Kim Fields is a child of television. At 16, she has already spent 11 years in the medium, beginning with a short appearance on "Sesame Street" when she was 5 and a Mrs. Butterworth's syrup commercial when she was 7. At 9 she got a role on "The Facts of Life" and literally grew up on the show, which begins its seventh season next month.
Fields would say that's because God is watching over her. Years ago her mother said the same thing.
Back in Harlem, Kim's mother, Chip, enrolled in acting classes. Like many fledgling actors, she coldn't afford a babysitter and brought her young daughter along. Soon the tag-along children began to receive professional training too, and at 5, Kim appeared on "Sesame Street" for a simple stint counting numbers. Chip, meanwhile, had returned from touring with the cast of "Hello, Dolly," starring Pearl Bailey, and decided to move to Southern California. Mother and daughter borrowed money for airline tickets and got a ride to the airport from Chip's acting teacher. "We came out here with about 35 cents and stayed with friends," said Kim. "She said someone must have been watching over us."
Someone must have been watching, too, Kim thinks, when she went to audition for her first commercial. "We went on an audition for Mrs. Butterworth's and when we got back to our friends', where we were staying, they called and said something had gone wrong with the taping and could we go back. But the buses had stopped running. So my mother took me out and began to hitchhike. A guy in a sports car stopped at a stoplight and she explained to him that her daughter had received a callback and needed a ride. He took us to the audition and then he waited and then he took us home. And, I got the commercial. God bless that man, wherever he is."
Two years after the Mrs. Butterworth's commercial, Kim was signed for "The Facts of Life." She plays Tootie, the youngest of the girls who live with Edna (Charlotte Rae), a housemother and surrogate mom. And she survived when the cast was trimmed from its original seven girls to four -- Fields, Mindy Cohn, Lisa Whelchel and Nancy McKeon. Fields says they are all good friends.
But Kim Fields' good fortune didn't stop there. For two consecutive years, Fields has won the Youth in Film and Entertainment Award for Best Young Comedienne for her work in the series.
She also found roles on "Diff'rent Strokes," "Mork and Mindy," "Cox," "Good Times," "Executive Suite," PBS' "Righteous Apples" series (she played a 10-year-old genius) and "Two of Hearts," the miniseries "Roots II" (she played Alex Haley's daughter), Hallmark Hall of Fame's "Have I Got a Christmas for You," "The Comeback Kid" with John Ritter and Susan Dey, "Children of Divorce" with Billy Dee Williams and Olivia Cole, "The Kid With the Broken Halo," a short-lived series called "Baby, I'm Back" and an annual CBS production, "Kids to Kids."
She has sung and danced in Los Angeles stage productions of "In Command of the Children," which focused on the problems of today's youth, including drug abuse, drunk driving, suicide and child abuse; "Christmas in Never Never Land" and "Fight the Good Fight," all three scripted and directed by her mother, who manages a repertory theater.
She has also served as March of Dimes WalkAmerica Ambassador, recently testified before the House of Representatives on behalf of the Youth Rescue Funds Celebrity Peer Council and served as campaign chairperson -- the youngest ever to be named -- for the Brotherhood Crusade,an organization that provides funds to a variety of non-profit agencies in Los Angeles, including the East Los Angeles Shelter for Battered Women and the Los Angeles Foster Parents Association. .
Next week Kim begins her senior year at Burbank High School, where she enrolled last spring. ("I didn't want to spend my senior year in a trailer with a tutor"). Like high school seniors elsewhere, she plans to take the Scholastic Aptitude Test and says she will enroll at either San Diego State or the University of Southern California. "I really like San Diego and I was going to major in marine biology and take courses in cinema and accounting, but now I think I may go USC and major in cinema and take classes in marine biology and accounting."
Fields' academic dilemma occurred when she learned that "The Facts of Life" -- a show whose long life confounded initial predictions -- had been renewed for a seventh season. "I may go the USC to stay closer to where I work," she explained. "But I like San Diego."
Even if this is the last season for "The Facts of Life," Fields counts on doing made-for-TV movies to keep her career moving along. She's also looking toward music. Last year she recorded two pop songs, "Dear Michael" -- dedicated to her friend Michael Jackson -- and "He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not." Both were written and produced by Hal Davis and Elliot Willensky, who have composed songs for Jackson and the Jackson Five.
But pop music "wasn't where my heart was," she admits. "I'd like to record gospel music for children." Knowing that such a decision would take her out of a possibly lucrative pop-music career, she said, "I prayed on it, and I talked with a friend who said, 'Jesus just didn't put one arm on the cross, he put his whole body up there.' And I knew it was what I should do."
Fields will turn up in the Washington area over the Labor Day weekend with Todd Bridges from "Diff'rent Strokes," with whom she has been friends for about nine years, and Soleil Moon Frye of "Punky Brewster" for the International Children's Festival at Wolf Trap Farm Park. "I'm just going to have a good time," she said. "I love Washington and I love Georgetown -- they have a great basketball team."