By Jeff Jarvis
Updated May 09, 1983 12:00 PM

Last December, with only 17 days of shooting remaining, Kristy McNichol walked off the French Alps location of her eighth movie, I Won’t Dance. In a terse statement, MGM/UA President Freddie Fields announced that the studio was suspending production “indefinitely” because Kristy, 20, was suffering from a “chemical imbalance” that made it impossible for her to continue working on the $16 million film. Hollywood abhors a vacuum, so the gossip mill filled it with rumors of drugs and a total breakdown—all false.

But clearly, Kristy was not in good shape. “She was just a physical, mental wreck,” says brother Jimmy McNichol, 21. If Kristy had carried on in the movie, he adds, “she might never have worked again.”

When she returned to Los Angeles Jimmy rushed to her rescue, moving out of his San Fernando Valley hilltop home into the small West L.A. condo owned by his sister (Kristy to her fans, Kris to her friends, Krissy to her big brother). “He talked to her for hours on end, slowly helping her to regain her confidence,” a friend reports. “She kept saying that Jimmy was the one who had pulled her through.”

“I am getting back into shape,” Kristy herself said a few weeks ago. “I am getting better.” “A lot better,” adds her mother, Carollyne McNichol Lucas. Kristy proved it to Hollywood at the Academy Awards when she showed up with her Little Darlings co-star Matt Dillon to present an Oscar.

Until this year, the notion that Kristy McNichol would be teetering on the brink of a breakdown seemed about as likely as Donny Osmond free basing. Her talent had already won her two Emmys for her role as the tomboyish Buddy in ABC’s late-1970s heart-tugger Family. When the series went off the air in 1980, Kristy scored big at the box office with Tatum O’Neal in Little Darlings and in Neil Simon’s Only When I Laugh. Meanwhile she recorded a hit single (“He’s So Fine”) and a disco album with Jimmy. She was even planning a fitness book, which has been put on hold. “I mean,” says her mother, “you can’t do a health-and-fitness book with all this going on.”

“All this” was helped along by back-to-back critical and commercial disasters: The Pirate Movie in 1982 and White Dog, which Paramount shot two years ago and has not even released domestically because of the film’s controversial racial theme. Then came the part of the handicapped flutist who falls for Michael (Making Love) Ontkean in I Won’t Dance. “Kristy told me that she would finish the film if she could,” says her mother.

She couldn’t—not because of drugs; all agree that Kristy is not involved in Hollywood’s snow biz. But she was being buried under an avalanche of career demands. “Kristy had built up this fear,” observes a friend, “that if I Won’t Dance bombed, her career would be over. She thought if it failed, she’d take all the blame.” Kristy had always coped with the demands of being a star (she has commanded up to $1 million per film) and was praised as a pro who was always in control. This time, however, that mysterious “chemical imbalance” robbed her of it.

Kristy simply had to leave the movie, Jimmy says. “It was either that or she would have been in a mental hospital. She was completely blacking out and losing her memory. If it had kept up, she would have blanked right out of this whole business.”

A studio source called Kristy “a bag of nerves. I have never seen anyone so hyper, and then she would go into crashing depressions. The talk around the studio was that she was manic-depressive. She could not sit still for a minute at a time and would talk waving her hands about in the air like a crazy person.” As another friend put it: “She could not face another day on the set; it was a simple medical fact that she could not work anymore.”

Kristy’s mother says that her daughter has seen five “top” doctors. “She’s been to UCLA,” Carollyne says. “She’s been everywhere.” Jimmy reports that Kristy came home “thinking she was hemorrhaging in the brain. She was getting weird rushes of blood.” She spent a couple of weeks in a hospital and, according to Jimmy, underwent a CAT-Scan (a computerized X-ray). But the doctors, he reports, found that “she was not hemorrhaging or anything.” It was, he says, something going on in her mind.

Precisely what McNichol suffers from is not clear. “I just can’t talk about it now,” says Kristy. But, she adds, “I have nothing to hide.” Some friends say she suffered a nervous collapse brought on by too much work, not manic depression; others say just the opposite. Jimmy is noncommittal: “I’m not sure how the doctors put it in their language.”

The two rumored diagnoses—manic depression and a nervous breakdown—can look the same to laymen, but they are not. A breakdown is a generic term for the inability to handle pressure and stress. Manic depression is a particular sort of breakdown, marked by a chemical imbalance in the brain and extreme mood swings. In early manic phases, victims are euphoric and energetic; their minds “race.” They also can have flashes of creativity—Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill are thought to have been manics.

The manic phase escalates until the sufferer loses touch with reality, a condition that 1 to 2 percent of Americans have experienced, according to Dr. Robert Gerner, chief of psychiatric research at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Long Beach, Calif. “These people do not sleep at all; their thoughts are bizarre or grandiose,” he says. “They can ruin their whole career in this state.” Manic depression often strikes its victims in their 20s. And once it strikes, it can last a lifetime.

Fortunately, with the proper care, the prognosis for a manic-depressive is excellent. “It is the most treatable of all psychiatric diseases,” says Dr. Michael Gitlin, medical director of the Affective Disorders Clinic at UCLA.

Whatever Kristy has, Jimmy thinks the doctors have caught it in time. She’s getting back on her feet. “As a matter of fact,” he says, “she’s looking at other material now” for work.

Her progress thus far is as much to Jimmy’s credit as the doctors’. Carollyne says that Jimmy’s decision to move in with Kristy was an effort to “let her know, ‘Hey, the family is here for you.'” Jimmy grants that he wishes he were still in his own home. But as he says, he has only one sister and “I can always get another house.” After time and care, Kristy was well enough to travel to Palm Springs and Hawaii; then Jimmy took her to the John Denver Celebrity Ski Classic at Lake Tahoe. Not long after, Academy Awards producer Howard Koch Sr. invited her to the Oscars. “Hollywood,” he says, “does have a little heart, you know.”

Through all this, acquaintances say, Jimmy has matured. In fact, both brother and sister always have had to rely heavily on one another for emotional support. Kristy’s mother and carpenter father, Jim, divorced when she was only 3 and Jimmy 4. (Carollyne recently married her German boyfriend, Siegfried Lucas, nine years Kristy’s senior.) “I don’t think the fact that I really didn’t have a father affected me,” Kristy once said. “I do see my father. I think I’ve had a normal upbringing. I’m not like some star.”

She got her first job at 8, starring in a Kraft commercial, which led to appearances in TV series from The Bionic Woman to Love Boat and to her role in Family. Jimmy, meanwhile, had a short-lived series (California Fever), and he acted in a TV movie (Blinded by the Light, with Kristy) and a flopped feature film (Momma’s Boy). “At one stage I sat the kids down and told them if it stopped being fun, then it just wasn’t worth it,” Carollyne reports. “They both said okay, they could handle it.” Their brother Tommy, 18, a college computer whiz, avoided showbiz.

Kristy called herself normal, but she knew that her childhood wasn’t quite as ail-American as the roles she played. “I’ve had to grow up quickly,” she admitted a few years ago. “Everyone is at you—lights, hair, camera, directors, producers—and there is only one of me. They are all pulling at me for different reasons.” She admits that sometimes it got to her. “Sure I have moods, everybody does,” she said. “That’s normal, that’s human.”

At 18, Kristy had moved into her own $1.7 million home overlooking Beverly Hills, starkly decorated in black and white, stainless steel and glass, and equipped with elaborate stereo and video systems—even a $2,000 talking robot. She has roomed alternately with Liberace’s niece, Ina, and with Joey Corsaro, her hairdresser. She liked the L.A. life—going to sushi bars and hitting such hot video discos as Revolver at least once a week. “She was spending money like water,” says a friend, “buying cars [her motor menagerie has included a Jaguar, a BMW, a Honda and a Fiat Spider] and clothes. But that was not making her any happier.” She moved out of the Beverly Hills house and into her condo shortly after her return from France.

What mattered most to Kristy was sustaining her career. “I don’t want to ever have a flop, be a flop,” she has said. “I’d hope that it could go on forever like this.” That was before The Pirate Movie and White Dog, as one friend put it, “completely destroyed her confidence.”

“It was just too much,” explains Jimmy. Most teenagers get a chance to relax. All Kristy had was work and more work—”one thing after another.”

Now, says her brother, Kristy realizes she must follow a prescription from her doctors: “She’s got to stay on a strict diet”—a work diet—”not being so involved in her career and just take time out for herself.”

Her friends and her fans expect to see her again. But, cautions one producer, “Anybody who leaves a movie with just a few days to go, without virtually being on their deathbed, will find it very hard to get hired.” I Won’t Dance was insured against such eventualities. “The big problem is insurance,” he continues. “And if you have someone with a bad track record it is almost impossible to get coverage.” But he adds: “I have not heard that the word is out on Kristy McNichol.”

“There is no sin in being sick,” counters one friend. “All Kristy is asking for is another chance. She may be a veteran actress because she has been working at it for so long, but inside, she is vulnerable.”

Not that the “vulnerable” star is about to be defeated by depression. “This,” she vows, “is not the last you’ve heard from Kristy McNichol.”