'Waltons' actress now fills role as Inglewood middle school principal
Some childhood actors turn to drugs. Others stay in show business. Kami Cotler became a middle school principal in Inglewood.
Unbeknown to most of her students, Cotler, principal of Environmental Charter Middle School, was a celebrity at their age.
Cotler had a major role as Elizabeth Walton, the youngest member of the family in both the made-for-TV movie "The Homecoming: A Christmas Story" and the long-running spinoff TV drama "The Waltons."
Last week she was on the East Coast, celebrating the 40th anniversary of the 1970s-era show with the rest of the cast. In addition to making a Friday appearance on the "Today" show, the group got together for a screening and a party.
For those too young to remember, "The Waltons" was set in the mountains of Virginia during the Great Depression. It centered on a large family that survived by living off their own land.
It was a wholesome drama whose episodes delved into all manner of family themes: triumph and heartache at school, the dilemma over whether to spank a child, a daughter who refuses to abide by country traditions, caring for ailing grandparents.
"The Waltons" predates other shows in the same vein, such as "Little House on the Prairie." Indeed, its successful nine-year run may have helped pave the way for such family-oriented shows, Cotler speculated.
Last week's reunion was far from the Waltons' first. Bucking the stereotype of Hollywood prima donnas whose Advertisement on-camera affection is matched only by their off-camera animosity, the Walton family long ago came to feel more fact than fiction. To this day, the members regularly meet the week before Christmas. They attend one another's weddings, live theater performances and book signings.
"We were together for 10 years and saw more of each other than we did of our own families," Cotler said, speaking by phone from New York City last week.
With her vermilion red hair and a sprinkling of freckles, Cotler is the rare person who truly resembles the adult version of her childhood self. So it is not uncommon for people to still recognize her. A few years ago, while lunching with two other Walton sisters, a fan approached the table and asked Cotler about the show. The fan recognized Cotler, but not the others.
Of course, Cotler's students are too young to know the face. And while the ones who watch the show with their parents may tell Cotler that they find her child character to be cute, they seldom are star struck.
"I used to say, if Madonna became a teacher, or now Katy Perry, they'd be like, `Ah, Miss Perry gave me homework,"' Cotler said. "Think about it. As a kid you didn't think about your teachers as having actual lives. No, they were your teachers."
Or principal, as the case may be.
Cotler is the antithesis of the child who was pushed into show business by overbearing parents. Her acting career began by accident. Her mother had taken her to a photography studio in Los Angeles from their home in Long Beach to get a Christmas portrait. The photographer, struck by the girl's red hair, freckles and extroversion, suggested she give commercial work a go.
"I harassed her about wanting to be on television," Cotler remembers. Her mom, then a marketer for IBM, relented.
Cotler tried for a spot on the popular, long-running TV show "Gunsmoke," but it didn't pan out.
"I had to cough but didn't know how to do it," she said, adding, "I was only 6."
It turns out the casting director for "The Waltons" was looking for a pint-size redhead. (The show was based on a novel by Earl Hamner Jr. - who also created the TV series - about a family of redheads.)
The show's steady success yielded a healthy paycheck. But in the days before gadgets and video games, preteens didn't have a lot of options for lavish spending.
"It's not like you're going to buy endless chocolate bars," she joked.