Family Affair1 (1966-1971) chronicles the decidedly wholesome adventures of wealthy architect Bill Davis (Brian Keith), who lives in an upscale bachelor pad near Park Avenue with his very proper British manservant, Mr. French (Sebastian Cabot). He finds his life turned upside-down when his brother and sister-in-law die tragically, leaving him their fifteen-year-old daughter, Cissy (Kathy Garver) and the primary-school-aged twins, Jody (Johnny Whitaker) and Buffy (Anissa Jones). In short, he was one of the numerous respectable single parents who haunted the family hour during the era.2 The show, especially popular with children, often found its humour in swingin' Uncle Bill's unfamiliarity with being a dad and urbane Mr. French's awkwardness at becoming, in effect, an ersatz mommy.3
Family Affair, popular in its day, faded quickly from memory, only rarely rating TV repeats or cultural references. It is recalled, when at all, for the lingering effect of Anissa Jones, her TV character, and that character's bizarre, ever-present favorite toy.
Blonde, curly-haired Jones proved the show's most popular character; the neo-Shirley Temple visited the White House and popped up on Laugh-In. Little fangirls bought dolls of Buffy, and of Buffy's beloved doll, the bespectacled, creepy-looking Mrs. Beasley.4 The obligatory Family Affair board game, meanwhile, had players searching for the missing Mrs. Beasley. Without question, Anissa/Buffy's popularity inspired The Brady Bunch to cast a virtual clone, Susan Olsen, as Cindy. The Brady theme song even calls attention to the character-defining curls shared by the two.
However, when the show ended, Jones had trouble finding work. Her TV-twin-brother, meanwhile, experienced a brief heyday as a child star, appearing in numerous Walt Disney productions, TV shows, and opposite Jodie Foster in Tom Sawyer (1973) and Napoleon and Samantha (1972). In 1976, Anissa Jones died of a drug overdose. By then, pop culture had forgotten Affair, but it certainly knew the Bradys, who remained prominent in reruns and spin-offs. When Jones' file photos appeared in the press beside baleful obituary headlines, many people became confused regarding which former child star had died. Jones's death birthed a "Cindy Brady died of a drug overdose" urban legend, one furthered by Susan Olsen's absence from 1988's A Very Brady Christmas.
Even that bit of pop ephemera fades from memory. I last heard the show referenced by another TV relic from the era, Danny Bonaduce. After his arrest for slugging a cross-dressing prostitute, he riffed on media contemporaries who also had fallen on hard times, joking that Mrs. Beasley was now turning tricks.
Mr. French would not have approved.5
1. "Family Affair" is also a short story by Richard Hardwick. It's a now somewhat dated account of a family road trip interrupted when a desperate escaped criminal takes the small group hostage. Neither Family Affair should be confused with A Family Affair, the title of a couple of novels and several movies, including the film that kicked off the Andy Hardy franchise.
2. Period television featured a lot of widowers, in particular, but also widows and orphans. The trope permits the show to script both family situations and dating adults, without the stigma of divorce, infidelity, or out-of-wedlock babies, which contemporaneous sponsors would not have tolerated. Family Affair actually shared a universe with two other single-parent sitcoms. A 1970 episode of To Rome with Love brought the shows together; To Rome... also crossed over with the popular Fred MacMurray family show, My Three Sons. Both of these series featured widower dads.
3. Family Affair featured two Mr. Frenches. During a 1967 illness, Cabot was briefly replaced by John Williams, who played the valet's brother.
4. My sisters and the web confirm that the Buffy dolls came with miniature Mrs. Beasley dolls. Mattel actually tied them in with their Barbie line, so that little girls, presumably, could either play Family Affair or pretend that Barbie was baby-sitting the famous tyke. Series swag also includes a paper doll set of the entire family. Fun (?) fact: Mrs. Beasley does not wear the glasses in the pilot episode.
5.RedOmega informs me there was a 2002 remake of the series, which lasted one season. Tim Curry (!!!) played Mr. French.