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In retrospect, it was the moment in which she knew something was going terribly wrong with her life. Kristy McNichol was spending time in her customary manner—working on location in the sanctuary of a movie set. When the teenager was invited to the director's trailer for a meeting at lunchtime, she was expecting something pleasant and catered. What she got was an attempted seduction. "He tried to come on to me in a really bad way," she says. "I thought he was a friend. This is someone I trusted. Suddenly, his arms were all over me and he was pulling me close. It was like, 'Oh, my God!' I couldn't believe it. I was young, but I wasn't so naive not to say, 'Get your hands off me!' I mean, I left his trailer right away. But it freaked me out badly. It made me question things. What goes on in this business I'm in? What is this life of mine all about? What am I doing?"

For McNichol, there were no comforting answers. Instead, the talented teen had arrived at a turning point, the beginning of a long slide toward a devastating emotional breakdown that would lead to her professional crisis. Now 26 and beginning a comeback, she is finally able to speak publicly of the despair that made a shambles of her life and career. As she sits in the living room of her Sherman Oaks home, dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, her look is California casual, and her conversation is too. It's sprinkled with "you knows" and "stuff like that." But it's also peppered with phrases that suggest a difficult past. At an age when many of her peers are talking about first babies and starting out, McNichol is talking about second chances and starting over.

As "Yesterday" plays on the radio, Kristy considers her history. Once upon a time she was TV's whiz kid, a winner of two Emmys in her role as Buddy, the all-American tomboy on the acclaimed series Family. Now she is back in prime time as Barbara Weston, the wisecracking policewoman who is Richard Mulligan's daughter on NBC's new hit Empty Nest. In between there were movies, successes, failures and, in particular, an infamous episode that nearly ended her career. At the age of 20 she seemed to be finished. "I was a total mess," she says.

In 1982 the ever-professional, always-punctual McNichol was scheduled to make Just the Way You Are, her eighth movie in six years. What she made instead were industry headlines. The film was a light romance, and McNichol was cast as a handicapped musician who camouflaged her leg brace while on vacation in the French Alps. McNichol's problems proved harder to hide. She didn't want to go to Europe, and the unresolved questions she had begun asking herself had plunged her into a miasma of self-doubt and depression. She felt, she says now, as if she were on the brink of a total emotional collapse.

"On the way to the airport I let my manager know how I was feeling," she recalls, her voice quavering. "I told him, 'I honestly don't think I should do this movie.' And everybody said, 'Don't worry, we'll get through it.' No one could look at me as this person who was in trouble. It was like, 'Please, listen to me,' and no one ever did. I was so confused. I was so depressed. I was so full of anxiety. I was a wreck. And there I was filming a movie."

On location with French director Édouard Molinaro, who spoke broken English, McNichol struggled through for five weeks. With curious Hollywood logic the production team attempted to ease her anxiety by bringing in a masseuse. At the time, McNichol couldn't deal with her problems, but she could deliver a performance, as she had been trained to do all her life. "When they'd say, 'Roll,' I'd conjure up enough energy and strength to pull through another scene," she says. "When they said, 'Cut,' I became this sad little lost animal in the darkness."

As filming continued, McNichol's troubles increased. "I was totally out of control," she says. "I couldn't eat, and the whole month I was in France I hardly slept. When I did sleep, I was dreaming strange things. I was crying all the time. My weight dropped down to about 96 lbs. Nonstop crying. Nonstop anxiety. I was always shaking like a leaf. Freaking out, crying, confused, I didn't know what was going on. I was so sick. It was the hardest thing I've ever done to try and get through that film."

Finally she couldn't. When the production took a two-week Christmas break, McNichol returned to California. "I said to a friend of mine, 'Look at me. What am I going to do?' " The friend took her to a psychiatrist who specialized in adolescents with emotional problems. "The doctor saw instantly how angry I was," says Kristy. "I had no idea I had that much pain inside my body. He told me, 'This was bound to happen, so don't feel so odd.' That made me feel better. No one else had said that."

The doctor also advised her that in her current condition, she couldn't go on with the movie. McNichol then did something she had never done in her life: She refused to return to work. Though McNichol did go back and finish the film a year later, the rumors were flaring out of control. She was said to be a drug addict. Or an alcoholic. Or a manic depressive. The official studio explanation—that she was suffering from a "chemical imbalance"—only fueled speculation. Today, finally, McNichol denies all the stories. No, she says, she hasn't been diagnosed as manic depressive. No, she is not on lithium. And no, she is not a candidate for Alcoholics Anonymous. "I'm not one of those people who walk around saying they've never had a drink," she says, "because I'm not a saint. But I've never been hooked on a drug or a drink. I've had my share of problems, just not those. I think it would be easier to kick that kind of habit than to go through the years of hell that I have."

McNichol's problem, she says, was an emotional breakdown—a delayed reaction to the high-pressure years of child stardom. "From the time I was very young, I was a professional, making money and assuming responsibilities," she says. "I didn't live the life of a child. I was living the life of a 30-year-old." Under a doctor's care, and with friends or family at her side 24 hours a day, McNichol began a slow but steady recovery. Her older brother, Jimmy, moved into her house to provide support. She began intensive psychotherapy to uncover the sources of the subconscious anger that had brought her to collapse. "It was such a weird place to be," she says. "It was almost like a dream. It wasn't real. It was just so strange, so scary. It's the scariest thing you ever want to deal with."

Like most of her generation, Kristy McNichol had teethed on television. Unlike most of her generation, she had spent her time in front of the camera instead of the TV set. After the divorce of her father, Jim, a carpenter, from her mother, Carollyne, when Kristy was 3, Carollyne forged show-business careers for two of her three children. (The youngest child, Tommy, is studying computer science.) When Kristy and Jimmy started doing commercials, their mother doubled as their business manager.

It was not an idyllic arrangement; the family functioned through role reversal. "I say to my mother all the time, 'You're the child,' " says Kristy. "And she says, 'Yeah, you're the mother.' I've been that way with her since I was 11. I'd say, 'Who are you going out with tonight? What time do you think you're coming home?' I have always been really responsible, and my mom has been more flighty." It was Kristy who cleaned the house when it was messy. It was Kristy who became compulsively punctual while everyone else was carefree. It was Kristy who, she now realizes, always wanted a car "to drive away from the chaos at home."

Debuting as Family's Buddy Lawrence in 1976, McNichol carried her precocity onto the set. "I was like a miniature adult," she says. "I'd go off to work every day with a little briefcase. I really think I grew up backwards. There is the way most kids do it, and then there is the way Kris did it." During that first season, McNichol's Empty Nest co-star Dinah Manoff had a guest spot on Family. "Kris was the most adult kid I'd ever met," says Manoff. "She didn't even have to study her lines. They'd hand them to her right before she walked out on the set."

McNichol had always been an over-achiever. "I didn't know the word no, because I wanted to please everybody all the time," she says. And more than anyone else, she wanted to please her mother. "Every kid does," says Kristy. "My mother always wanted to be an actress. She was an extra in movies and stuff. I have a feeling this is the classic story: The mother wants to be an actress, and the child ends up doing it. But it was never a jealousy thing between us. It was like—well, I was making my mom happy. And then I found out later that that wasn't making me happy. Every time I had a break, I'd be told, 'Here's a script.' Before I could even say yes or no, I'd be on my way to a location, and then I'd come back and jump right into Family again. I mean, I had no life."

McNichol's composure was a surprise to actress Sada Thompson, who played her mother on Family. "We used to talk about how amazing it was that Kristy didn't appear to feel any of the pressures of growing up as a successful child actress," says Thompson. "The cost is enormous, you know, but Kristy didn't seem to be paying it."

But she was, and eventually it began to show. As McNichol neared her 18th birthday, she started acting less like a little adult and more like an arrested adolescent. She found herself starting food fights and behaving like someone half her age. "It was like I wanted to live my childhood finally," she says. "I was wanting to be a kid at 18 instead of being a young woman." As the emotional pressures mounted, her professional life started to crumble. A series of bad business deals left her finances in disarray, and a series of bad movies cooled the film career that had seemed so promising after 1980's Little Darlings.

Then just as McNichol was leaving her teens—just as she was starting to realize that her life was her own—she sensed herself falling apart. "When you come to the fact that you could have controlled the whole thing if only you had known, it can be really hard to accept—and can make you really angry," she says. "It all came to a head. All the rejection, all the ups and downs of my career—not having a childhood, coming from a broken home, not going to school, not going to the prom, all these people telling me to do this and do that and not having any say-so. People think I must have been on drugs or something. But when you're young, all of that is enough to make you crack." The sigh she issues is industrial strength. "Boy, is it enough!"

And now, at last, Kristy McNichol has been able to pick up the threads of her once-successful career. Empty Nest is a comedy, and that is no accident. "I wanted to do something different," she says. "I'd done so much crying." She is pleased that the series is a success and thankful that it has helped restore to her a sense of stability. "The consistency really makes me feel good," McNichol says, "because I don't think there has been too much consistency for me in the past."

Before she could have the part, of course, she had to pass a kind of emotional security-check. "We were aware of Kristy's past situation," says Paul Witt, the show's co-executive producer, "so we did research and everything checked out. If we hired people based on whether they once had a problem, most of this town would be unemployed."

Then McNichol had to overcome the fear she felt filming the first episodes. She had never done a sitcom nor worked in front of a studio audience. Says Dinah Manoff, who has become a good friend: "She did a good job of hiding it. I had no idea she was fearful until she told me afterward. Of course, I'm so insane that to me she seems extremely secure."

For McNichol, coming back may be the best revenge. Over the last few years, she was up for movie after movie, only to be rejected at the last minute. She desperately wanted the lead opposite Michael J. Fox in 1987's The Secret or My Success. After she read for director Herbert Ross, he told her, "I want you to do this movie." Just before shooting began, she was told that a top executive at Universal had decided she wasn't right for the part. "That kind of stuff happened to me all the time," says McNichol. "At the last minute somebody would say no to me because of the past."

The caprices of show business caused Kristy to moonlight in some unlikely professions. In 1985 she enrolled in the California College of Hair Design and worked briefly as a hairdresser. Later she studied to be a real estate appraiser. "I liked it because you worked on your own," she says. "There weren't 50 people surrounding me." To people in Hollywood, McNichol seemed to be committing career suicide. To Kristy, it was a matter of self-preservation. Then came the chance to do Empty Nest.

On this particular afternoon, she seems comfortable being back where she feels most at home: on a set. She has just finished a dress rehearsal, and she's wearing a Hollyweird ensemble—white bathrobe and brown cowboy boots. She's rushing off to meet with the show's director. She's talking about her plans during the series' hiatus. She's smiling. "She seems very strong at the moment," says Richard Mulligan, "very much in touch."

Whatever the future may bring for McNichol, the past is no longer a specter. "Even though that period was the hardest thing I've ever gone through in my life," she says, "I'm almost thankful it happened, because it's made me a lot stronger than I would have been. Now I feel like I'm this mountain of strength. Now I feel like I'm the opposite of that girl that I was back then." Now, she insists, "I'm in control. My family doesn't control me, nobody does. Before, there was a list of people who had power over me. It made me very angry. But now I think, 'This is the time for me.' "

"Finally," says Dinah Manoff, "she's the adult she appeared to be as a kid."

—Additional reporting from Joyce Wagner in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Joyce Wagner.