As ruler of The Underworld, I typically try to make it a place of fun and frolic or a domain from which to highlight some of those folks who (in my opinion) may not have received their full due. I endeavor to stay away from the negative (except where my own inherent cattiness is concerned, of course!) because the surface world is already filled to the brim with bad news. That said, today’s story is a tragic one without a happy ending, but I can at least hope (actually, know) that the body of work left behind by our subject still brings happiness to myself and others.
Our story begins in March of 1958 in West Lafayette, Indiana where a faculty member, Dr. John Paul Jones, and his master’s student wife, Paula, gave birth to a little daughter named Mary Anissa Jones. Paula was of Lebanese descent and the child’s middle name (pronounced Ah-NEE-Sah) meant “little friend” in that language. A little over a year later, a baby brother, Paul, arrived.
The family having moved to California while the children were still toddlers, young Jones was enrolled in dance class at the age of four. Her troupe was asked to perform on The Linkletter Show, hosted, of course, by Art Linkletter, a very famous figure in reality television throughout the ‘50s and beyond. Linkletter was renowned for his ability to interact with children and hosted several shows featuring them.
Called upon to do a cartwheel, she failed the first time and picked herself up to try again, this time nailing it. Already a determined and dedicated little trooper to whatever task she was assigned, she was mortified by her (initial) failure and cried all the way home, though the studio audience was captivated by the adorable doll of a girl.
Soon after, through a friend of her mother’s who had a child in commercials, Jones began auditioning for and landing jobs in advertising. She appeared in close to two-dozen commercials before the age of eight.
Television producer Don Fedderson was putting together a new series called Family Affair, all about the misadventures of a New York City bachelor used to living in his Manhattan high rise with only a valet/butler, but who is forced to take on the task of raising his two nieces and a nephew. The script called for a fifteen year-old girl, a ten year-old boy and another girl, aged six. Anissa Jones auditioned for the part (though she was actually eight) and won it thanks to her extra youthful looks and her utterly charming personality and acting talent.
When none of the boys seemed to be lighting a fire with the casting directors, the series star Brian Keith suggested a little boy he’d recently worked on in the film The Russians are Coming the Russians are Coming who had the ability to cry on cue. Young redhead Johnnie Whitaker was cast in the role, but his tender age of six required a shift in the concept. He and Jones were written as fraternal twins, Buffy and Jody, while Cathy Garver was cast as their older sister, Cissy. (In another example of the age tweaking that goes on in Hollywood, Garver was almost twenty-one at the time!) Ironically, the children were depicted as being from Terre Haute, Indiana, a city not far from Jones’ own birthplace.
This was in 1966 and the year before, Anissa Jones’ parents had divorced. It was not an amicable split and so her home life was surely no picnic. In the series, portraying an orphan shuttled here and there, she didn’t have to reach far to obtain the forlorn, dejected qualities that her character initially displayed. The first couple of episodes of Family Affair highlighted the adjustments that had to be made for this newly formed unit and the misunderstandings that were brought about when a single man takes on three youngsters.
Soon, however, the quintet solidified into a warm gaggle, falling victim only to the regular sort of issues that would befall any family (or, since this was television, let’s say almost any family!) Rotund Sebastian Cabot portrayed the fastidious, efficient, British butler whose household and lifestyle are upended even more than his employer’s by the arrival of the children. His exasperation eventually melted into affection, of course, and the vision of this large man with a tiny twin on each side became an iconic one.
Shortly into the run of the show, Cabot was stricken with bleeding ulcers in real life and had to exit the program for a while. In his absence (the character was called upon to return to England for a spell by no less than Her Majesty the Queen), John Williams stepped in as his brother and took over the combination of butler/nanny duties until Cabot could return, forty or so pounds lighter than when he’d left!
Initially, Jones referred to Cabot as Mr. Cabot, but as their interpersonal relationship as fellow actors developed, she took to calling him “Sabby” as all his friends did. When her cat Tiger (a gift from Brian Keith) had kittens, she named one of them Sabby in his honor.
Keith had in real life suffered the loss of a child when his eight year-old son Michael died from a sudden case of pneumonia. This potentially devastating event did continue to chip at his heart, but he and his wife adopted three children to go with their surviving daughter, so he knew a little something about raising an unorthodox family.
The series was saccharine, occasionally immensely so, but it was also pleasant, charming, tender, amusing and, probably most of all, cute. The “hook” of an unconventional family at the center of a sitcom was still a rather new thing (something Nanny and the Professor and The Brady Bunch would expand on. In fact, Susan Olsen, Cindy on The Brady Bunch, won her role on the series with the same curly ponytails that Jones sported on Family Affair and would, like Jones, be forced into wearing them until long after they were age appropriate.)
Anissa Jones had a precious, but still quite natural, manner that was so appealing. She somehow had a distant, thoughtful type of visage and a sweet little voice that sometimes had a plaintive quality to it, especially when she was asking questions that she didn’t know the know the answer to. For me, some of the cutest moments of Family Affair are simply watching the excitement in the children when “Uncle Bill” comes home after a long trip. I find these ecstatic bits to be even more endearing than the scripted “special” scenes supplied by the writers. Nevertheless, Both children were cuter than cute though Jones, perhaps, holds a special place in my heart because my little sister (thirteen years my junior) was almost a carbon copy of her. I would never post pictures of my sister here, but the resemblance is startling. It continued to be there as she grew into her teens (although my sister was a hopeless brat while Jones was always visible only in an idealized way.)
One thing that was admirably forward about the often cutesy and cloying program was its use of children from varied walks of life as friends of the twins. The casting of the children’s friends was frequently multiracial.
Buffy carried an unusual doll around called Mrs. Beasley. It was a big, blonde thing with glasses and a blue, polka-dotted dress. (And it underwent quite a makeover from the pilot to the series, becoming far cleaner and more attractive overall!) The character treated it as if it could talk to her and related to it as close friend (almost an imaginary friend, though at least the physical object of the doll was on hand.) This doll became immensely popular and was eventually marketed to little girls in stores all across the nation.
Family Affair was, like Fedderson’s previous series My Three Sons with Fred MacMurray, almost completely geared to fit its leading man. MacMurray had a special arrangement in which he would have all of his scenes filmed together in a certain block of time, then the rest of the cast would do their own scenes later, thus freeing him from being around for too long. Likewise, Keith’s scenes were all done in a row and in a certain time frame, leaving the rest of the cast to work around that after the fact.
Considering this, it’s even more amazing that young Jones and Whitaker could give the type of performances they did since they were filming scenes and episodes completely out of sequence, many times without Keith even being present, to have them patched together later in editing! Keep in mind that there were THIRTY episodes a year filmed of this show the first two years, far more than are ever done of a sitcom nowadays. Naturally, though they got on well with Keith (and Whitaker, in particular, adored him), they in time gravitated more towards Cabot.
In 1967, Jones helped present the Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy Award to The Monkees. The following year, she, along with Whitaker and Cabot, were assigned to present the award for Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role – Drama. The threesome walked onto the stage, with Jones carrying the ever-present Mrs. Beasley, and the children stepped onto two small risers that had been placed there for them.
After reading the nominees’ names clearly and sweetly, the winner was announced to be Gunsmoke’s Milburn Stone, a man who had been playing Doc Adams on the series for thirteen seasons and was in the middle of the fourteenth (and it would run for twenty!) He came up to the stage and, finding that there seemed to be no good place to go amidst the risers, the children and the sizeable Sebastian Cabot, knelt down onto Anissa’s riser and spoke into the microphone that had been placed low for her! (And I'm sorry, but I don't know who the blonde is who was helping to hand out the statuettes that year.)
She asked if he wanted her to leave and he exclaimed no, choosing to embrace her with his right arm as he gave his acceptance speech. She looked on bemusedly as he continued to thank his cast and crew, occasionally smiling to herself at the occasion. (Incidentally, both Keith and Cabot were nominees in the Leading Actor in a Comedy category that year, perhaps canceling each other out, though Keith was nominated alone two other times and never won an Emmy for his work on Family Affair.)
When the category was over, she went to exit with Mrs. Beasley when Cabot instructed her to pick up her riser as Whitaker had done. She placed the doll on the riser and picked both up, with not a little bit of effort (!) and padded off with Cabot. Having me relay this whole scenario to you, even with pictures, does not do justice to the unbelievable sweetness of the moment. Jones had a particularly adorable walk, made even more so by the then-fashionable patent leather shoes, tights and short dresses she was placed in.
One year, Jones broke her leg and the event was written into the series so that there would be no loss of production time (to speak of) over it. She was put in a cast and the scripts were revised, whenever necessary, to reflect her injury.
Jones attended school, like many other acting children, right on the lot of the series, except for those periods when she wasn’t filming. However, a significant amount of her free time was spent promoting the show. She posed for still photos, went on promotional trips, appeared on other series including Laugh-In and an episode of To Rome with Love as Buffy Davis, and was generally pressed into service like a workhorse.
Her image was marketed in every conceivable way. There were Buffy dolls (that came with their own miniature Mrs. Beasleys!) There were comic books and storybooks about the show. Any type of girl toy imaginable seemed privy to having her image associated with it, even this bizarre, scary-ass makeup and hairstyling head that has nothing whatsoever to do with Jones or Buffy! Check out that scary face and ask yourself if your daughter wouldn’t come screaming into your room at night if she awoke to have this decapitated noggin sitting on her dresser! There was even a Buffy cookbook with recipes galore for those burgeoning chefs still in frilly panties and pinafores.
There were countless paper dolls, too. Some were just of Buffy, some of Jody and some of the whole family. We can all thank Jesus that the Sebastian “Mr. French” Cabot paper doll came fully clothed already and wasn’t depicted with him in his underwear and sock garters!
Her face was on everything and I am seriously doubting that she was ever properly compensated for the use of her image. That was not the way in those days. The series ran from 1966 to 1971 and I know that members of The Partridge Family got nothing from all the use of their images for their show, which ran from 1970-1974. This advertisement, meant for toy distributors, even contains the phrase “Put Buffy to work for you” in its text! Yes, she was put to work constantly, and for every photo and every personal appearance, her hair was tugged and pulled into those ponytails and then curled meticulously into place.
In 1969, while Family Affair was still in production, Jones was cast in the Elvis Presley movie The Trouble With Girls (and how to get into it.), one of his last films as an actor. Based on a period novel set in the 1920s, this was a departure for The King in that he wasn’t the absolute focus of the storyline. In fact, for the first and only time, he appears in less than fifty percent of the footage! Jones appeared as the child of Sheree North and got to work with not only Presley, but also cinema legend Vincent Price. For once, she was seen in hairstyles differing from her Buffy ponytails. Continuing in the spirit of racial harmony found on Family Affair, she shared many of her scenes with a young black actor named Pepe Brown. Also appearing without credit as an auditioning child singer is Miss Susan Olsen, who would soon become an even bigger iconic child star than Jones on The Brady Bunch.
When Family Affair was cancelled in 1971, it was still a moderately successful show (it was a top five program in its second, third and fourth seasons), though ratings had tapered off. CBS was changing its image to more adult-oriented fare (as well as eighty-six-ing anything considered rural in tone.) It was still popular enough to warrant plans to switch it from CBS to ABC, but in the end ABC decided that having The Brady Bunch was enough of that series type.
Incidentally, a now-forgotten remake was put forth in 2002 with Gary Cole and Tim Curry, holding to the basic premise. The sweetness was mostly replaced by the now-typical brattiness and sarcasm found in TV children. The stale, unsuccessful show only lasted for fifteen episodes before being mercifully yanked. The children of the series have since continued to work in television (and, in some cases, movies), but the chemistry of the original series could not be duplicated in this rehash.
With Family Affair in reruns during the day, Buffy was still in the public’s consciousness. Initially, Jones went to school and attempted a normal life (making many friends), though the idea of an acting career had not left her. She strenuously sought the role of satanically possessed Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist, which was a complete and total departure from her work in the sitcom, but ultimately Linda Blair was cast.
Keith, having thoroughly enjoyed working with her on Affair, asked her to work with him again in The Brian Keith Show, in which he played a Hawaiian pediatrician. Jones would have portrayed a local teen of the surrounding neighborhood. Having already survived the grind of a punishing TV show schedule, she declined the part (which was taken on by another girl and in short time written out altogether during a restyling of the show.)
In what might have been a career-building role, she was offered the Jodie Foster part in Taxi Driver. She didn’t accept the part for reasons unknown, though it was the edgy, alternative sort of work she was eager to do in the wake of Mrs. Beasley and the ponytails. She continued to busy herself with school, friends and a job at a local donut shop.
Her personal life had continued to be messy with some back-and-forth living between her parents until her father won custody of her and her brother. This was followed, though, by her father’s premature death. Then she was branded a runaway when she decided not to go back and live with her mother, but chose instead to live with friends. She wound up in state custody for a time before moving back to her mother’s. On her eighteenth birthday, she was allowed access to the earnings she had accrued during her time as a young TV star.
$180,000 is a nice chunk of change now, but in 1976, it was the equivalent of almost three quarters of a million dollars. She had no need or reason to work at all again. She still wished to be an actress, however. She purchased a car, a Pinto, and continued to seek acting opportunities while working at the donut shop. She and her brother rented an apartment together not far from her mother.
Things seemed to really be on the verge of happening finally when she was offered a shot at the role of a child prostitute in the film Pretty Baby. Director Louis Malle was planning the film set in the brothels of New Orleans and a key role was that of a twelve year-old girl. Every young actress in Hollywood either auditioned for the controversial role or turned down offers to play it for whatever reason. Tatum O’Neal, Jodie Foster, Linda Blair, Kristy MacNichol and Dana Plato all allegedly turned the part down. Others who sought it were Diane Lane, Michelle Pfeiffer, Melanie Griffith, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Laura Dern, Helen Hunt and on and on and on.
Sadly, Anissa Jones would be dead before the official auditions came about. The role in Pretty Baby would ultimately (and controversially) be played by Brooke Shields.
1976 was a time when the drug culture in America was close to full swing, especially in California and other “happening” areas. Jones fell in with a group of kids who were partying heavily and began a relationship with a boyfriend who was a drug user. A wealthy eighteen year-old girl with her own car and little to no parental control placed into this environment was a recipe for disaster. Disaster struck on August 28th, 1976 when Anissa was found dead in the bedroom of a friend’s house after a night of partying.
The coroner who examined her body had never witnessed a drug overdose this severe. Her body was filled with no less than four different types of drugs including cocaine, PCP, Quaaludes and Seconal. Having only been on her own a short while, she had all but $17,000 of her earnings still left in the bank. There were no official services held for her and she was cremated, her ashes spread into the Pacific Ocean. Eight years later, her little brother Paul would also die of a drug overdose.
Child stars in Hollywood have long been the victims of everything from driving or larcenous parents to uncaring executives to lack of proper education to exposure to all sorts of behavior they should have been shielded from as well as many other dangers. Every year that passes brings just a little more insight, awareness, legislature and understanding of the pressures and temptations that these children face, but there always seems to be one constant: some kids simply cannot adjust to life as they enter young adulthood. So many turn to drugs in order to (temporarily) soothe the pain. It’s ironic and sad that these kids who bring such pleasure to millions of people are sometimes living in excruciating torment.
Anissa Jones did make a difference to some people. There are many young men and women who saw her death (seemingly impossible to grasp from the outside looking in) as a wake up call to give up toying with drugs. There are those who risked death, but somehow came out on the right side of it (like Brady kid Maureen McCormick, who shoveled enough coke up her nose to fill a thousand snow globes!) Even Johnnie Whitaker, who saw his treasured friend die from drugs, went through a period of addiction himself. He, and other survivors – notably Paul Peterson – have striven to raise awareness and offer support to kids in their situation. Then there are those for whom nothing can cause them to avoid that trap.
Today, Jones is still entertaining a whole new generation of children when their parents, many of who grew up watching her, show them the DVDs of Family Affair. All five seasons have been released and they are a delightful piece of entertainment for young people (and maybe even some not so young!) The story of Anissa Jones is a sad one, but her legacy of Buffy Davis still puts a smile on many faces even now.