The nineteenth summer of Kristy McNichol (1982)

The nineteenth summer of Kristy McNichol

Kristy McNichol - Only When I Laugh

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.

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.

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.

Fashionable '80s clothes for girls in the 1983 JC Penney catalog

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.”

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.

Stylish '80s shoes for men from the 1983 JC Penney catalog

“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 jn them, wishing she had a key so she could drive away. She was rebellious and arrogant back then.”

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 tot of playing.”

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.”

Sketches of the Titanic sinking (1912)
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.'”

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.”

>> Kristy McNichol: ‘Young twerp’ or hero to youth? (1984)

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)

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