Lauren Chapin today only vaguely resembles Kathy Anderson, the cherub-faced younger daughter she played in "Father Knows Best." The baby fat long ago disappeared from her slim 5-foot-2 figure and, at 35, laugh lines radiate from her eyes. She gives the impression she's done a lot of living -- and she has.
The Chapins of Irvine in the 1980s are nothing like the television Andersons of Springfield in the 1950s. The car in Chapin's driveway is a Japanese economy model, not a Detroit-made station wagon. The house is ranch-style tract model, not a custom two-story colonial with white picket fence. And it's rented, not owned. Absent is the warm, understanding father.
The Chapins are a single-parent household. It's mother who knows best.
In fact, Lauren Chapin has never come close to living the kind of family life "Father Knows Best" protrayed on television. Even while she was making the series, her own parents were divorced. And, she says, she rarely got along with her mother, who was an alcoholic.
After the series ended in 1960, Chapin dropped out of high school in her junior year, was married at 16 and separated from her husband within two years. They divorced five years later. At 18, she says, she started taking drugs, eventually becoming addicted to heroin. She kicked the habit in 1970 after a year-long rehabilitation program.
There were two more marriages, which she describes as illegal. The second marriage was annulled when she discovered her husband had not received a previous divorce. The third time she was married in Mexico.
But this, she says, is all in the past -- before her religious involvement -- when, she says, "I thought it was all right." Now, she says with a smile reminiscent of impish Kathy Anderson, "I want to be married, have the piece of paper, the ring on the finger and have a neat partnership. I miss that, so I just keep praying that the Lord will bring the right man to me."
Seated at her kitchen breakfast sipping coffee, Chapin appears to relish domesticity. A pot of black-eyed peas is simmering on the stove and her 2-year-old daughter Summer is in the family room watercoloring with a friend. Matthew, her 7-year-old son, is in school.
Chapin is a part-time teacher now for the American Academy of Husband-Coached Childbirth, which teaches a method of natural childbirth, and she works for a brokerage firm. Ultimately, she says, she'd like to get a degree in nursing and becom a midwife or work in pediatrics.
But, more than anything, she would like to have the kind of family "Father Knows Best" depicted on television. "For the most part, people say that show was one of the best," she says. "It was moralitic, it had everything people are looking for today.
"Jim and Margaret are the loving, warm couple. They taught their children to respect themselves and think for themselves and not let other people handle their problems. I wish today's life was more like the Andersons' life.
"I want to get the two-story house with the picket fence and the family life," she says. "I want to raise my children that way, I want to know about God and family and love."
A six-month convalescence from viral encephalitis brought about a dramatic change in her life. She found religion, with the help of her sister-in-law Caroline. It's from the perspective of a born-again Christian that Chapin, who wears a tiny gold-cross necklace, is writing her autobiography, "Father Didn't Know Best."
"It's about being a child star and the pitfalls what happen with it," she says. "It's not all glorious like everbody says. I don't think any child should be a child star. You're 7 and expected to behave as a 40-year-old. A child needs to be a child. There are only a few short years to be free and young and beautiful."
Only rarely does a child want to act, she says, adding that show business parents frequently use their children to gain recognition for themselves. In Chapin's case it was her mother, "a typical movie mother," who pushed her two older brothers and later Lauren into action, she says.
By the time she was 11 or 12 she began realizing it wasn't normal to be fawned over every time she walked down the street. "I really wanted the normality. I didn't want to be the one who was different. My mother said I must dress for the public. I said, 'What about me?' There is no you."
Her displeasure was magnified during her adolescent years. "When you're a kid and have pimples on your face and you're insecure anyway, it didn't make for good news. It made it difficult because you couldn't be normal. Everything you did was under a microscope."
While she enjoyed working with her TV family on the set, life at home was far from harmonious. "My mother was not one of those loving alcoholics; she was one of those mean witches," Chapin says. "It created a lot of hassles. I thought she was just mean and terrible and she hated me and I hated her."
Years later, after she had overcome her own drug addiction, Chapin realized that her mother, now dead, had been sick. "Anyone relying on alcohol or drugs has a disability. She also had TB, and it was tough raising three kids alone. She needed someone to love her."
For her television work, Chapin received only a small part of her earnings -- $19,000, which had been set aside in savings bonds for her. She says her mother spent most of the rest of her money on houses, new cars, food and clothing. "My mother, unfortunately, didn't know how to save; she spent very well," Chapin says, adding that she fared better than her two brothers, who received nothing.
After "Father Know Best," when acting roles failed to materialize, Chapin found work as a flight attendant, dog groomer, insurance claims examiner, carhop and cocktail waitress. "You name it and I did it." During this period, she adds, she also went through "a lot of crazy ways and did a lot of crazy things."