She doesn't squeeze into tight jeans for TV ads. She wouldn't sleaze into the role of a preteen hooker. You won't find her hopping clubs and continents with the cocaine crowd. Brooke and Jodie and Tatum may be Hollywood's Little League sex symbols, but until now Kristy McNichol, 19, has stubbornly stuck to a cuddly but unpretentious persona. "I'm just a cute wimpette," the 5'3", 100-pound actress says. "My lips are lopsided and my hair sticks up like a chicken."
She may not exactly be a classic beauty, but Kristy McNichol has outgrown her girlish Family image to emerge as one of her generation's best actresses. Her first not-just-for-kids film, Only When I Laugh, might be subtitled...All the Way to the Bank—it has grossed $12.3 million in just three weeks. McNichol, who will take home a percentage of the profits, makes in excess of a million dollars per year. Her portrayal of Polly, a high schooler trying desperately to get closer to her alcoholic actress mother (Marsha Mason), has won such fine reviews that studio flacks already are talking about Kristy's Oscar chances. "She is a rare and gifted girl," says playwright Neil Simon, who created the role of Polly with McNichol in mind. "She is capable of just about anything."
Kristy's new screen maturity coincides with a personal coming of age. Last year, on her 18th birthday, she moved into a home of her own that she shared with her Aunt Holly—her "second mother." Early next year she plans to cut the apron strings entirely when she takes up residence in a $1.75 million, four-bedroom home overlooking Beverly Hills. The house will provide garage space for her three cars—a Jeep, a Fiat and a Jaguar—and will also be home for a roommate, UCLA film student Christopher Daggett, 21. Even though she has adopted a new, one-stop-short-of-punk hairdo to help shed her girl-next-door image, McNichol isn't living a wild life, she says. The relationship with Daggett is basically pragmatic—he supplies live-in security. "There's a lot of weirdos up there," Kristy says. "I need a man in the house to protect me. I date a lot of guys. Chris is just one of them."
McNichol's private life, of course, has caused much speculation. Earlier this year she announced that 23-year-old hairdresser Joey Corsaro was her "everything." Now, though, she has backpedaled. "People seemed to think that Joey and I were almost married," says Kristy, who still dates Corsaro occasionally. "I'm 19 years old, and I should be able to see who I want." When she acquired her first home last year, Kristy planned to share it with her pal Ina Liberace—makeup artist and niece of you-know-who. About this time the whispers began to fly. "It goes with Hollywood, I guess," McNichol says. "It's because I act like a tomboy in my movies. Well, I'm not into being gay—and I don't like the rumors at all."
The mother-daughter give-and-take in Only When I Laugh bears a more than passing similarity to real life—although Kristy's mom, Carollyne, is almost teetotal. As business manager and script reader for Kristy and brother Jimmy, 20, Carollyne advanced her kids' careers. (For financial reasons, a third child, Tommy, now 17, was raised by his maternal grandparents; he is a computer whiz.) Lately Kristy has assumed an almost maternal posture toward her mother. "She likes to protect me and let me be the child on occasions," Carollyne admits. "She'll get on the phone and say, 'Mom, I think you should do this and this and this.' Some of what she says is good sense." Kristy may have felt very much like a worried mother last January when Carollyne, 39, married her German boyfriend, Siegfried Lucas, 28. Not only did Carollyne give Kristy a stepfather just nine years her senior; they're in the process of adopting Jennifer, a baby born to a mother who was a friend of Caroline's—and a father who had once dated Kristy. But Carollyne boasts that her daughter is happy with the soap opera scenario. "She's accepted the new setup well," Mom says. Kristy claims that she is even at peace with her carpenter father, Jim Sr., who moved out when she was 3 and now lives with Jimmy at his San Fernando Valley hilltop home. "We're spread all over," Kristy says, "but my family are among my very closest friends."
In fact, the only member of the clan who may not be happy these days is Jimmy. Once constantly mentioned in the same breath as his sister, Jimmy has found work hard to come by since his syndicated Hollywood Teen TV show ended in 1978 and California Fever folded a year later. "Business has been pretty slow," Carollyne admits. "He's been up for a couple of things, but he's not a typical New York street kid—and these are the sort of roles that seem to be offered right now." This month his first feature film will hit the theaters, a medium-budget horror flick called Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker.
Kristy, on the other hand, has more work than she can handle. Next spring Paramount will release her most dramatic role yet—White Dog, an adaptation of the Romain Gary novel about a household pet trained by a racist madman to attack blacks. She is now in Australia with Blue Lagoon vealcake Christopher Atkins filming The Pirate Movie, a knock-off of The Pirates of Penzance that she finds more accessible than the Gilbert and Sullivan original. "The play didn't keep me in my seat a lot. So they rewrote it, and made it wild and zany," she says.
Kristy, whose tutored education ended last year with a high school diploma, has no plans for college but wants "to just enjoy being young while I still can." Politics ("I'm not inclined"), religion ("I don't go to church"), the Bomb ("I'd rather not know about it") and even career ("I'd like it to build slowly") are taking a backseat to acting her age for a while. "Is it true that Brooke Shields
and John Travolta are really as hot as everyone says?" she muses. And then with a squeal she pleads: "John Travolta come my way, okay?" Only When I Laugh may help broaden her screen range but, says McNichol without apology, "The all-American girl who's just fun and easy-go-lucky—that's my image—and that's what I am."