‘Family Affair’: The Heartbreaking Story Behind the Death of ‘Uncle Bill’ Star Brian Keith

by Suzanne Halliburton
Photo by CBS via Getty Images)

Family Affair and Brian Keith captured our hearts back in the 1960s. He played Uncle Bill, the successful New York bachelor who suddenly became guardian to his brother’s three children — Cissy and twins Buffy and Jody.

The show ran from 1966-71. Uncle Bill dealt with raising Cissy, a teenager, and twins Buffy and Jody, who were in kindergarten when the show started. The children’s parents were killed in a car wreck in Indiana. They moved in with Uncle Bill in New York.

But like several other actors from Family Affair, Brian Keith suffered a tragic death. He died in 1997 at the age of 75. The coroner ruled he died of a self-inflicted gun shot wound. Family members found him at his home in Malibu. It was unclear why he took his own life.

But he had left the hospital and stopped treatment for lung cancer. And he was distraught over the death of his daughter. Daisy Sampson was 27. She killed herself weeks before her father died. She didn’t leave a suicide note. Sampson appeared with her dad in the TV series Heartland in 1989. They were buried next to each other.

Plus, Variety reported that Keith suffered from financial problems.

Stars of Family Affair Were Heartbroken

“Knowing Brian, who has been so independent all his life and always wanted to do things the way he wanted to do … that could’ve meant beating the grim reaper before the reaper got him,″ said Kathy Garver, who played Sissy on Family Affair.

Johnnie Whitaker, who played Brian Keith’s son on Family Affair, told the Associated Press that he talked with Keith by phone five days before his death.

He said of Keith: “He was not feeling good because he had been going through the chemotherapy for his cancer, and he’d been having other problems.”

Brian Keith had been a smoker earlier in life. He even appeared in commercials for Camel cigarettes in the mid-1950s. But he quit smoking about a decade before he died.

Keith Wasn’t Only Cast Member To Die Suddenly

Other members of the Family Affair cast died young.

Anissa Jones, who played precious Buffy, died of a drug overdose in 1976. She was only 18. After Family Affair ended, Jones struggled to make the transition to serious actress. Plus, she had family problems. Her parents went through an ugly divorce. Her father died suddenly, two years after the show ended. After her father died, she was arrested for shoplifting and was kept in juvenile detention for several months.

Sebastian Cabot, who played Mr. French on Family Affair, died of a stroke when he was only 58. On Family Affair, he played Uncle Bill’s butler. When Uncle Bill took in the three kids, Mr. French also became a nanny. He was very proper and British on the show and in real life.

Brian Keith was a pretty big star when he was cast in Family Affair. He was an obvious choice for the show. After all, he was beloved on Disney’s original Parent Trap. He played the father of twins played by Hayley Mills.

After Family Affair, Brian Keith kept starring in more TV series. He played a doctor on The Brian Keith Show, which was set in Hawaii. He then he was a judge in Hardcastle and McCormick. There also were dozens of shows and movies fortunate to have Brian Keith in the cast.

But he’ll always be known to a generation of Family Affair fans as everyone’s favorite, Uncle Bill.