There are all sorts of horror stories about child actors, and a long list of deeply troubled former child stars.
Johnny Whitaker’s time as a child actor contradicts the stereotypes. For the former “Family Affair” star, his boyhood career was filled with nothing but good experiences. There are no dark secrets. His parents managed to keep him grounded and as much of a regular kid as possible.
“Oh, absolutely,” Whitaker said. “I had a wonderful childhood. My adult life wasn’t as wonderful as my childhood was. But, I have nothing negative to say about my childhood.”
He has long been open about the drug problems that dragged him down for a decade, but insists they had nothing to do with his acting career as a child — a career that still draws attention half a century later.
That career drew an invitation to the FanX Salt Lake Comic Convention, where he’ll appear on Saturday. It will be his first trip to the Salt Lake City event, although he’s appeared at San Diego’s Comic Con several times, “and that was just crazy.” (The convention runs Thursday through Saturday at the Salt Palace Convention Center, 100 S. West Temple, Salt Lake City.)
At the age of 3, Whitaker started doing TV commercials. At 5, he originated the role of Scotty Baldwin on “General Hospital” — a role that continued, with other actors, until just a couple of months ago. Shortly thereafter, Whitaker was in the 1966 movie, “The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming,” where he met actor Brian Keith. Keith recommended Whitaker to the producers of “Family Affair,” the 1966-71 sitcom about three orphaned children — 6-year-old twins Buffy (Anissa Jones) and Jody (Whitaker), and their teenage sister Cissy (Kathy Garver) — who move in with their Uncle Bill (Keith) and his valet, Mr. French (Sebastian Cabot).
Whitaker starred in the 1969 “Hallmark Hall of Fame” production “The Littlest Angel”; the 1973 movie musical version of “Tom Sawyer,” and the 1973-74 Saturday-morning show “Sigmund and the Sea Monsters.” His other credits include a slew of guest appearances on other TV series, including “Bonanza,” “Bewitched,” “Green Acres,” “Gunsmoke,” “Marcus Welby, M.D.” and “Adam-12.”
He estimated that, today, “85% of people know me from ‘Family Affair.’ That’s what they like more than anything else. And that’s perfectly fine. I love that. And then we have a mixture between ‘Tom Sawyer’ and ‘Sigmund.’
“A lot of kids liked ‘Sigmund.’ You either liked me or you liked Michael Jackson, because the Jackson Five cartoon was on at the same time as ‘Sigmund.’ And Michael Jackson and I were not friends, but we were acquaintances.”
Now 63, Whitaker said it’s “not really” weird to constantly be asked about things he did when he was 6 years old. “I don’t know any different, I guess. It’s just kind of been a part of who I am,” he said.
And he doesn’t mind being asked about the trouble he ran into when he got a bit older. “As a young adult, I had some very unfortunate things happen to me,” he said.
Whitaker recalled attending parties where drugs and alcohol were in use, and one Christmas party when he was 16 or 17 when he went to the bathroom “and a gentleman jumped out of the bathtub” and assaulted him.
“I was shocked and nervous and didn’t know what to do,” he said. “And that began some difficult times in my life.”
Three strikes and he was out
Up to a point, Whitaker’s young adult life seemed “typically Mormon.” He served a Latter-day Saint mission to Portugal, and attended Brigham Young University when he got home.
He “hit it off” with a woman he met at a young adult conference in Los Angeles, and when he got back to BYU “she showed up in my fencing class.” They got married, continued fencing together, “and never stopped until we divorced. … She divorced me, and not more than a year later, she married the man who gave me my bachelor party. And that was kind of strike one.”
Strike two came while he was living in L.A. but traveling frequently to Provo to fix up a house he owned so he could rent it out. “And this little girl that lived across the way threw a ball in the backyard while I was raking the leaves.” He started to play ball with her, quickly realizing he should introduce himself to her parents.
Whitaker was instantly taken with her single mother, and they “started in a relationship.” And a few months later “she calls me up and says, ‘John, I’m pregnant.’”
He saw it as a chance to be a father — to both the little girl and the unborn child. Although he “wasn’t really in love with” his girlfriend, Whitaker said, “I thought, you know, this might be what the Lord wants. And so I talked to my bishop, and that’s when it started.”
After talking to his bishop about the relationship, he was disfellowshipped. And then he was excommunicated when he refused to give the relationship up.
Whitaker asked his girlfriend to marry him. She refused, and said she wanted to give the baby up for adoption, but didn’t want Whitaker to raise the child alone.
He had to travel back to L.A. for a job, and while he was there Whitaker got a call telling him his girlfriend had hanged herself, killing herself and the unborn child.
Shortly thereafter, he got one letter telling him his divorce was final, and another letter telling him he’d been excommunicated. “So strike three,” he said. “I decided to go to the dark side and lived there for the next 10 years. Sex, drugs, rock and roll, and I sold drugs a whole lot.”
The road to recovery
More than 25 years ago, Whitaker’s family — he’s the fifth of eight children — staged an intervention. “I got clean and sober,” he said. “And five years after getting clean and sober, I started a nonprofit called Paso Por Paso. …
“I speak five languages fluently — English, Portuguese, Spanish, French and ASL. And the purpose of my organization is to help individuals who don’t speak English find treatment and recovery.”
He brushed off the suggestion that his efforts are anything special.
“Well, I think that comes from my good Mormon, Utah background,” he said. “My mother and father were very active in the church. Always telling us that we needed to be of service. And when I got into the 12-step program, service is a very important part. It’s one of the three legs of the triangle of ‘service, recovery and unity.’ And it wasn’t a hard thing for me to do, because I’d been brought up with it.”
For the past 20 years, he’s been conducting 12-step meetings at the county jail near him. “At least once, sometimes twice a month, I meet with the gentleman in jail, and tell them my story of hope, faith and courage,” he said. “It’s a very important part of my recovery.”
His message is simple: “Grow the ‘f’ up,” he said.
“I’ve learned that I just have to grow up as well,” he said. “I’ve lived a fun life, done a whole lot of fun things with drugs and without drugs. And that it’s about time for me to grow up and be a man. Take responsibility. That’s not always fun. But it’s a lot more rewarding.”
He said he considers himself “a very strong Christian” today, and he was re-baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints almost five years ago.
“I realize that there’s not too much that anybody can do that’s too bad that you can’t be forgiven,” Whitaker said. “There are individuals who don’t necessarily forgive some of your actions. But you can forgive yourself.”
Day of Remembrance
On Aug. 31 each year, Whitaker hosts a zoom call to celebrate lives lost to drug overdoses, as well as lives recovered — anyone who has 10 years or more clean and sober. (For more info, email email@example.com.)
“For about an hour and a half, we read each of the names of people” who died of overdoses, or circumstances related to drugs and alcohol. “And anybody who’s had a friend or a family member who has died of a drug- or alcohol-related incident is welcome to share a little bit about those people who’ve died. And then have a little celebration, kind of like the ‘in memoriam’ at the Academy Awards.”
Among those he remembers are “Diff’rent Strokes” actress Dana Plato (he was her manager when she died of a drug overdose in 1999) and Anissa Jones, who played his twin, Buffy, on “Family Affair.” Jones died of an overdose in 1976 at the age of 18.
“The reason people do drugs and alcohol is to alleviate pain. And some of them [overdose] on purpose, and some of them do it by accident,” Whitaker said. Although Jones’ death was ruled accidental, “I believe that Anissa’s [overdose] was kind of purposeful, because she had so much drugs in her stomach when she passed. The coroner said he’d never seen that amount of drugs in any human being.”
Filming in Utah
He has fond memories of two episodes of “Gunsmoke” he filmed in Utah — outside Kanab — back in 1971. The guest cast included movie star Ruth Roman as a madam and Ellen Burstyn (who won a best-actress Oscar four years later for “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”) as a prostitute who was also the mother of Whitaker’s character, a young boy entrusted to the care of Marshal Matt Dillon (James Arness).
“I just remember being loved by all these women,” he said. “I don’t remember my lines, I just remember having a fun time.”
And he recalls playing outside Parry Lodge in Kanab, where he was staying with his mother, when he was surprised by the appearance of his grandparents “who, at the time, were snowbirds leaving Salt Lake and going down to Mesa, Arizona, where they had a mobile home.”
“For a couple of days anyway, my grandpa got to go on the set and meet his favorite actor of all time, which was James Arness. All of that I definitely remember,” Whitaker said.
“A Talking Cat!?!”
While most people recognize Whitaker from “Family Affair,” about “one half of 1% recognize me from a movie I did called ‘A Talking Cat!?!’” — which, he later learned, became a drinking game at college fraternities. At least UCLA fraternities.
The independent film — released direct to DVD in 2013 — featured a cat that could talk to people … but only once to each person.
“It’s a happy, family positive movie,” Whitaker said. “But it was meant to be a 45-minute film. And the editor made it into a 90-minute film by inserting three- and five-minute intervals of beautiful California coast.”
During those scenes, he said, the frat bros “would chug down alcohol.” Or so one of those frat bros told him.
The movie achieved further notoriety online in 2016, when the YouTube star JonTron posted a bewildered review of it. That video has been viewed more than 15 million times.
Nothing (much) to be ashamed of
Whitaker’s acting resume doesn’t include anything that he can’t be proud of. At least “nothing that I got paid for. During my drug-addicted years, there were some things that I helped with, didn’t get any credit for, that were a little blue. You’ll have to read my book.”
He is indeed working on an autobiography, but he said it’ll be a while before it’s ready to publish.
“I’m going to have to do two versions,” Whitaker said. “One that is a Utah Mormon version. And then the other, R-rated version. I still want these Mormons who call a coffee table a Postum table to be able to read it without being too offended.”
FanX Salt Lake Comic Convention runs Thursday through Saturday at the Salt Palace Convention Center, 100 S. West Temple, Salt Lake City. Dozens of celebrity guests are scheduled to appear at panels, pose for photo opportunities and sign autographs. (Photo ops and autographs are available for a separate fee.) There also will be vendors, an artist’s alley, kids activities, panel discussions and thousands of people attending — many of them in cosplay. Tickets and passes are available at fanxsaltlake.com.
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