From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
She and her brother Jimmy did not exactly arrive in Hollywood with the legacy of Jane and Peter Fonda or the intellectual baggage of Shirley MacLaine and Warren Beatty. Still, actress Kristy McNichol has already produced a body of work of startling distinction. Last year, at just 15, she won an Emmy for what is arguably the most delightful and dimensional role on series TV, the tomboyish "Buddy" Lawrence on ABC's Family.

"There isn't another young woman in the acting field today who can touch her," proclaims no less a judge than Esther (Good Times) Rolle, who played opposite a maturing Kristy last month in NBC's ambitious drama Summer of My German Soldier. Kristy similarly awed co-star Linda Lavin in another October special, Like Mom, Like Me. "I learned from her," marvels Lavin. "She's not another kid playing at being an actor. She's a prodigy. She's got the secret." It's one that's already brought Kristy a following beyond the tube. Jane Fonda recently dropped by to watch her work and pronounced her "brilliant." Kristy's own favorite admirer, though, is Burt Reynolds, who personally phoned to compliment her (squealed McNichol: "Boy, let me tell you I'm a bigger fan of yours") and then cast her as his daughter in The End.

So much for getting one's feet wet. At 16 Kristy and big brother Jimmy, 17, are a supersibling conglomerate that will earn half a million this year. Jimmy was the original McNichol trouper, with dozens of TV commercial credits and series like Little House on the Prairie and The Fitzpatricks. Now host of a syndicated talk show, Hollywood Teen, he is getting stormed by fans of his own. Inevitably the Mc-Nichols have issued a pop-rock album, which bubblegummed into the Hot 100 and was launched by RCA at Manhattan's Studio 54. Even Burt Reynolds showed, but disappointed Kristy by boogeying out early to escape the mob.

Her interest in men is a further sign of Kristy's personal coming of age. She's had plenty of on-camera romance, including being propositioned on Family last month by Leif Garrett. Kristy thought the script rang false ("I can't imagine anyone saying to me, 'I've got my needs' ") and is playing it tentative in her own life. "I think sex is a nice part of being in love," she says gravely, "when you're old enough to handle it." She may be getting there. "Kristy is turning into a real beauty," says her TV dad, James Broderick. "You can see the woman emerging." She just sprouted over 5'3" (Jimmy is nearly six feet), has been sneaking on eye makeup before Family tapings and just bought a Champagne Edition Scirocco to go with her new driver's license. (She already pilots an electric golf cart on the set and a Honda dirt bike.) Kristy is now permitted dates with boys other than Jimmy—as long as she's home by midnight. Though there's no one special, she had "a lot of fun" with actor Scott (Who's Watching the Kids?) Baio, 16, whom she met guesting on Love Boat. She and Garrett, 17, also attended a fund raiser at Hugh Hefner's mansion. "When I'm older and want to have a serious relationship, it will have to be mutual," she declares. "And I'll talk to my mother about it first." (Shades of Susan and Betty Ford.)

The closeness is genuine between Kristy and her mercurial manager mom, Carollyn, 36. A strict single parent whose carpenter husband split soon after the birth of their third child (Tommy, now 14, lives with his grandmother in Burbank), Carollyn "tries to keep my kids' feet on the ground." It's tough. When Jimmy recently tried to cadge a loan, Carollyn heard herself answering, "You have $10,000 in your checking account. Why are you asking me for money?" A touchier problem is "trying to keep things even around here," Carollyn explains. When Kristy's career vaulted to the top, Carollyn insisted that Jimmy be hired along with his sister for appearances like Battle of the Network Stars. Bookers got a choice: two McNichols or none. "For a while Kristy was getting the breaks, and Jimmy was really down about it," she says. But that's over now, Carollyn reports. "They have the usual sibling rivalry, which gets kind of loud at times."

Carollyn fumes at reports that she has stage-mothered her kids' youth. "I wish all the people who criticize me for slave-driving and forcing my children into an abnormal life could see what goes on around here," she says, insisting that both children got into acting on their own. Supporting her family as a secretary at the William Morris agency, Carollyn had begun auditioning as an extra and, at 7, Jimmy wanted to try too. His first commercial was for Band-Aids, and Kristy soon followed with McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken and others. "I knew Kristy was serious about working when I took her for a Kraft audition," recounts Carollyn. "She hates cheese with a passion, but when the producers asked what the kids had for lunch that day, she answered, 'A cheese sandwich.' " Both kids leaped into prime time, with Jimmy doing S.W.A.T. and Gunsmoke and Little House—before Michael Landon personally booted him out of the cast after he accidentally flipped a pencil into a girl's eye. Kristy did Love American Style, The Bionic Woman and other guest spots before finding a home on Apple's Way en route to the Lawrence family.

Carollyn shrewdly invests each child's money in real estate, including condos in Malibu and Big Bear Mountain. She has also traded up the family's own homes, moving five times in the last six years. The current residence is a rambling four-bedroom ranch in the San Fernando Valley with tennis court, pool and hot tub. (The McNichols, the most athletic Hollywood clan this side of the Van Pattens, also ski and surf.) Jimmy is setting up his own cottage to use on weekends—and plans to move in when he turns 18 next July. While he's picked up enough tutoring for high school equivalency (but hasn't taken the test yet), Kristy is still studying daily on her sets. In the last year the family has gained the additional steadying presence of Max Morrow, a 32-year-old actor who's moved in with Carollyn. "Max understands me better than anyone," says Kristy. (She rarely sees her real father, though he lives nearby.)

The one aspect of Kristy and Jimmy's future that does seem predictable is their tax bracket. Carollyn, a ferocious negotiator (Family producers Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg threw up their hands and let the network handle her), has won Kristy a five-year, one-million deal with CBS for five TV movies. And this season Kristy's Family take doubled from $7,500 to $15,000 per episode. Meanwhile, as insurance against Kristy pulling a disappearing "Farrah" act, Spelling has protectively already brought Quinn (Goodbye Girl) Cummings, 11, into the Lawrence family.

Jimmy just shot a two-hour CBS movie about Olympic ice-skating aspirants (scheduled for December) and plans to cut a solo album. He recently had one of his all-time fantasies fulfilled when four Oakland Raiderette cheerleaders he met at a Vegas telethon cooked dinner for him. That puts him one up on Kristy, who just added a near-life-size Andy Gibb cutout to her room (but loyally didn't remove Donny Osmond's picture). Star turns are off limits at home, decrees Carollyn. "They have to leave that at the studio. I guess we're all a little wacky," adds Mother. "But I'd rather have it that way than have the kids take it all too seriously."