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What Happened to Kristy McNichol — Television’s Favorite ‘Buddy’?

The actress found fame early on and had to struggle with how to deal with it

Christina Ann McNichol, aka Kristy McNichol, is probably best remembered for her role as teenaged daughter Letitia “Buddy” Lawrence on the hit drama 1976 to 1980 series Family, where she brought home two Emmy Awards and a Golden Globe nomination.

The child actress was only 13 years old when she rose to fame as Buddy, but her success on Family immediately put her into the star category and opened doors for other opportunities.

Born in Los Angeles on September 11, 1962, McNichol first began her career alongside her brother Jimmy McNichol in commercials, and later on her own with guest appearances on series such as Starsky & Hutch, The Bionic Woman, Love American Style and The Love Boat — all thanks to family friend Desi Arnaz. 

Kristy McNichol, 1976
Kristy McNichol, 1976Getty

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Always with a musical ear, McNichol and her brother made their foray into the music business, recording the album Kristy and Jimmy McNichol. The duo promoted the album at New York’s Studio 54, and in 1978 they performed in a second Carpenters’ TV holiday special, The Carpenters: A Christmas Portrait.

She also appeared on talk shows such as The Mike Douglas Show and Dinah. While some would say McNichol was lucky in Hollywood to have these opportunities, the pressure of such immense success early on took a toll on her well-being.

Kristy McNichol had a mental breakdown when she was playing the lead role in 1984’s Just the Way You Are, which was filming in France. Production had to be interrupted for a year while she recovered, which the actress said had been caused by the pressures of a childhood career.

Kristy McNichol on the big screen

Kristy McNichol, Just the Way You Are, 1984
Kristy McNichol, Just the Way You Are, 1984Getty

McNichol’s film career began in the Burt Reynold’s black comedy The End (1978) alongside Sally Field, and she went on to star with Dennis Quaid in The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia (1981), earning a six-figure salary, unprecedented for a teenager at that time.

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Other films included Two Moon Junction (1988), The Pirate Movie (1982), The Forgotten One (1989) and You Can’t Hurry Love (1988). She was also cast alongside Marsha Mason in Neil Simon’s Only When I Laugh (1981), which earned her another Golden Globe nomination, and Alan Pakula’s Dream Lover (1986).

The actress in 1980
Kristy McNichol, 1980Getty

Working with such notable Hollywood heavyweights, McNichol’s career kept skyrocketing and she was on everyone’s list for movie roles, all of which came in quick succession. Her co-starring role with Tatum O’Neil in Little Darlings (1980) won her a People’s Choice Award. 

Co-starring as Barbara Weston on TV’s hit sitcom Empty Nest, the spin-off of The Golden Girls, McNichol left the show in 1992 after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but returned for its final episode in 1995. That was her last on-screen performance, though she later voiced characters in the 1997 animated TV series Extreme Ghostbusters and Invasion America the following year.

The actress in 2010
Kristy McNichol, 2010Getty

The actress decides to retire

In 1992, McNichol made the difficult decision to step away from acting and retire from the industry that had made her famous, but also added to her personal struggles and anxiety. She did teach acting at a private Los Angeles school and also spent time at Giuseppe Franco’s hair salon in Beverly Hills, learning to snip and style, saying she was sick and tired of acting and wanted to have an average life.

On any given day, you could see McNichol watching stylists and sweeping up from snips. Franco said he was McNichol’s friend and former roommate of four years, though it was strictly platonic. In fact, one of the childhood pressures McNichol endured was hiding her sexuality from the public.  In 2012, McNichol ended years of gossip and speculation when she revealed that she is a lesbian and has lived with her partner since the early 1990s. 

The actress in 2014
Kristy McNichol, 2014Getty

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