hustling younger sister — “16 goin’ on 47” — of a boozing, wenching country music singer-writer (Randy Quaid).

Her next role was that of the daughter of a modern major general in “The Pirate Movie,” a loose adaptation of “The Pirates of Penzance” studded with new songs and tips of the hat to Frankie Avalon, Inspector Clouseau and Indiana Jones. (Gilbert and Sullivan undoubtedly stopped twirling in their graves long enough to note that it was both a critical and commercial disaster.)

Then there was “White Dog,” which still has not been released in this country because of its storyline. Directed by cult-figure Sam Fuller and based on a book by Romaine Gary, it stars McNichol as an actress who takes in a German shepherd, only to discover that it has been trained to kill blacks.

“It got incredible reviews in Europe and broke box-office records,” she said. “It hasn’t been shown here because people say it’s racist, which is really stupid. It’s an anti-racist film.”

Friends have been quoted as saying that the problems with “Pirate” and “Dog” destroyed her confidence and helped bring on her illness. She herself has said that she didn’t ever want to “have a flop or be a flop.”

“Those people don’t know anything. It’s stupid. I have always said that if a movie does well, I’m very happy, and if it doesn’t do well, my life isn’t going to be ruined.”

Kristy McNichol

McNichol’s image conflict

As for her current image-conflict, she appears in the November issue of Parents magazine on a list of 21 “famous or important” people most consistently admired over the last four years by 13- and 14-year-olds. (Among the others: Michael Jackson, Judy Blume, Eddie Murphy, Walter Cronkite, Clint Eastwood, George Burns, Charles Schulz, Sandra Day O’Connor and John Belushi.)

But last month Us magazine picked her — along with such nominees as Matt Dillon, Daryl Hannah, Sean Penn and Jennifer Beals — as one of “today’s little snots” — a “new breed of performer” characterized by “an overweening arrogance.”

“Few performers,” asserts the caption writer, “have given more gray hair than tough, temperamental Kristy McNichol. Demands for limos, tickets to clubs and favors for her friends have left producers, photographers, editors and publicists on both coasts stunned. The verdict: a case of too much, too soon. She dealt with her early fame in the typical kid’s way — by acting spoiled.”

YouTube video

She flashes a tight smile. “I don’t have any comment. It’s just a bunch of bull, that’s all. I’m not like that. I know I’m not, and people that work with me know that. Most of them. And my friends know that, so I don’t really care.”

Shortly after the shutdown of her movie, there was the inevitable talk that she wouldn’t be hired again. But following the wrap of “Just the Way You Are,” she began shooting “Dream Lover,” a thriller directed by Alan Pakula, scheduled for 1985 release.

“As soon as we started that, everything changed. It was, like, oh, she’s fine, everything’s normal again. And it was. But there was never a time I felt I wouldn’t work. Never.

“The all-American girl image has gotten a little sickening. But I think it’s slowly disappearing. I don’t want to be labeled, whether as a bad girl or a goody-goody-two shoes.

I just want to be well respected as an actress. I want to have a good time and have nice holidays, and if a good movie comes up, I’ll do it. One a year. And, hopefully, win an Academy Award. I mean, I made four movies in two years.” Kristy McNichol smiles again, then switches to a schoolgirl singsong. “I’ve learned my lesson.”

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Comments on this story

2 Responses

  1. > Her current boyfriend, Joey Corsaro, is a hairdresser and a playmate


    Corsaro is gay and so is Kristy. It was to deflect attention from her “uhfriend” Ina Liberace.

    definition of uhfriend: “She’s my, uhh, friend.”

  2. Thanks for this article. I came across Kristy for the first time in a teen magazine. I did find out she was on FAMILY. I liked her instantly. To this day I still do.

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