Sunday, September 05, 1999

'Sabrina' star moves her career every witch way

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        You won't see a change of Hart soon, at least not much. Melissa Joan Hart has a drunken scene in her new Drive Me Crazy feature film, but that's a calculated small step in slightly changing an image she wants to protect.

        “I try to be a good role model,” says the 23-year-old star of ABC's Sabrina, the Teenage Witch.

        “Anything I do — magazine covers, a movie, anything — I try to think about my little siblings and what they'll think of me, seeing me in that light.”

        It will be hard for her sisters and brother — and everyone else — to miss Melissa this fall.

        • Sabrina, the Animated Series, a new cartoon starting Monday, will air seven days a week on UPN and ABC. (Weekdays at 4 p.m. on Channel 25; 10:30 a.m. Saturday on Channels 9 and 2; and 10 a.m. Sundays on Channel 25).

        • Sabrina, the Teenage Witch opens the fourth season Sept. 24 on ABC with Sabrina as a high school senior (9 p.m., Channels 9, 2).

        • Sabrina, Down Under, a movie shot in Australia, premieres on ABC's Wonderful World of Disney Sept. 26 (7 p.m., Channels 9, 2). Disney repeats her 1998 Sabrina Goes to Rome film next Sunday (7 p.m., Channels 9, 2).

        • Drive Me Crazy, her first lead role in a feature film, opens Oct. 1. She plays a popular high school senior who takes her nerdy neighbor (Adrian Grenier) to the prom.

        “It's a little bit of a step up for me, because it's a feature,” she says. “Unlike the characters I've played (on TV), this is more me. It's a little more of a normal teen-ager.”

        In other words, no magic powers. Just common sense.

        “She's part of the popular group, not because she's into being really popular, but because she's smart enough to know what things to do to stay in that crowd,” she says.

Family benefits
        Melissa is smart enough to know that her squeaky-clean image, and huge popularity, has bankrolled her family's Hartbreak Films, which has 48 projects in development.

        All five sisters and her brother have appeared in Hartbreak shows produced by her mother and stepfather. Sister Emily, 13, who has played Melissa's cousin Amanda on the ABC sitcom, will do the voice of Sabrina on the cartoon. Melissa provides the voices of Aunts Zelda and Hilda.

        “We've got the same voice, but hers is younger, so it's perfect,” Melissa says about Emily.

        The cartoon is set six years ago, before the sitcom started. Sabrina, 12, lives with her teen-age aunts and a crazy Uncle Quigley (Jay Brazeau).

        “It's not really related to the TV show, although Salem (the cat) is in it. The characters are the same, but there's a whole different set of problems,” Melissa says.

        Before production started, there was one big problem: Executives at the DIC animation studio didn't want Emily for the role.

        “We didn't see the problem,” Melissa says. “We didn't understand why there was a little bit of a conflict in the beginning.”

"Nothing on TV for kids'
        Hartbreak Films is a family business, in more ways than one. Paula Hart began managing daughter Melissa's career at age 4, doing her first national commercial in 1980. The former “Long Island house mom” started Hartbreak Films five years ago “because there was nothing on TV for kids,” mom says.

        “I have seven children from 2 to 23,” Mrs. Hart says. “There was nothing on television that I could sit ... and watch as a family.”

        Hartbreak opened as Melissa ended Nickelodeon's popular series, Clarissa Explains It All, and enrolled in New York University. She dropped out of college to star in the ABC sitcom based on the popular Archie Comics heroine.

        “When I started Sabrina, it was like pulling teeth with the network (ABC) to keep family values in it,” Mrs. Hart says. She credits Cincinnati's Procter & Gamble Co., a silent partner in the series (through Viacom), for support. P&G will share in profits from Sabrina's syndication broadcast next year on WSTR-TV (Channel 64) and other stations.

        Melissa, who turns 24 in April, would like to play Sabrina two more seasons — although she's contractually obligated for four more years, if ABC wants it.

        “I call this my "day job.' As long as it goes on, that's fine,” she says. “I'd like to do another two seasons, then go back to school in New York, and do a Broadway play or something.”

        She also likes not acting her age.

        “There is a lot more out there for teen-agers than for a 23-year-old. There's a lot more you can do with a teen-ager,” she says.

        “Within four years of life you go from being completely dependent on someone to being a completely independent person.

        “At 23, it's kind of hard to play that age. Anywhere in the early 20s is a little bit more difficult to play.”

Don't be so naive!
        She's still learning about the business, like not to be so candid during an interview. A recent Movieline cover story quoted her about gin-and-tonics (“Love them!”) and having “a little thing” with Driving Me Crazy co-star Adrian Grenier in a broom closet on the set.

        She didn't expect Movieline “to put in everything I say,” she says. “I don't regret anything. Everything I said was the truth.”

        If Sabrina lasts another four seasons, Hartbreak Films and her siblings will be well established in Hollywood. Only a handful of the four-dozen projects are for Melissa; one is a Disney Channel movie with Emily called Up, Up and Away.

        “Everybody in the family has now acted in something,” Melissa says. “We want them to get through (school). If there's time to do it, and they want to do it, they'll do it.”

        Sister Trisha, 21, a senior at Miami University, was a producer on Melissa's Silencing Mary, a 1998 NBC movie about a college quarterback not punished for date rape. Trisha researched the story about how some crimes handled by the campus justice system are not included in college crime statistics.

        Trisha has four more projects in development at Hartbreak, awaiting her graduation from Miami.

        “Trisha acted until she was 16, but she likes the behind-the-scenes stuff,” Mrs. Hart says. “She wants me to retire so she can take my job.”

        By that time, Melissa may be tired of being a teen-ager, and ready for more adult roles, even if her fans aren't.

        “Yeah, maybe we'll start another division called Hart Attack Films,” Melissa jokes.

        John Kiesewetter is Enquirer TV/radio critic. Write: 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202.