How ‘Family’ Star Kristy McNichol Struggled With Fame

by Suzanne Halliburton

Kristy McNichol, the youngest daughter on Family, was one of the biggest child stars of the 1970s. And keep in mind, that decade was stocked full of younger actors.

Think The Brady Bunch or The Waltons or The Partridge Family. As always, family dramas and comedies were big, but Family offered a take on serious family issues. The show was created by three super producers in Leonard Goldberg, Aaron Spelling and Mike Nichols.

McNichol played youngest daughter, Letitia. But that name was much too formal. Everybody called her Buddy. McNichol started on the show when she was 14. And she was so terrific in Family that she received four Emmy nominations, with wins for Best Supporting Actress in 1977 and 79. So that meant she had two of TV’s highest honors tucked away on a trophy case by the time she was 17.

But life in the public eye weighed on her. She told People magazine in 1989 that she was so bothered by fame that she had problems sleeping and lost weight. She earned her first starring role in a movie with the lead in Little Darlings in 1980. McNichol was paired alongside Tatum O’Neal, who’d already won an Oscar. The whole plot of the movie was to see which 15-year-old girl would be the first to lose her virginity during summer camp. Cynthia Nixon, who went onto to star in Sex and the City, also was in the movie.

“From the time I was very young, I was a professional, making money and assuming responsibilities,” McNichol told People. “I didn’t live the life of a child. I was living the life of a 30-year-old.”

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Former Star of Family Described Herself as ‘Out of Control’

People magazine put McNichol on the cover of its magazine in 1989. The headline: “To Hell and Back.” Much of the article focused on what happened during a movie production in 1982, when the former star of Family suffered a mental breakdown while working on a movie in France. She was barely into her 20s.

“I was totally out of control,” McNichol told People. “I couldn’t eat, and the whole month I was in France I hardly slept. When I did sleep, I was dreaming strange things. I was crying all the time. My weight dropped down to about 96 lbs. Nonstop crying. Nonstop anxiety. I was always shaking like a leaf. Freaking out, crying, confused, I didn’t know what was going on. I was so sick. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done to try and get through that film.” 

(Photo by Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images)

She returned to TV during the 80s, co-starring in Empty Nest, a Golden Girls spinoff. McNichol portrayed Barbara Weston, a cop. She and her sister moved back in with their father, Richard Mulligan’s Dr. Harry Weston. They were neighbors of Blanche, Dorothy, Rose and Sophia. So Empty Nest and Golden Girls did two crossovers.

McNichol decided to phase out acting from her life. Empty Nest was her final big TV project, although she has dabbled in voice over work.

​​”I was on the big stage between ages eight and 30,” McNichol told ABC News. “I left show business for a variety of reasons, but a big one was my interest in learning what else there is in life.”