MARINA DEL REY, CALIF. -- If you were casting a television situation comedy and needed a talented teenaged girl with a lot of spunk, whom would you turn to?
Faced with that problem, Paul Junger Witt and Tony Thomas, manufacturers of an impressive list of TV hits, turned to Mayim Bialik. She's talented -- she can dance (ballet, jazz and tap), play the piano and blow a bit of trumpet. She's 15, a year older than her character. And spunk? Oh, my!
She appeared here recently as part of the Television Critics Association press tour, along with Witt and costar Ted Wass, who plays her dad. In less than an hour she showed amazing poise and maturity -- enough for a 35-year-old, let alone someone 15 -- as she discussed career decisions, and related her character, Blossom, to her real life.
"Blossom" (8:30 Mondays on NBC) centers on a teenage girl coming of age in a household dominated by males. There are her brothers, Anthony (played by Michael Stoyanov) a recovering substance abuser, and Joey (played by Joey Lawrence), an aspiring teen Lothario.
And there's Dad, played by Wass, a musician and single father trying to keep things rolling after his wife has left him to pursue a singing career. Eileen Brennan plays Blossom's neighbor and confidante.
On the surface, the show sounds like a made-to-formula single-parent sitcom, but in the hands of Witt/Thomas it has some interesting shadings to it. And it comes from the same production house that knows how to succeed: Witt/Thomas/Harris productions have been responsible for "Benson," "It Takes Two," "Soap" (Wass played in that one), "I'm a Big Girl Now," "The Golden Girls" and "Empty Nest."
But clearly the success of the show will turn on the appeal of Bialik, who is best known for having played a young Bette Midler in "Beaches."
"Basically, the character of Blossom is a lot like me," said Bialik. "She's a young high school student growing up around different people and relating. But in the show, I think Blossom has to relate to a lot of different characters, especially all males, which is a lot different than my personal life."
Personal life consists of living at home in Los Angeles with her parents and college-age brother, along with a flock of pets -- a couple of cats, a number of fish and, of course, a one-legged parakeet. Really.
Her parents, who made what she described as independent anti-war films for PBS' "Great American Dream Machine," were against Bialik's becoming an actress.
"I had always wanted to be an actress," recalled Bialik. "I was always active in school plays and things like that. But my parents really didn't want me to be an actress because it can be very hard for a little kid."
When she was 11 -- 11 1/2 to be exact -- her parents relented, shopped for an agent and launched their star.
"I think they realized that I was old enough at 11 1/2 to kind of deal with things like rejection and things that can be very hard for a little kid. And I was very persistent, as I still am."
Since then, there hasn't been much time for rejection. She's had roles ranging from guest-star to recurring on such shows as "Beauty and the Beast," "The Facts of Life," "Webster," "Once a Hero," "MacGyver," "Doogie Howser, M.D.", "Murphy Brown" and "Empty Nest." She starred in the TV series "Molloy."
Oh, yes, she can sing and mimic and has done the voice-over for Peppermint Patty, the "Peanuts" character. On stage, she's been in productions of "The Wizard of Oz," "Cats" and "Hansel and Gretel." And in theaters, she's been in "Pumpkin Head" and "Halmani," in addition to "Beaches."
After "Beaches," she was sent a number of scripts. Among those she turned down, she said, was the role of the young daughter in "Life Goes On." "I didn't do it for a number of reasons. One was that it was an hour film, which is very hard for a kid. And basically we were just waiting and, you know, we were very cautious."
So much for the first 3 1/2 years of her career.
This year, if she hadn't been "Blossom," she might have been "Molloy." She had the title role in that Fox series, but after six episodes or so, the production was overhauled, leaving a show that Bialik was not fond of.
"Basically, there were a lot of changes done in the show that we didn't necessarily agree with," she said. Had the show been picked up for more than the six shows, she would not have stayed with it, especially after seeing the potential of "Blossom."
"Basically, when 'Blossom' came along,' it was what I wanted to do, and I was really committed to doing it."
And what if Fox had renewed "Molloy" and tried to hold her to that commitment? "I would have said I'm not going to do it because I'm not happy."
"Blossom" went through substantial changes before it became a series. Originally, the family was to be whole, with both parents together. Witt said that while the network liked the original version, there was concern that the situation in this comedy was not distinctive enough. Enter the idea of a single parent. "And that parent is a musician. That parent is at home a lot," said Witt. "And that parent's relationship with his children is, we feel, unique to television. He's a bright man and an articulate man but sometimes an overwhelmed and confused man. He didn't necessarily apply for this job. He kind of got stuck with it."
And he was stuck with a daughter most parents probably would love to be stuck with. In real life, Bialik describes herself as the child of parents who taught her and her brother "to be aware of things going on in the world and just the fact that you have to make changes, which I do."
She belongs to various groups concerned about the homeless, the environment and cruelty to animals, and she went to Washington last fall to march on behalf of the homeless.
"I do a lot of celebrity things like that because I like to use the visibility that I have to help others." Witt pointed out that she also organized a food collection for the homeless on the lot where the show is produced.
"I think Mayim is an exceptional person," said Witt. "One of the things we wanted to do in having a young female protagonist, which is very unusual in television, from whose point of view we're seeing life, was to not have some cute airhead, which television is covered with. We wanted to have a young woman who is capable of articulating herself and is capable of thinking, perhaps confusedly, but thinking deeply. And we happened to get the whole package in one person."