A Breakout for Tiffani

updated 09/12/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/12/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

WOULDN'T YOU JUST KNOW IT? No sooner do the Walshes of Beverly Hills, 90210 finally get temperamental daughter Brenda (Shannen Doherty) out of the house and off to London than another bundle of humors moves in. Her name is Valerie Malone, and the Walshes have known her since before they moved to Beverly Hills. Now they are giving her Brenda's old room 'cause she's transferring to Cal U. after her dad has committed suicide. And guess what? "Val's got a few problems," says Tiffani-Amber Thiessen, 20, the actress from NBC's high school sitcom Saved by the Bell who was picked to shoulder these burdens, starting with 90210''s fifth-season opener on Sept. 7. "It's actually fun," Thiessen (pronounced THEE-sen) says with a laugh, "because in one scene I'm total sweetness, then in another I'm a total you-know-what."

As the vivacious Kelly on Bell (to which she will return as the bride on the Oct. 7 series finale), she found everything total sweetness, on-and off-camera. "I grew up with those kids," says Thiessen. "It was just like us at school having fun." On the other hand, how would she know? Thiessen gained her high school diploma principally through tutors. Now, never having been to college, she's matriculated at Cal U. And, unlike Bell's, the 90210 set hasn't recently been a campusful of fun—mainly due to Doherty's well-publicized problems.

Draped over a chair in the dining room of her three-bedroom house in Sherman Oaks, Calif., Thiessen protests prettily, "I'm not replacing [Doherty], because I'm not replacing Brenda. If people would realize that Shannen did her job for four years and that I'm coming on and doing my job and not worry about who's replacing whom...."

Not that Thiessen can't take care of herself; this is a petite young woman who takes kick-boxing lessons three times a week as part of her exercise routine. And certainly no one in the 90210 cast is weeping over Doherty's departure. Besides, for the past year and a half, Thiessen has been dating 90210's Brian Austin Green, 21, who plays David Silver. "It made it easier on the cast not to have to meet a stranger," says producer Aaron Spelling, who had spotted Thiessen on Bell, where his daughter Tori guested several years ago.

In Thiessen, they got a sweet-tempered actress who already has a dozen years in the business. She grew up in Long Beach, Calif., the second of three children of Frank Thiessen, a designer of parks, and his wife, Robyn. (Brother Todd, 26, is a professional cyclist, and brother Schuyler, 17, is a high school senior.) When Tiffani was 8, her uncle Roger Ernest, a former actor and screenwriter, suggested she try modeling. Soon she was doing commercials for the Peaches 'n' Cream Barbie doll.

She began competing in beauty pageants at 9 and won the Miss Junior America Pageant in 1987. "I would never do another one," says Thiessen, "but at the time it was fun." After that came guest shots on such TV shows as The Hogan Family and Married...with Children. David Faustino, who plays Bud on Children, introduced her to his pal Green in 1988. They were just friends for more than four years. Then one night at an L.A. club they kissed for the first time. "She called me the next day," Green remembers, "and was, like, 'I'm sorry about that. It was a big mistake.' " So the next time he saw her at a club, says Green, "we were about to kiss again, and I stopped because I said I didn't want to get another phone call. She said, 'No, no, you won't!' " Adds Thiessen: "I suddenly saw him in a completely different light. Things just clicked. He said, 'Let's just try it, and if it doesn't work, we'll still be friends.' " It has worked, and their only problem, Green says, is that "I don't get to see her as often as I used to. Our characters don't meet until the third episode."

Meanwhile, when the two aren't on the set, Thiessen lets Green do most of the club crawling, while she reads (recently, Dori Sanders' novel Clover) and runs on the beach with her two dogs. Her ultimate ambition? Thiessen is dying to go to college, she says, "even if not until I'm 45." Given her career prospects, it may take that long. Says her actress pal Rena Sofer (Lois Cerrullo on ABC's soap General Hospital), with whom Thiessen used to read Tarot cards: "Her cards were always positive, very much like, 'You're in the middle of greatness!' That's just the way I see Tiffani's life. She's on that really nice, clean path towards success.

MARK GOODMAN
KAREN BRAILSFORD in Sherman Oaks

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