America's Sweethearts

updated 02/24/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/24/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

Ah, teenage lovers. Those blessed innocents who never have to fret about promiscuity, unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases. Huh? Well, despite alarming statistics to the contrary, that's how TV sitcom producers prefer to see adolescent romance. Their guide is not Gallup but Nielsen. And the ratings show that the public may be tiring of those lubricious nighttime soaps where lust is a must. Dallas and Dynasty are down three points from last year, and Falcon Crest two points.

Rushing to fill the gap comes wholesome fare like The Cosby Show and Family Ties, each with one or more teen couples and each now a Top 10 fixture. Other sitcoms, including Who's the Boss?, 227and The Facts of Life, are quickly tossing in subplots about blushing teens whose idea of going too far is compulsive hand-holding or smooching till your cheeks burn. This month, Gary (Diff'rent Strokes) Coleman falls in love and Emmanuel (Webster) Lewis gets his first kiss.

Nowhere has the new sweetheart syndrome proved more winning than on NBC's Family Ties, where teen idol Michael J. Fox reigns as the most popular TV star in America. (Fox receives 21,000 fan letters a week, 500 more than closest competitor Cosby.) Though Family Ties has easily held its No. 2 position in the ratings this year, Fox felt his role as the smart-mouthed Alex—the original young Republican—was stagnating. "How many times can I talk about who gets to use the phone?" asks Fox. "It's not a thing a 19-year-old guy worries about." The show's supervising producer has cannily provided a new focus for Alex's energies. "We were all aware of Michael's following with young women," says Michael J. Weithorn. And so the next step was obvious: a love interest.

Casting director Judith Weiner looked at over 300 jeunes filles trying to find the right sweet-yet-pungent personality to play opposite the show's chief draw. With the success of Back to the Future (No. 1 flick of 1985), Fox had won the right to be pampered, and he wasn't about to choose his first consort from the army of bodacious, pea-brained cuties who frequent the Hollywood casting agencies. "Alex can be so intense and at the same time so explosive that we needed a strong match for him," says Fox. Adds Weithorn: "We were determined to transcend the traditional sitcom girlfriend—you know, the generic blond bimbo."

Mission accomplished, gang. Tracy Pollan, an angular sandy blonde from New York, is far from that typical choice, but Fox, after reading with five finalists, voted decisively for her. Perhaps the fact that both are about the same age (he's 24 playing 19, she's 25 playing 18) helped build empathy. Fox says it was more: "Tracy had strength but she wasn't overbearing." (Translation: She knows he's the star.) Pollan portrays Ellen Reed, a smart, sensitive art student whose taste runs more to paint-splattered overalls than minis, spike heels and punk makeup. From the moment last October when the 5'6" Ellen stared down through her wire-rimmed glasses at the 5'4½" Alex, the TV audience found themselves hooked on this unlikely match up of winsome wit and buttoned-down brass. Since then Pollan has become a series regular (she's signed a one-year contract) and doesn't care who thinks she's too wholesome and virtuous. "People got tired of all those glitzy, power-hungry people jumping in the sack," says Pollan. "Alex and Ellen have an old-fashioned relationship. It's unjaded and optimistic with the sweetness of a first love."

Pollan, who was born on Long Island and raised in New York City, lives in L.A. for the four months a year the show is shooting but has deliberately remained an outsider in La La land. Staring out the window of her Hollywood hotel, she moans, "When will I get used to it here?" Says Fox: "Tracy is really a fish out of water in L.A. She's so unassuming and natural that it is hard for her to fit in." Part of it, says Pollan, is constitutional: "I'm not a social retard, but I prefer to go unnoticed." On the set, according to Fox, she often sits by herself, lost in thought. "I don't want to disturb her," says Mr. Gregarious, "but I'm really dying to know what she's thinking about."

Chances are, Pollan is daydreaming about the farm in Connecticut, the many pets or, most likely, her real-life boyfriend, Kevin (Footloose) Bacon, 27 (out this month in Quicksilver). The two met five years ago while co-starring off-Broadway in Album. "We had a magical two weeks onstage together, and we fell in love," says Bacon. Both shy about public displays of affection, they tried to hide their affair from cast members. "We would say good night, then run around the corner and meet," says Bacon. Recalls Pollan: "I was nuts about him from the start."

By contrast, Pollan is unfazed by the demands of her TV romance with Fox. Indeed, her first kiss with Mr. Teen Dream was no big deal. "Ellen was nervous, Tracy was not," she says coolly. Pollan shrugs off tabloid speculation that she and Fox are having an offstage fling, and Fox denies it chivalrously: "I wouldn't be so arrogant as to believe that could happen."

In fact, though they are friendly on the set, Pollan and Fox do not socialize, in part, says Tracy, because "I fly home to Kevin the second filming shuts down." They share a two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan but try to spend most of their time at their turn-of-the-century farmhouse in Connecticut, where, she says, "We just cook, garden and ride horses all day." The 22-acre farm is home to two cats, two quarter horses and their black Labrador, Jane—"our surrogate baby." Says Pollan: "We will probably marry, but I feel like we're kids still, and marriage is such a grown-up thing."

Growing up too fast was just the thing among Pollan's classmates in Manhattan. The daughter of New York magazine writer Corky Pollan and financial consultant Stephen Pollan, Tracy, who has two sisters and a brother, attended the ritzy Dalton School. "I felt like a hick," she says. "All the kids were ultrasophisticated and I wasn't." After graduation, Pollan worked as the self-described "world's worst waitress" and attended acting classes. She made her film debut in 1983's Baby, It's You, followed by roles on Broadway (Pack of Lies) and made-for-TV films (Sessions, Trackdown).

Pollan's dream project is to star with Bacon in an old-fashioned love story like her tip-top favorite, Wuthering Heights—since, as she tells it, he might as well be Heathcliff: "I'm gushingly in love." To give depth to her acting as the love-struck Ellen, she says, "I think back to that initial elation when I first met Kevin. I still feel it, honest."

Puppy passion also blooms on Boss, 227 and Cosby

Alyssa Milano and Scott Grimes of Who's the Boss?: Out of the mouths of babes off times come gems, but in this case they're chunks of granite-hard common sense. The pert Milano, just one year into her teens (13)—and fresh from her success as Schwarzenegger's daughter in Commando—observes judiciously that "a lot of our viewers are kids like me. I think kids can relate to an innocent romance instead of the jumping-into-bed romances they see on Dynasty." As Tony Danza's never-been-kissed little girl, Milano is positively mad for Chad, played by Scott Grimes. "Samantha is sooo hot for him that she can't talk to him," says Alyssa. "She's really in the throes of her first love." As for her personal life, Milano could instruct women twice her age on living and loving wisely. An eighth-grader at Bel Air Prep School, the littlest sophisticate has no time for boy craziness. Nor is she swooning for dreamy blue eyes or squealing for Duran Duran. "I'm very sarcastic," Milano notes. "I need someone who can take a joke and keep up with me at the same time." In fact, her dream date is co-star Scott Grimes, who lives but two blocks away in Studio City. "Scott has all those qualities, and he's practically my best friend," she says. Alas, she's keeping things strictly professional despite Grimes' appeal. "I don't want to mess up our working relationship," she says. Spoken like a real pro.

The freckle-pussed Grimes, 14, is slightly less knowing but pretty cool himself, even though his voice hasn't changed yet. "It's our first love so we're a little awkward and a lot naive," says Scott, whose father works for a computer firm. "We're both virgins on the show but won't admit it to each other." Grimes calls his character "the most popular guy in school" and insists that Chad is "much more macho than I am." But he's quick to add of himself, "I'm not a pencil-necked geek, either." Save the innocence for the show, says Grimes, who on one recent school day tallied up eight hugs and three kisses. "I'm not bragging," he says, "but there are some girls who have the hots for me because I'm on TV."

Regina King and Curtis Baldwin of 227: "We've never even kissed on the show," complains Baldwin, 18, of his TV romance with King, 15. In fact, if Baldwin were to attempt a smooch session with King, "I'd be one dead teenager." Neighbors in a tenement on the show, the two are sheltered innocents light-years behind their peers because of her protective mom (Maria Gibbs) and his vigilant granny (Helen Martin). King does see similarities with her own emerging personality. "Brenda likes boys and clothes. She is naive but she knows one thing—she loves Calvin even though he's a little goofy." As for her own love life, Regina, whose parents are divorced, lives in Westchester, Calif, with her mother, a high school teacher, and leaves romance on the set. Despite Curtis' eagerness for himself and Regina to move past hand-holding on the show, he admits their TV relationship has a certain charm. "Frankly, it's refreshing to see something pure and genuine," he says. "It's not a physical attraction." In real life, Baldwin lives in L.A. with his mother, an elementary teacher's assistant. Not only is 227 his first TV series, it's his first professional job. The Californian finds adulation a humid experience. "During a taping, about 50 girls were screaming for me," he says, delight coating every syllable. "I mean they had the hots for me." But Baldwin found himself stung with jealousy when a fan of Regina's stood and stared at her. Gibbs teased him, "Can't Regina have any fun?" To which he replied, "Not while she's my girl, she can't."

Sabrina LaBeauf and Geoffrey Owens of The Cosby Show. As Sondra and Elvin, two Princetonians grappling with love for the very first time, LaBeauf, 27, and Owens, 25, should be given honorary memberships in the Legion of Decency. "Let's face it, we have censors," says LaBeauf. "This is not a passionate affair." Says a crestfallen Owens: "We're lucky if we get to hold hands. I figure sex is just around the corner, but I seriously doubt viewers will find out about it." LaBeauf confesses that she adores a "good jaded love," but denies there's any romance in her own life. The New York-born Owens admits, "Actually my character is a kind of a nerd. He's quite bright but he's frightened of Sabrina because he doesn't understand his feelings for her. He doesn't know if she will accept his social maneuvers." As the son of Brooklyn Congressman Major Owens, Geoffrey is comfortable with political tactics and some social moves of his own (he admits to a live-in girlfriend). Still, don't expect him to try anything too forward on the tube. The purity of the Owens and LaBeauf romance is not likely to be sullied—boss Bill Cosby wants it just as it is. After their first rehearsal, he took them aside and gave them some very distinct direction: "I don't want this relationship to look too slick," he said. "I want the audience to really believe in your love just like they believed in their first love." Judging by the ratings for Cosby and the other sitcoms, TV's depiction of tremulous teen love rings true as a bell for most of America.

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