08/29/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT
SEAQUEST DSV STAR JONATHAN Brandis, who has been in show business for all but two of his 18 years, remembers a spell a few years ago when, scarcely into adolescence, he wondered whether he had been left high and dry. "It was tough," says the blue-eyed, 5'9" Brandis, who was experiencing a this-could-only-happen-in-Hollywood problem. "Every friend of mine had a series, and I kept thinking, 'When will it happen to me?' "
Not long after, his ship came in. Or more precisely, his submarine. Brandis signed aboard seaQuest, NBC's Sunday-night, Steven Spielberg-produced underwater fantasy about a deep-submergence vehicle (hence DSV) staffed by, among others, Captain Roy Scheider and a dolphin named Ensign Darwin. The show is just treading water in the ratings, but it has made Brandis, who plays a computer brainiac named Lucas Wolenczak, the idol of young girls everywhere. "Hotter than H-O-T!" gushes Teen magazine. Brandis's mother and manager, Mary, 46, estimates that he receives 4,000 letters a week, most of them from girls ages 9 to 16. "Fan mail is funny," says Brandis. "They leave numbers sometimes. I'll call out of curiosity, and they'll say,"—he assumes a high voice—" 'It's not you!' And they hang up."
Even his mother gets a bit frazzled when speaking of her son, who was born in Danbury, Conn., where his father, Greg, 47, used to be a firefighter. "Jonathan went for the camera very early," says Mary, a former teacher, of modeling auditions that began when Brandis was barely out of the cradle. At 2, he made his debut on a sales poster for Buster Brown clothing. By 5, he was in commercials for, among other products, Kix cereal and Fisher-Price toys. At 6, he was on the soap One Life to Live. Those early gigs "taught me behavior, failure, success, discipline," says Brandis. "When I was a little kid, getting in trouble in class, the teachers would say, 'Do you act this way on the set?' And I'd say, 'No, that's a job.' "
When Brandis was a seasoned veteran of 9, he decided it was time to try Hollywood. The family relocated to Los Angeles, settling in a town house in the San Fernando Valley. His mother became his manager; his father bought a food distributorship. And Jonathan, who last year graduated from the Valley Professional School, began landing small parts in miniseries (he was the chronic stutterer in 1990's Stephen King's It), series (Blossom) and movies. But it was in a drag role—as a boy disguised as a girl soccer player in the 1992 Rodney Dangerfield comedy Ladybngs—that Brandis first came to the attention of adolescent female America. "Girls really took to that," he says, somewhat mystified.
Now he needs three studio security guards to steer him through the hordes of female admirers at Orlando's Universal Studios, where the series is shot. According to costar Scheider, none of this has turned Brandis's head. "His family life is secure," says Scheider, "and he takes his incredible popularity with a grain of salt—other than the fact he uses it to get girls!" The only time he ever lost his head, Brandis confesses, was the time his own idol, Spielberg, visited the set. Says Brandis, whose goal is to shift from acting to directing: "I told him how many times I'd seen Jurassic Park and all this goofy fan stuff."
For Brandis, the only hitch to the show was a decision this season to shift production from Hollywood to Florida. The young actor is having trouble acclimating. "You walk outside," he sighs, "and it's 150 degrees, sticky and wet and yuck." If he were home in Los Angeles, he'd probably be playing pool and hanging out with friends such as Beverly Hills, 90210 star Brian Austin Green and Jenna von Oy, who plays Six on Blossom. Von Oy and Brandis go all the way back to Danbury, where they met as aspiring child actors. "Jonathan is still a sweetheart," says von Oy, "the same person I knew when I was little."
In his off-hours in Orlando, Brandis, who isn't dating anyone currently, pretty much stays in his hotel-apartment complex, "watching real bad TV shows from the '70s—so I can learn how not to direct television." (Mom jets back and forth from L.A.) He hopes to be behind the camera soon. "I'm actually trying to get in on some Nickelodeon projects right now," he says, then pauses to consider the vagaries of the business he's in. "The way I look at it is, I didn't expect any of this," he says. "I didn't think at 14 I'd be working. After It, I thought that was the last big thing I'd do. So right now I'm saying I'm probably not going to be working as an actor in my early 20s. I might be. I don't know."
Ask the girls.
MEG GRANT in Orlando