Johnny Whitaker Enjoyed Huge Success As A Child Star, But His Family Gave Him A Chilling Ultimatum

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In his time, adorable child actor Johnny Whitaker had a part on one of America’s most popular sitcoms, Family Affair. But things didn’t stay that way forever for the freckled youngster, who was made famous by playing twin, Jody Davis . For Whitaker would later face real hardship, including a painful decision presented to him by his very own loved ones.

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Before that, though, Whitaker did see great success throughout his childhood career in Hollywood. Yes, in 1965, he landed on soap opera General Hospital, where he got to play the original Scotty Baldwin. Then came the movie The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming. In fact, his co-star, Brian Keith, would later help Whitaker get his star-making role on Family Affair.

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But Whitaker’s life went through a series of twist and turns after his successful start on the screen. In fact, he took some time away and, on his return, had little luck regaining his place as an actor. So, Whitaker changed his ways – and his family didn’t like his decisions whatsoever. And eventually, they gave him a heartbreaking ultimatum.

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So John Orson Whitaker was born in Los Angeles, California. And perhaps this was a sign that the fifth child of Thelma and John Sr. would become a star. For it didn’t take long for their young, redheaded son to have some on-screen success – even as a toddler. Indeed, at three years old, he nabbed his first TV commercial in which he helped advertise a local car dealer.

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From there, Whitaker started landing parts in commercials for bigger brands, such as Mattel Toymakers. And by 1965, he made the leap from starring in ads to actual TV shows. That year, he got cast on the soap opera General Hospital, where he played the original part of Scotty Baldwin. Eventually, the character would go on to become an adult in more contemporary series of the ABC show.

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Next came Whitaker’s feature-film debut in 1966’s The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming. Now the flick had actor Brian Keith in a leading role, and Keith took a shine to the young Whitaker. For you see, he believed the youngster would be perfect in an upcoming project of his – TV show Family Affair.

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Indeed, Whitaker told Australian show, Studio 10, that he had already proved his acting chops by then. He said, “I was very prolific as a young actor and I was always the western waif… I did The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming. I met Bryan Keith. He said, ‘I want you to be in the new show that I’m doing.’ I was six.” In spite of Keith’s help, there was one problem.

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For you see, Family Affair didn’t call for an actor of Whitaker’s tender age. According to him, the show “was supposed to be a 16-year-old girl, a ten-year-old boy and a six-year-old girl.” And when Whitaker went in for an audition, he recalled, “They had ten-year-old boys and I was the only six-year-old boy.”

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Indeed, Family Affair was always meant to star Keith as a bachelor who takes in his orphaned nieces and nephew. And the comedy would see the children living in a high-rise Manhattan apartment with their uncle, leading to humorous consequences. But the ages of the children would dramatically change after Whitaker’s audition – and the audition of another young child actress.

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As Whitaker recalled, the team behind Family Affair started standing him next to different girls who had come to audition. Then, they landed on Annisa Jones, and they instantly noticed something about her and Whitaker. “They look like twins!” Whitaker remembered them exclaiming. “‘Cut. We’re going to change the story to twins’,” he added.

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With that, the storyline of Family Affair changed. Therefore, Keith’s character would now take in twins – played by Whitaker and Jones. Furthermore, Keith would also accommodate their older sister character, Cissy, a role filled by actress Kathy Garver. Once the show aired, it became clear that the casting executives had come up with a winning formula.

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For Family Affair garnered great ratings, and fans scooped up show-inspired merchandise, inspired by Whitaker and Jones’ characters, Jody and Buffy. Astonishingly, there were paper dolls, coloring books and clothes of the so called twins. And even as an adult, the former child-actor could remember the massive impact the show had.

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As Whitaker went on to explain, “I remember in Memphis, Tennessee, it must’ve been 1968. They brought us in and there [were] 25,000 people in this mall, and you could look to both sides and all you saw were heads. I was eight (years old).” But he didn’t just have a legion of fans. For Whitaker’s time on Family Affair boosted his career as a child star in Hollywood, too.

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So when Family Affair ended in 1971, Whitaker landed a guest-starring role on the TV show Gunsmoke. That same year, he told Studio 10, he “did four Walt Disney movies,” including 1972’s Snowball Express and The Biscuit Eater. And in 1973, he co-starred with Jodie Foster in the movie-musical version of Tom Sawyer.

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But all of that work would come to a halt as Whitaker’s personal life experienced some devastating changes. You see, in 1976, he heard a rumor that his Family Affair co-star Jones had died. And he recalled his response at the time, “[I said] ‘No, I don’t know anything about that’.” However, the next day Whitaker turned on his TV.

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As Whitaker went on to explain to Studio 10 , “I was watching Good Morning America, and I heard [that Jones had died].” He added, “Of course I was shocked.” Tragically, it turned out that the young actress had died of a drug overdose at just 18 years old. And Whitaker suspected it had something to do with her tumultuous relationship with her mother, too. Moreover, it was a wake-up call for Whitaker himself.

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Yes, in losing Jones, Whitaker decided to change his own life. In fact, he reached out to his Hollywood agent and asked for a reprieve from the silver screen. Furthermore, the redhead decided that he should enjoy the teenage experience. So he enrolled in Sylmar High School and immersed himself in student life, save for one huge detail.

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That’s right, one of Whitaker’s teachers later told the Los Angeles Daily News that he didn’t touch any drugs. The teacher said, “He didn’t drink, he didn’t smoke and he didn’t do drugs.” What’s more, Whitaker said in the same interview that Jones’ death had scared him into a life on the straight-and-narrow.

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And Whitaker continued on this path after graduating from Sylmar High School. Then, because he had grown up attending the Mormon church, he went on a mission to Portugal for two years. After that, he returned home and attended Brigham Young University, a Mormon educational institution in Provo, Utah. Interestingly, it appeared his life was suddenly taking a somewhat more conventional path.

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With a degree in directing and producing in hand, Whitaker thought he’d have luck returning to Hollywood. Furthermore his wife, Symbria Wright, a native of Los Angeles’ Reseda neighborhood, couldn’t find work in Utah. So they moved to California and tried to make ends meet. But times were hard for the former actor with a once-thriving career.

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Indeed, Whitaker told Fox News, “I type 110 words a minute, so I started working and had to survive with my wife.” Apparently, Wright’s efforts didn’t mirror his – at least, not emotionally. For their marriage would be short-lived when she made a shocking admission to her husband. As Whitaker recalled it, Wright said, “I don’t love you anymore and I want to marry the man who gave you your bachelor party.”

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So, despite his best efforts, Whitaker’s marriage to Wright fell apart in three years – and this traumatized him. To make matters worse, he couldn’t find work in his field, either. “That was very difficult, not to be accepted back into the [showbusiness] brotherhood,” he told Fox 411. Therefore, the former child star found himself questioning everything he had done and everything he had grown up believing. In fact, he told Studio 10, “I just said, ‘God doesn’t exist.’”

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With that, Whitaker recalled deciding, “I’m going to the dark side, Luke Skywalker.” That meant he adopted a “screw everything” attitude. As the former actor went on to explain to the Los Angeles Daily News, “I made a conscious decision that being a goody two-shoes had gotten me nowhere.” Furthermore, he told Studio 10, “It was sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll.” But such a lifestyle came with serious consequences, as Whitaker felt like he was hard-wired to fall into addiction.

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As Whitaker pointed out to Studio 10, “I have a disease called addiction. I stop doing drugs but anything I drink I guzzle it down, you know. When I eat good food, I can’t stop. I have this problem in my brain that about 15 percent of the population have, 85 percent of the population don’t have.” As such, his rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle started to get him in trouble – fast.

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For the former Family Affair star emphasised, “There are lots of things that are absolutely stupid that I did under the influence of drugs and alcohol.” Among them, he admitted that he “was only arrested twice.” Furthermore, the public only knew about one of the incidents – Whitaker said, “Only once did [my arrest] get into the papers.”

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Shockingly, drug use would eventually cost Whitaker nearly everything he had earned over a lifetime of work. Indeed, he abused drugs for the best part of 10 years after his 1988 divorce, mainly cocaine. And, during that time, he told the Los Angeles Daily News that he “lost two apartments and three jobs.” On top of that, he lost other investments, such as his cars. But what was to follow would bring Whitaker well and truly back down to earth.

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That’s correct, for there came a point where Whitaker’s family couldn’t sit idly by and watch him destroy himself anymore.So they staged an intervention and gave him a serious ultimatum. As Whitaker told Studio 10, “They said, ‘You’ve got to get clean, or else you’ll be excommunicated from the family.’” And the former actor responded accordingly.

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Yes, Whitaker recalled saying to his relatives, “Okay, I will choose sobriety.” And he entered a drug-treatment facility, later coming out as “one of the lucky ones.” As he described to the Los Angeles Daily News, “I got it on the first try,” and he didn’t go back. However, rehab had taught the greying redhead some important life lessons, as we’ll now find out.

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For one thing, he realized that making it in life didn’t mean making it in Hollywood. What’s more, his father, John Sr., stood as the perfect example of that. As Whitaker explained to the Los Angeles Daily News, “He was one of the most successful men I know.” Furthermore, this success had something to do with staying power.

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Yes, John Sr. had spent 32-years teaching at Pacoima High School in Los Angeles – and Whitaker realized that was good enough. In fact, he said his father had succeeded “not because of wealth or fame, but because he lived his life of 79 years in service to the community, to his God and to my mother and their children.”

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Perhaps it was this realization that led Whitaker to his life’s second calling. For he told Studio 10 that, after five years of sobriety, he decided to help others achieve the same. As he went on to explain, “I am a mental health professional as a drug and alcohol counselor today.” And furthermore, his training was enlightening as a child-star-turned-addict, he said.

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For you see, Whitaker believed that becoming a child-actor forced him to miss a major step in his teenage development. He pointed out, “In my studies I found that there are five steps to adolescence, and one of them is choosing your career path. I had one chosen for me.” But that wasn’t all.

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For the ex-actor said that the way the system was set up meant he hadn’t been allowed a normal childhood. For instance, he said that, as a teen, you should “[choose] your peers.” But he hadn’t had a chance to do that. Plus, he said, “My peers were all 10, 15, 20 years older than I was.”

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And Whitaker’s acting commitments and contracts made it nearly impossible for him to act like a kid during his childhood. In fact, he remembered, “Waking up at 6:30 [a.m.] in the morning to get to the studio by 8 and then coming home at 6 or 7 at night, that was normal to me.” But that wasn’t the norm for other kids his age.

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As it turned out, the brother of seven siblings couldn’t have been a “normal kid” if he had wanted to be one. You see, he couldn’t play sports in fear he’d break a bone or hurt himself in a way that would stall filming. And these factors led him to develop an addiction later in life, Whitaker believed.

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But Whitaker put this knowledge and his own experience to good use. Remarkably, he revealed that he had joined forces with fellow child star Paul Petersen, who acted on The Donna Reed Show. Now this show had finished back in 1966, and Petersen himself had gone off the rails at one stage. Together, they started a Facebook support group for those who had a hard time dealing with life post-childhood fame.

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And there was another reason Petersen made the perfect partner for such an endeavor. For instance, he, too, was affected when in 1990, former child star Rusty Hamer committed suicide. This sparked Petersen into action, and he founded a group called “A Minor Consideration,” to improve working conditions for young actors. Indeed, the organization would also ease the transition from their younger years into adulthood.

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Now Whitaker said his venture with Petersen allowed them to speak to those who were struggling, both young and old. As he went on to explain to Studio 10, “We help others and especially if there’s some young person who’s dealing with drugs or alcohol who’s got a little bit of fame, come on. Let’s talk.” To add to that, though, some acting opportunities had since popped up for the former addict, too.

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Yes, surprisingly, after all he’s been through, the greying redhead continues to act and make on-screen appearances. For instance, he made a cameo on the 2016 Amazon-led reboot of Sigmund and the Sea Monsters, starring David Arquettte. In fact, Whitaker had starred in the original 1973 series. But the question still hung in the air: did he have any regrets?

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Well, even without major Hollywood success as an adult, Whitaker regrets little about his life’s path or the mistakes he’s made. That’s right, he told the Los Angeles Daily News, “I look at this as my destiny. I am not ashamed of my celebrity. I have not always made the right choices in my life, but everything happens for a reason.” Great attitude, little Johnny.

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