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Posted at 4:57 a.m. EST Wednesday, January 26, 2000



R.D. Heldenfels

Akron Beacon Journal
In a way, ABC and CBS are offering a TV doubleheader Sunday night.

Each is presenting a movie starring an experienced actress not yet midway through her a seasoned pro who is looking at how she'll spend the rest of her life.

At 7 p.m., ABC has 22-year-old Melissa Joan Hart in Sabrina Goes to Rome, a Wonderful World of Disney presentation with Hart reprising her role from the ABC sitcom Sabrina, the Teenage Witch. And at 9 p.m., CBS has About Sarah, a new TV movie starring Kellie Martin, the new ER regular, who turns 23 on Oct. 16.

Each has formed a specific kind of identity with the public.

Hart, now in her third season is the bright and spunky Sabrina, first got widespread notice as the bright, spunky character in Nickelodeon's Clarissa Explains It All. In fact, she said young fans are more likely to call her larissa than Sabrina -- not all that surprising since Nickelodeon is still running Clarissa seven days a week.

Martin, meanwhile, has become TV's Princess of Empathy, the girl most likely to hold the hand of someone in pain. She was a sympathetic figure in previous series Life Goes On, Christy and Crisis Center and pretty much filled the same role in her first ER episode last week.

But such a close tie to one kind of character can become restricting. Both Hart and Martin have made TV movies where they depart from their expected roles, but they keep getting drawn back to the old characters.

Hart said ABC very much wanted a Sabrina movie because the series pilot, which originally ran on Showtime, did well as a Disney movie last season. But, she said, `I didn't want to do the movie because I play Sabrina all year long.`

She finally agreed after ABC agreed to make the movie in Rome, which she became intrigued by while studying in Florence last year. Nor did it hurt that her real-life boyfriend, James Fields, has a role in the movie -- although not as Sabrina's romantic interest. (Hart said Fields `took it very well` when she had kissing scenes with another actor.)

But even as she's working on a new season of Sabrina, which has already been renewed for the 1999-2000 season as well, she's performing in a big-screen movie, Next to You, to show another part of herself. While she said she could see doing Sabrina for the 2000-2001 season as well, she knows how awkward it's becoming to play a 17-year-old high-schooler when you've left that life behind.

`This is the first year where we're not mentioning what grade Sabrina is in,` Hart said. `We really like the conflict that arises in high school . . . but if we mentioned the grade, she'd be a senior now.` Instead, Hart said, the assumption on the show is that Sabrina's `a junior and a half.`

Martin, meanwhile, is playing characters around her own age -- 21-year-old Marybeth McCaffrey in About Sarah, third-year medical student Lucy Knight on ER -- although she added, `I'd be happy to be 16 again if the part is right.`

But she, too, finds herself looking at big career decisions. For one thing, she's an art history major at Yale, but keeps taking breaks to go back to acting. And right now, she said, `I'm happy to be away from school.`

She's somewhat resigned to the empathy thing. `I think that's kind of me,` she said. `I don't like people to be upset.` But she is looking at her approach to acting in a different way, with both About Sarah and ER moving her toward a looser, more improvisational style.

`I started acting when I was 7,` she said, `and when you're that age, you learn your lines and you hit your marks. You've got to be very disciplined.`

Things got looser in January when she made About Sarah, where she plays a young woman who finds herself appointed the guardian of her mentally retarded mother. Mary Steenburgen plays the mom and Martin said, `Working with Mary taught me to be kind of loose, to roll with the punches, just go with a scene and see what happens.

`A lot of scenes, we'd just go,` she said. `There are times when we'd start giggling, and that's not in the script.`

She's not entirely happy with her performance in the movie, wishing it had more light touches. (Of course, she said, `I'm never happy with my performances.`)

But ER is continuing the lessons learned on the movie. `You don't get too serious when you're working with George Clooney,` she said. `They're all really fun to work with on the show, especially Noah (Wyle), Tony (Edwards) and George. They're not ones to let the mood get too heavy.`

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