'Family Affair' child star turns to God after surviving drug addiction, alcoholism

The '60s sitcom is available for streaming on The Sid & Marty Krofft Channel

For the past 20 years, Johnny Whitaker has been conducting 12-step meetings at a local county jail – and the actor calls it a blessing.

"Once a month, I go in to share my experience, as well as offer strength and hope," the 64-year-old told Fox News Digital. "I do it through my ministry. I want to tell these guys that there is hope. They can get clean and sober. They can get out of the revolving door that they find themselves in."

The former child star skyrocketed to fame in the sitcom "Family Affair," which aired from 1966 until 1971. The series is now available for streaming on The Sid and Marty Krofft Channel. The producing pair were known for their imaginative children’s programming.


Johnny Whitaker and Anissa Jones looking up during a scene of Family Affair

Johnny Whitaker and Anissa Jones in a scene from the TV series "Family Affair." (Getty Images)

"Johnny was already famous when he became part of the Sid and Marty Krofft family," Marty’s daughter, Deanna Krofft Pope, told Fox News Digital. "He was not only great in the role of Johnny Stuart in the original ‘Sigmund and the Sea Monsters,’ but when he returned in a cameo in our reboot, he was so good that we ended up writing him in for reoccurring appearances. And, of course, the fans loved it."

"Family Affair" centered on a swinging bachelor (Brian Keith) who is given custody of his late brother’s three children. Whitaker said he still has fond memories of bringing the series to life.

Johnny Whitaker and Kathy Garver standing on stage and smiling

Johnny Whitaker and Kathy Garver of the original "Family Affair" series. (M. Caulfield/WireImage)

"It was always fun," he shared. "We were always coddled and cared for by Brian, along with the producers and directors. They took care of us. It was an adventure… It, unfortunately, ended because CBS had a change in management. That management wanted to get rid of the old shows and make way for new shows. Brian had also indicated at one point that he wanted out. He was ready for something new. We were still in the top 10 when we went out. But what better way to go than to be on top?"

Johnny Whitaker and Anissa Jones in costume smiling

Anissa Jones and Johnny Whitaker, circa 1969. Jones died in 1976. She was 18. (Smith Collection/Gado)

But life wasn’t always kind to the show’s co-stars. Jones, who played Buffy, died of a drug overdose in 1976. She was 18.

"My agent claims that she was kind of out of it when she last saw her, possibly high or very depressed," Whitaker alleged. "I remember my agent said, ‘You need to contact her. She looks really bad.’ I did my best, but I was a young teen and getting ready for a new family variety show. I did try to contact her. Even after her passing, I tried to contact her family. And then her brother died a few years later from an overdose."

"She was my sister," Whitaker reflected. "I grew up in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly known as the Mormon faith. I understand that this life, our existence, is a very short one. But it was still difficult to lose her so young."


The cast of Family Affair smiling together for a promotional photo

The cast of "Family Affair" from left: Anissa Jones (1958-1976) as Buffy, Brian Keith (1921-1997) as Bill Davis, Kathy Garver as Cissy, Sebastian Cabot (1918-1977) as Mr. French, and Johnny Whitaker as Jody. (CBS Photo Archives)

Whitaker is one of eight children. Growing up, he described having a "normal’" childhood, one where everyone was required to do chores at home, including him. Over the years, he kept busy making appearances on hit TV shows like "Bonanza," "Bewitched" and "Gunsmoke," among others. But at age 16, he found himself attending parties in Hollywood where he was exposed to drugs and alcohol. It didn’t take long for him to use – and it quickly took over his life.

"I had a family intervention," he recalled. "It was extremely embarrassing, and I was very upset. I signed this contract my brother gave me, but I didn’t stop. When you’re an addict, you don’t like to admit there’s a problem. You're not just going to suddenly stop. But I believe that every addict and alcoholic knows that they have a problem."

It wouldn’t be until 12 days later that Whitaker had "an a-ha moment, a God shot." The drugs no longer had the same effect he was yearning for. And on Sept. 25, 1997, he decided to finally get help. His faith in God also gave him a newfound purpose to get sober, he said.

Johnny Whitaker smiling on the set of Bewitched

Johnny Whitaker made guest appearances on several hit TV shows, including "Bewitched." (ABC Photo Archives/Disney General Entertainment Content)

"I had to make that decision on my own," he said. "… To have a successful childhood, you need to choose the right peers… Most of my peers were 20, 25, 30 years older than me. My peers were chosen for me… And when you’re in an environment where drinking and using drugs is acceptable, it becomes acceptable to you. You don’t think there’s anything wrong with using and drinking. When I was drinking, I could drink almost anybody under the table without getting too crazy… And to some extent, I didn’t always fit in. Those were just some of the reasons that I became an addict, an alcoholic. I wanted to fit in."

Johnny Whitaker kissing Jodie Foster

Johnny Whitaker told Fox News Digital that he gave Jodie Foster her first on-screen kiss in 1973's "Tom Sawyer." (United Artists)

Whitaker said he resorted to drinking after his marriage ended in 1988. He described his divorce and the events that occurred afterward as "traumatic."

"I had a girlfriend who got pregnant after my divorce," he explained. "She already had a child before I met her… But when she became pregnant with my child, it was too much on her. She chose to take her life, along with my child’s. That was a traumatic experience for me, my divorce and then losing my girlfriend and child. That made it easy for me to choose drugs and alcohol."

Johnny Whitaker playing checkers

Johnny Whitaker in "Sigmund and the Sea Monsters" circa 1973. (NBC/NBCU Photo Bank)

Today, Whitaker said he’s found peace through sobriety and faith. And through his ministry, he’s able to encourage other inmates to turn their lives around as a drug and alcohol counselor. He previously served as a missionary in Portugal from 1979 to 1981.

"I’m not planning to fully retire," he chuckled. "I’m working on my memoirs and hoping to get that out at the end of the year. I also have a documentary on the drug policies of Portugal… And this summer in North Carolina, I’m working with Charlene Tilton, a friend of mine, on a new film. She’s the female lead, so we’ve been busy working on that."

If Whitaker had to do it all over again, he said, "to a certain extent, I think I would."

Johnny Whitaker sitting in front of several black and white photographs

Johnny Whitaker attends The Hollywood Show held at The Westin Hotel LAX on July 28, 2018, in Los Angeles. (Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images)


"I wouldn’t have learned the things that I’ve learned," he shared. "But I always laugh about one big difference. I was making four Walt Disney movies in 1971. A peer of mine… told me, ‘Disney is giving away stock options.’ I had no idea what a stock option was, but I proceeded to tell my mom and dad. I said, ‘Why don’t we take half of the money that I get from the next Disney film and put it into Disney stock? Disney could then pay us back that same amount? At the time, Disney stock was 99 cents a share. I would’ve purchased 15,000 shares of Disney stock in 1971. Today, that Disney stock would be worth about $50 million."

"That’s unfortunate," he admitted. "I don’t have $50 million, but I’m still very blessed."

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