BARNEY ROSENZWEIG REMEMBERS THE sinking feeling he got last summer when he surveyed scores of dolled-up teenagers trying out for his new CBS miniseries, Christy, about a straitlaced young schoolmarm who leaves her comfortable North Carolina home in 1912 to teach destitute youngsters in the hills of Appalachia: "They were all too sophisticated or sexualized," says the executive producer. "You could see it in their eyes, in the way their mouths moved. Then Kellie walked in, sat down and started talking. I wrote 'Bingo' next to her name."
The wholesome contender was Kellie Martin, 18, best-known for her four-season, Emmy-nominated run as Becca on ABC's Life Goes On. On Life, she played opposite Chris Burke as the serious-minded younger sister of a teenage boy with Down syndrome. She brought to the part an appealing blend of gravity and vivacity—qualities that Christy needed as well. "Christy has a lot of faith in people, and so do I," says Martin. "We're both naive and both sheltered. Christy is just me."
On location in Tennessee, Martin grew alongside her character. "Christy leaves home to work for the first time, and so did I," she says. "On Life Goes On, I was the baby on the set. In Tennessee suddenly my character was in charge of a bunch of children younger than me. I had to cook for myself. I worked long hours. I matured a lot in those four months."
At home, she hasn't been quite as sheltered as she makes out. Her parents divorced two years ago, and Kellie lives with her mother, Debbie, a former kindergarten teacher, and sister Heather, 15, in a three-bedroom apartment in the San Fernando Valley. She and her father, Doug, a retail executive, arc still close and play tennis on weekends. But since the divorce, she says, "our house is more girly now, with flowers and everything."
It was girlish games of make-believe that first got Kellie interested in acting. When she was 7, her aunt—a governess for Michael Landon's children—got her an audition. Kellie landed a guest spot on Landon's Father Murphy, which led to parts on TV (thirtysomething) and in movies (Jampin' Jack Flash). Now Martin longs for serious roles ("Anne Frank or Juliet or Ophelia") or perhaps something that would take her to Paris. "If I could be doing anything right now it would be sitting by the Seine, eating bread and writing," she says, still in thrall after a recent 10-day vacation in France. "My goal is to live in Paris."
But not right away, because that would mean leaving behind her boyfriend of the past year, actor Scott Weinger, 18, of Full House, whom she met during his guest spot on Life Goes On when Kellie was 13. Weinger will enter Harvard in the fall, and Kellie will attend Yale—if, that is, her series isn't picked up next month. "I'm in limbo," she says, "but it's a good limbo." Weinger seems less sure about that. "We intended to go to school an hour and a half apart, so we'd see each other all the time," he says. "If she becomes an ultra-mega star and gets all kinds of marriage proposals, what am I going to do?"
Thai's the least of her mother's worries. "I hope that when she goes on to school, she finds something to do when she's not acting," says Debbie. "I hope that isn't where her self-worth would come from." Not to worry, Mom. "I would love to write," says Kellie, all youthful enthusiasm. "I would love to direct. And I may find something I didn't know about." After all, she says confidently, "that's what you go to college for."
KURT PITZER in Los Angeles
- Kurt Pitzer.