Kitty Knows Best: Lauren Chapin explains the highs and lows of childhood fame

In the 1950s, Father Knows Best was one of the most popular shows in America.

The classic family sitcom starred Robert Young and Jane Wyatt, among others, including the youngest actress on set, Lauren Chapin, who played Kitty, Father’s youngest child.

This month, West Michigan’s Master Arts Theatre is bringing its own version of the series to the stage, along with Chapin herself.

Chapin was 6 years old when she started working as an actress for the show and worked that gig until she was 15, nearly a decade in the limelight.

“It was my first acting gig,” said Chapin, now 71. “I come from a family of actors. Both of my brothers are older than I — I’m the baby, and they had been in show business (before me).”

A family friend, who had been training Chapin as a singer, heard about the audition for the role of Kitty and called Chapin’s mom to encourage her to give it a shot.

“I got a callback, then I did the first filming,” Chapin said. “There were 10 girls that were picked out of 250 girls and I happened to have been one of the 10. Mr. Young and his wife and children picked all the children that were going to play Betty, Bud and (Kitty).”

Chapin said the crew initially had chosen another girl, but then they saw her audition tape and felt she was better for the role.

“Then after that the work began, because I had to train on the set,” Chapin said. Like many child actors, she grew up fast, working on her character seven days a week.

Besides looking just like Young’s daughter, Chapin also became like an adopted one to him and his family, especially when he would take Chapin to his house over the weekend to spend time with their daughters.

“I adored him — he was the best dad in the whole world,” Chapin said, adding that she was raised by a single mom. “He was just like a real father.”

As a child actor, it wasn’t always fun and simple for Chapin. She struggled after the show to find her way after having worked since the age of six, dealing with drugs, prostitution and years in and out of jail. Now, she stresses the importance of having a childhood.

“It is very rare that kids that are child actors go on to be adult actors, and so therefore they need to be prepared … to have another career,” Chapin said. “I just do not think children should be actors.”

Chapin said when her daughter was young, she flew her out to California and got her signed along with Jennifer Love Hewitt, but when they returned home, Chapin changed her mind.

She told her daughter, “I’m just not going to let you do it, because I want you to have an education. … I don’t want you to live in a world of make believe.”

“When you’re in the industry, you’re on top of it,” Chapin said. “Everybody says, ‘Oh, she’s the most wonderful thing.’ And the fact is, you’re just a kid — you’re just an actor. And as soon as that party’s done, Hollywood forgets about you. … They build you up for their own use, and when they’re through with using you, you’re nothing.”

Chapin hopes to spread this message as someone who experienced the aftermath of being a child actor. Upon coming to Grand Rapids, she said she’s excited to meet people and hear their stories, as well as educate children’s parents.

“It takes a certain kind of child to perform and it takes a good parent to help that child be the best that they can be and … really know how to watch over their children and allow them to grow, not only as someone who’s in the limelight, but someone who has their head on their shoulders,” she said.

Chapin will be speaking about faith and more on June 17 at Faith Baptist Church.

John Miedema is directing Father Knows Best and he said the audience will enjoy the “small-town drama” and nostalgia of the classic family from the 1950s.

“It was seen as the kind of family everyone wished they had,” said Miedema, who remembers watching the show.

Emma Coad, 15, plays the role of Betty, the eldest daughter in the show. She said she’s watched Youtube videos of the show and done her research on the time period to seem authentic, especially since most of the audience likely will be people who used to watch the show.

“(I hope they) really go away looking at what a good close knit family should aspire to be, in today’s society with all the divorce and all the things that go on,” Miedema said. “It’d be nice to look back and maybe take some lessons with that.”

Father Knows Best
Master Arts Theatre
75 77th St. SW, Grand Rapids, (616) 455-1001