If Robin Givens Can Jump from Harvard to Head of the Class, There's No Ceiling on Her Talent

updated 05/11/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/11/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

After dropping out of Harvard Medical School prior to playing a call girl in the 1986 TV film Beverly Hills Madam, Robin Givens called her old boyfriend Eddie Murphy to break the news. "How could you do that?" Murphy blurted. "I wanted you to become a doctor." According to Givens, Murphy feared that the bookworm he once knew would be corrupted by Hollywood. "He was so completely hurt," she says. "He used to call me 'Doc' and make me bring my books on dates. I think he wanted me to be a doctor more than my mom did."

Well, Murphy will have to live with the disappointment. If the attention she's getting from ABC's highly praised comedy Head of the Class is any indication, Givens will be in the business for some time. She plays Darlene, the snobbiest kid in Howard Hesseman's class of brilliant misfits—a gorgeous high school senior who plays Trivial Pursuit in French. "I'm not really like that," Givens, 22, insists predictably, but she is. Stuck-up, no, but apart from that they could be identical twins down to the last brain cell.

Raised in New York by a protective, divorced mother, Robin occasionally acted and modeled as a teen, but it was always books before cameras. She careened through prep school with a 3.8 average, entered Sarah Lawrence College at 15 and headed for Harvard four years later. But after two semesters she began questioning her desire to be a surgeon. At the same time she auditioned for a guest spot on The Cosby Show. Robin won the part and gained a mentor—the show's star. "What really knocked me out was her self-direction," says Cosby. "She has the talent to be a major actress."

Cosby told Givens that she shouldn't stay in school "if always she'd be wondering whether she could have made it in Hollywood." The idea of leaving Harvard met resistance from Ruth Givens, her mother, and led to a six-hour meeting with Cosby. "Bill's confidence in Robin's chances ultimately convinced me we should give Hollywood a try," says Ruth, who owns a data processing consulting firm in Manhattan. Four days after flying to L.A., Robin landed the role in Beverly Hills Madam. The part, which she won without Cosby's help, was followed by her role in Head of the Class, which premiered last fall.

You don't have to be a Mensa member to see why casting directors hire Givens. First, she has the kind of looks that must have Whitney Houston or Lisa Bonet darting worried glances into their makeup mirrors. Second, Givens has a sense of self-possession that's very advanced for her years. Neither attribute is new. When she was 16, for example, she went to see Eddie Murphy at the Comedy Strip in New York. "He was signing autographs, and when I walked by I said, 'Do you want my autograph?' And he shouted, 'Come back here!' "

She and Murphy, then 20, dated steadily for a year and drifted apart. "He was just starting his film career and had to devote himself to that," she says. "But we're still friends."

Career conflicts also ended her other serious relationship, with slam-dunking superguard Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls. They met a year ago at a North Carolina golf tournament but broke up in January. "Other people weren't the problem," says Givens, who lives in a one-bedroom L.A. apartment. "Both distance and the demands of our careers were the problem."

While Givens gets ready to return in Head of the Class next season, her long-term plans include more roles for "wholesome black girls—we don't have many female heroes in that vein." Givens was uncomfortable playing the prostitute in Beverly Hills Madam and turned down a part as a sexually frisky receptionist in NBC's Amen. "I don't see myself as sexy and I don't play it up," she says. "Sexy isn't aware. I'm bright and I like to appeal to people on that level." Besides, she adds, "if I'm supposed to be so sexy, why don't I have a date?" Good question, although you somehow get the feeling that she shouldn't be adding her scorecard up just quite yet.

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