"Parade Magazine Article"

Copyright Parade Magazine 1996 Date: Sunday, December 29, 1996


 

IN STEP WITH MELISSA JOAN HART By James Brady

It's rare for an actress as young as Melissa Joan Hart (she'll turn 21 in April) already to have starred in two entirely different but successful television series. In her case, first came Clarissa Explains It All, a sitcom on Nickelodeon, a show and a heroine with whom teenagers all over America seemed to identify. And now Melissa is in one of the current season's few new hits, the ABC series Sabrina, The Teenage Witch, based on the Archie Comics character Sabrina, who first appeared in 1962.

What happened to Clarissa? Why didn't Melissa stay with that one?

"It ended happily," she said. "Nickelodeon doesn't do more than 65 episodes of a show, and we did 65." So pleasant were her experiences with the cable network that Melissa was all set to cover this past Presidential election for Nickelodeon. "I actually did some promos for Nick," she said, "but then along came Sabrina, and I couldn't take the time off. I was supposed to cover both conventions and then the election itself." Disappointed? "Yeah, but more so my mother. She's really interested in politics." Her mother, Paula Hart, is not only a political junkie but also executive producer of Sabrina.

Melissa was on a lunch break at Universal Studios in Los Angeles when we spoke. "We take five days to do each episode (of Sabrina)," she explained. "Two days of rehearsal and three days of shooting. The series started with good ratings and maintained its strength. We were up against Millennium, and that premiere blew us away, but after that it was better. The 9 o'clock (Friday) time slot is not so good for the show -- more teens than kids are watching. But for ABC it's good."

So good that, early on, the network committed to a full season of 22 episodes. Will they renew for a second season? "No decision yet on that," she said. "They have me (under contract) for five years if they want." As for her character, as a kid who's also a witch, Melissa said, "In the beginning I was whining too much. Then this week she (her character) is almost too mean, getting back at a teacher. There's too much revenge. So you're on the side of the mean teacher and not Sabrina. But they listen to me, and I think we're getting her right."

Perhaps Sabrina fans aren't aware of it, but this isn't the first piece Melissa has acted in that involved witchcraft. As a child actor, she was in a Broadway production of The Crucible, the great Arthur Miller play about the deadly and tragic witch hunts in Colonial Salem, Mass., when adolescent girls accused townswomen of casting spells. Melissa was hardly a star then. "I was understudy for three of the children, and I did go on a few times," she said.

They will wrap up this first season's work in March, and then Melissa will probably be doing some movies-of-the-week for ABC. Long-term, she wants to get back to college. (She was studying at New York University when the Sabrina opportunity came along.) But meanwhile, she's got a boyfriend, James Fields. Is he an actor too? Nope, at least not yet, she told me. "He's in school."

PERSONAL: Born April 18, 1976, in Sayville, N.Y. Single.

TV SERIES: Include Clarissa Explains It All, 1991-94; Sabrina, The Teenage Witch, 1996-current.

TV FILMS: Include Kane and Abel, 1985; Christmas Snow, 1986; The Tale of the Frozen Ghost, 1993; Family Reunion, 1995; Twisted Desire, 1996; Sabrina, The Teenage Witch, 1996.

THEATER: Includes Beside Herself, 1989; Imagining Brad, 1990; The Crucible, 1991.

BRADY'S BITS: No matter how young you are, if you're the star of a hit TV series, you not only get paid pretty well but there also are certain fringe benefits. For one thing, said Melissa Joan Hart, "I get to have a second wardrobe. I have a designer, Dianne Kennedy, and tailors and seamstresses, and it's really great. I get to wear the clothes out and even keep some. Last night I got to wear something from the show to the Star Trek premiere. I'm not a Trekkie, but my boyfriend is." The perks don't stop with pretty dresses. "I have a giant dressing room," Melissa added, "twice the size of the usual one. That's another nice thing about ABC. It's wonderful being with a network, because they have money. Nickelodeon was great but, especially in the beginning, they didn't have much money." There's a delightful freshness to all this. Melissa is clearly enjoying life and not just hugging it privately to herself. But what was she most excited about? Said Melissa, who already has five brothers and sisters: "My mom just had a baby girl!"