Sunday, August 28, 2011

When Buffy Died

I don't remember hearing the news that Anissa Jones — the actress who played Buffy on Family Affair — had died of a drug overdose at the age of 18.

I just remember that, seemingly overnight, everyone in my school knew about it.

The school year had just begun. Normally, you could walk down the halls and overhear snippets of conversations about trips to the beach or the mountains, playing youth baseball or whatever, different topics, but, 35 years ago, everyone was talking about only one thing.

Everyone was shaken by it. Jones was a teenager, like me, like all my friends — older than we were, actually, more of an older sister chronologically but, because of her TV role, forever like a younger pigtailed sister in our minds. And she was like a friend to all of us, someone we had known since we were small.

But we knew only Buffy the TV character. We didn't know Anissa Jones.

Jones died on this date 35 years ago after a night of partying. Cocaine, PCP, Quaaludes and Seconal were found in her system. The coroner who examined her said it was the most severe overdose he had ever observed.

In those days, I guess, it was harder for people to differentiate between public persona and private life. It was a technologically primitive time — no internet, no cell phones, no cable/satellite TV — and lots of people just assumed that if someone was smiling and appeared happy on TV or in photos on the pages of newspapers and magazines, that person was happy.

The prevailing belief in those days was that stardom was a ticket to happiness.

But Jones, as we all found out, was desperately unhappy.

Her parents divorced when she was a child, then — after a lengthy legal battle — her father won custody of her and her brother, but he died soon after. She moved in with her mother, but their relationship was not good, and she wound up in juvenile hall, classified a runaway.

After she turned 18, she gained access to the money that had been saved during her years on Family Affair — including, I suppose, her earnings from promotional appearances and products that promoted the series, like dolls that were identical to the one Jones' TV character carried with her at all times.

For nearly six months, she and her brother lived in an apartment, and substance abuse, I have heard, was rampant.

That certainly was true on Aug. 28, 1976.

As I say, Jones was 18 when she died. If she was alive, she would be 53, and one can only wonder what she would have done with her life.

It's the question that is always asked about those who die young.

Sometimes I wish I had known — I wish we had all known — how unhappy she was. There probably wasn't anything anyone could have done, but I like to think that maybe someone would have tried.

After all, that's the kind of thing friends do for one another, isn't it?