The most popular and acclaimed teen actor of her era, Kristy McNichol achieved stardom as "Buddy" Lawrence on Aaron Spelling's "Family" (ABC, 1976-1980). Revolutionary for its resolutely unglamorous focus on average American home life, the series showcased McNichol's natural charisma and considerable acting chops. She won two Best Supporting Actress Emmys and became a household name, racking up TV guest spots, merchandising deals and an album with her teen idol brother, Jimmy McNichol. After impressing in "Summer of My German Soldier" (NBC, 1978), she made the leap to film with the summer camp-set cult classic "Little Darlings" (1980) opposite Tatum O'Neal. McNichol scored again onscreen with "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia" (1981) and "Only When I Laugh" (1981), earning a Golden Globe nomination for the latter. Reports of her erratic behavior and high-profile flops like "The Pirate Movie" (1982) and "Just the Way You Are" (1984) helped end her film career, but she regained footing as Richard Mulligan's tough cop daughter on "Empty Nest" (NBC, 1988-1995), a spin-off of "The Golden Girls" (NBC, 1985-1992). Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, she left the show in 1992 to retire from acting and the public eye in order to focus on charity work, teaching and her health. Moved by multiple instances of LGBT suicide due to bullying, McNichol resurfaced in 2012 to come out as a lesbian. Although many critics and fans wished she would return to acting, Kristy McNichol seemed content to let her impressive professional legacy speak for itself.
Born Sept. 11, 1962 in Los Angeles, Christina Ann McNichol broke into show business by appearing in a string of commercials alongside her older brother, Jimmy McNichol, and then on her own. Blessed with true acting talent and a refreshingly natural quality that never diminished, critics and audiences noted something special about the young actress After booking a segment on "Love, American Style" (ABC, 1969-1974), she landed her first series regular role on "Apple's Way" (CBS, 1974-75). The gentle series, which followed a Los Angeles family who uprooted their hectic life to embrace a more meaningful, slower-paced existence in Iowa, never fully caught on, but McNichol impressed as daughter Patricia Apple. One of the many industry figures who took note of McNichol's immense potential was powerhouse producer Aaron Spelling, who cast her on the drama "Family" (ABC, 1976-1980). A groundbreaking series in terms of its focus on realistic, often downbeat storylines, "Family" proved an amazing showcase for McNichol as youngest daughter Letitia "Buddy" Lawrence. From the very start the fan favorite of the series, McNichol dazzled as the tomboyish, independent but still vulnerable young Buddy, winning a Golden Globe and two Best Supporting Actress Emmys.
For many viewers of the era, McNichol was the ultimate aspirational figure, either as a potential love interest, best friend, daughter or self-surrogate, and this was due in great part to her unique, all-American charm. Buoyed by her television stardom, the actress began lining up a slew of guest spots on the side, including roles on "The Bionic Woman" (ABC, 1976-66; NBC, 1977-78), "Starsky & Hutch" (ABC, 1975-79) and three particularly noteworthy installments of the "ABC Afterschool Specials" (1972-1996). The star also became a mini-mogul of sorts, launching a fashion line of her clothing designs and forming a musical duo with her brother. While 1978's Kristy & Jimmy McNichol spun off only a minor hit (a cover of "He's So Fine" by The Chiffons), they made many appearances and cemented their status as clean-cut teenage heartthrobs of the era.
Immensely popular, McNichol became a fixture on talk and reality shows of the time, including "Battles of the Network Stars" (ABC, 1976-1988). She starred in the TV adaptation of the classic young adult book "Summer of My German Soldier" (NBC, 1978) and made the leap to feature films with a small role in the Burt Reynolds suicide comedy "The End" (1978). Her most iconic film work came when she starred as Angel Bright, a poor, streetwise teenager who begins a summer camp rivalry with rich girl Ferris Whitney (Tatum O'Neal) over who will lose their virginity first in the smash hit "Little Darlings" (1980). Although O'Neal was famously the youngest competitive Oscar winner in history and had beaten McNichol for the lead role in "The Bad News Bears" (1976), critics felt that McNichol outshone her co-star, auguring enormous success for her subsequent film career. The film itself, which also starred Matt Dillon and Cynthia Nixon, endured as a cult classic and one highly representative of its era as well as launching McNichol into further big screen successes.
The 19-year-old earned a then-unheard-of six-figure salary to star in "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia" (1981) as the hard-driving younger sister of a faded country singer (Dennis Quaid) who becomes his ambitious manager and displays her own considerable singing talent. She scored another film success as the outwardly strong but secretly hurting teenage daughter of an alcoholic actress (Marsha Mason) in Neil Simon's "Only When I Laugh" (1981), earning a Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe nomination and winning a Young Artist Award. Unfortunately, McNichol's golden streak ended, and she began to struggle professionally, starring in the controversial thriller "White Dog" (1982) and the high-profile musical flop "The Pirate Movie" (1982), a splashy reimagining of Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Pirates of Penzance." Starring as a shy girl who dreams a fantastic swashbuckling adventure featuring a handsome pirate (Christopher Atkins), McNichol's charm was not enough to turn the film into a hit, and she was unfortunately nominated for a Worst Actress Razzie Award for her work. Cracks in her seemingly perfect persona began to emerge at this point, as reports of drug abuse and erratic, problematic behavior plagued her on the set of the romantic comedy "Just The Way You Are" (1984).
McNichol toplined the thriller "Dream Lover" (1986), but its failure effectively ended her movie career, sending her to small roles in lower-tier genre projects like the romantic comedy "You Can't Hurry Love" (1988) and the overheated Zalman King erotic thriller "Two Moon Junction" (1988), for which McNichol (who went topless in the film) won a Worst Supporting Actress Razzie. Television roles helped the actress recover her professional equilibrium, however, when she landed the role of Barbara Weston, a tough, no-nonsense policewoman who hilariously sparred with her neurotic sister Carol (Dinah Manoff) when the pair moved home to live with their pediatrician father Harry (Richard Mulligan) on "Empty Nest" (NBC, 1988-1995). While never a ratings powerhouse or critical masterpiece, the likably creaky series - a spin-off of "The Golden Girls" (NBC, 1985-1992) and set in the same universe to promote crossovers - became a respectable hit and endeared the actress to a new generation of fans.
McNichol scored a lead role in a popular series of made-for-TV movies on CBS starring "Golden Girl" Rue McClanahan: "Children of the Bride" (1990), "Baby of the Bride" (1991) and "Mother of the Bride" (1993), but despite her career seemingly being back on track, all was not right. As rumblings began again of difficulties with her lack of attendance and behavior, McNichol was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and subsequently left the series. Devoting herself to addressing and treating her mental health issues, McNichol disappeared from the spotlight, and, after returning to "Empty Nest" for the series finale, effectively retired as an actress. In an episode of "E! True Hollywood Story" (E!, 1996- ) about her, the actress directly addressed the rumors that surrounded her, and described how, by retiring from acting, she was finally able to focus on living her own life. Quietly living under the radar, McNichol taught acting at a L.A. private school and kept busy with charity work, but in the wake of several high-profile incidents of LGBT youth committing suicide due to bullying, resurfaced in January 2012 to come out as a lesbian, announcing that she had been with her partner, Martie Allen, for more than 20 years.
By Jonathan Riggs