A Maturing Melissa Gilbert Discovers a Mission, El Salvador, and a Passion, Rob Lowe

updated 12/12/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/12/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

Jean Donovan was warned. Ignoring the pleas of friends, she returned to El Salvador and her work as a lay missionary. The warning proved prophetic. On Dec. 4, 1980 her sexually abused, decomposing body was found in a shallow grave along with three Maryknoll sisters who had also been tortured. The story made headlines, touched off angry diplomatic responses and gave Americans a jolting glimpse of life and death in a country ruled by fear.

This week, in an NBC TV-movie, Choices of the Heart, Melissa Gilbert, 19, forcefully reenacts the too short life of the 27-year-old Cleveland woman who wanted nothing more than to "give of myself and make people happy." The story is presented in a haunting, often graphic, yet factual manner. Says actor John Houseman, who served as the film's executive producer: "Choices of the Heart would never have been done if Melissa hadn't gotten enthusiastic about the project."

Produced by Melissa's Halfpint Production Co. (a takeoff on her Little House on the Prairie nickname), Choices called for her to put on 20 pounds and wear no makeup. Despite the cosmetic problems, Melissa quickly gained the weight (with a steady diet of tortillas) and an instinctive feeling for the older woman she was to portray. "It got to the point where I just didn't care what I looked like. I wasn't into reshaping my body, but understanding my character," she says. To help her achieve that goal, Melissa spoke to Donovan's parents by phone. "I was at a loss for words," she says, "but they were so strong."

El Salvador meant nothing to Melissa prior to the making of this film. "Mention politics," says she, "and I'd leave the room. Now when I hear about 20,000 people dying, I don't think in terms of numbers, I think in terms of families that aren't families anymore. The whole experience opened me up."

When she returned to her Encino, Calif, home following an exhausting five-week Mexico shoot last May, she found her family (mother Barbara, brother Jonathan, 16, and sister Sara, 8) on vacation, boyfriend Rob (Class) Lowe filming Hotel New Hampshire in Canada and the Little House series canceled. Understandably, Melissa turned despondent. "I had a three-day stretch," she remembers, "where I would just lie on the couch and watch Superman II over and over. But I snap out of things easily."

These days Melissa is pursuing her horseback riding and dancing hobbies and spending as much time as possible with teen dream Lowe, 19. The two met in typical California fashion, stopped at a red light on La Cienega Blvd., he in a white Mazda, she in a tan Chrysler station wagon. "I had just finished a dust-storm scene for Little House," Melissa says, "and my face was black, my hair matted and I was wearing big red sunglasses. I looked over at what I thought was the most beautiful person I had seen in my life and said, 'Hi.' "

They talked on the phone for a year, became friends and began seriously dating two years ago. (He has a brief walk-on in Choices.) Says Lowe of the minimogul he calls Franchise: "She's intelligent and witty. Her world is not limited to the Galleria and the latest three-picture deal."

The romance has had its share of difficulties. Lowe has made no secret of a past fling with his Hotel New Hampshire co-star Nastassia Kinski. "We have big problems," Gilbert concedes, "but things are starting to even out. In our down phase we see other people, take time off from each other. But after a week or two we realize how terrific we are together."

About six months ago Gilbert left home and found her own place—the family guest house. "I moved about 14 feet away," she says, laughing.

On Mother's Day her next film, Gladiola Girls, with Stephanie Powers, will be shown on NBC. At this point it is just another credit in an acting education that began at 2 with a baby-clothes commercial. At 9 Gilbert started a near-decade-long visit to Michael Landon's Little House. Since then she has branched out in such varied TV films as The Miracle Worker, The Diary of Anne Frank and Splendor in the Grass.

The sexy Splendor role apparently rubbed off. Last summer Melissa posed for what she calls her "first semi-cheesecake layout," a portion of which ran in Newsweek. "It was meant to be fun," she says. "I don't want to get a reputation like Nastassia Kinski for taking my clothes off in films."

It's unlikely she will. Gilbert is bent on pursuing projects with social significance. After she read the script for Choices she told her manager, "I want to do it. I don't care if they give me a dollar a day. I have to do it." That's the kind of personal passion that Jean Donovan might well have understood.

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