IN A FIANNEL SHIRT, BLUE JEANS, BLACK boots and an Atlanta Braves cap, 17-year-old Sara Gilbert traverses the cluttered bedroom of her family's rambling, ranch-style Encino, Calif., home like a seasoned safari guide. Sidestepping several guitars, an amp, a pair of silver lamé pants she'd worn to a recent '70s-theme disco party, a slack of books (her favorite: Catcher in the Rye) and a partially dismantled drum set ("The room was defleaed recently," she explains), Sara maneuvers around her yapping beagle, Ralph, who sits up and begs for a taste of the pizza she's munching. "I'm, like, the most unorganized person in the world," she confesses.

At this moment, Gilbert seems not unlike Darlene Conner, the very messy—and sassy—teenager she plays on ABC's top-rated Roseanne. In fact, many of Darlene's insecurities are reflected in Sara. On a shelf, photos of herself have been turned upside down. ("Because they're all ugly," she says.) Ask her if she has a boyfriend and she shoots back, "Too personal." But she adds, "Most of my friends are boys."

Her friends were undoubtedly impressed by Sara's big-screen debut last month in Poison Ivy, a stylish little thriller (now wilting at the box office) in which she plays a nerdy teen befriended by a Lolita-esque femme fatale (Drew Barrymore). "Drew is wild, very eccentric and just larger than life," observes Gilbert. "A person might have to talk to me before they think I'm interesting."

"We're really similar," insists Barrymore, 17, who has stayed in touch with Sara since Ivy wrapped last June. "We can talk about important things. But then a minute later we're completely stupid together."

"I think Sara is brilliant," says her older sister, Little Home on the Prairie alumna Melissa Sue Gilbert-Brinkman, 28, who nonetheless admits to being a bit perplexed by her sibling's introspective bent. "When I was her age, I wore spandex and roller-skated," explains Melissa, now a mother of a 3-year-old son, with her own Fox series (Stand By Your Man). "A great weekend to Sara would probably mean meditating on a rock in Nepal with a prophet and fasting for two days."

And yet Sara has had a hunger for acting ever since she was 6 and watched Melissa receive her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. (Their brother. Jonathan, now 24 and a fledgling producer in New York City, also grew up on Little House.) Mother Barbara Gilbert was divorced from attorney Harold Abeles when Sara was 6 ("They get along so well, I don't think it had any effect on me," Sara says). That same year, her mom became her manager and helped her nab her first job—a Kool-Aid commercial. Roles in TV movies, such as Calamity Jane, soon followed.

Then came a real calamity. After five auditions, 13-year-old Sara was turned down for a costarring role on NBC's The Facts of Life. "I was pretty bummed," she admits. But today Gilbert sees that rejection as a blessing. "Many child actors, I think, run into problems because all they've ever had in their life was a job, and then the minute they don't have one, they fall apart," she says. "But I worked sporadically. And as a result, I went to school [she is an A-average student at a private school near her home], had friends and did regular things. I wasn't famous. I wasn't even recognized."

Although fan letters (she gets some 1,500 a month) are now part of her bedroom debris, playing an average teen has helped Gilbert maintain her perspective. So has her TV mom. "Roseanne's genuinely concerned about my welfare," says Sara. "We talk a lot."

"Rosie and I are so proud of her," says husband Tom Arnold. "She's grown up a lot, particularly in the last year." Twice blessed, Sara also says she has "a great relationship" with her real mother, one in which she is free to express herself and does. "She's a very strong person," says Barbara. "She has definite opinions." Decisions about her career plans, Sara says bluntly, "are my call."

Like her idol, Jodie Foster, she has been accepted at Yale, where she plans to major in psychology. But Gilbert won't be enrolling this fall. "I want to finish Roseanne before I start college," says Sara, whose contract runs two more years. She would also like a shot at directing next season, "but I don't know how realistic that is," she admits.

Indeed, her grown-up ambitions are tempered by teenage ambivalence. "I've been talking with some friends about getting an apartment and moving out," she says. "When I'm at home, I feel like I'm missing something." On the other hand, she confesses, "I really like living at home. I'm comfortable here."

Besides, how could she ever recreate that funky bedroom adorned with Pink Floyd and Woodstock posters? Sara rummages through a box of ticket stubs from her favorite rock concerts, including a 1989 Grateful Dead gig. "Your first Dead concert is significant," she says solemnly. "Do you know what I mean?"

MICHAEL A. LIPTON
TODD GOLD in Los Angeles

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  • Todd Gold.