ON A BRIGHT THURSDAY MORNING IN EARLY JUNE, ACTOR Joey Lawrence is ambling across the leafy campus of Abington Friends School, a Quaker-run prep school founded in 1697 in suburban Jenkintown, 10 miles north of Philadelphia. It also happens to be some 3,000 miles east of Hollywood, where Lawrence, 18, the teen heartthrob of TV’s Blossom (and one of PEOPLE’S 50 Most Beautiful People of 1994), normally hangs out. So what’s he doing back here in quiet, unglitzy Jenkintown? Getting ready to collect his diploma.
“It was very important for me to return for the graduation ceremony,” Lawrence says. “I had a wonderful tutor, Miriam Richards, who constantly communicated with the school and always made me feel like Abington was a major part of my life.” That was no small feat, since Lawrence has spent most of his life on TV sets (he was 6 when he moved to L.A. to become a regular on Gimme a Break; 14 when he was cast in Blossom). But through Richards’ tutoring and adherence to the AFS curriculum, he has remained a student in good standing there ever since kindergarten.
Now, heading toward a senior class commencement rehearsal, he pauses along the way to slap high fives with his “buds”—guys he’s known since grade school—and to shake hands with his teachers and administrators. Everyone is assembling at the Grove, a natural clearing flanked by stately oak trees, where, tomorrow at 6 p.m., Lawrence and the 44 other members of the class of ’94 will don caps and gowns and solemnly proceed across the lawn to receive their diplomas from headmaster Bruce Stewart.
Today, however, Lawrence is striding jauntily, seemingly oblivious to the stares of classmates, most of whom know him mainly as Joey Russo, the easygoing, grunge-dressing, muscle-headed brother of Blossom (Mayim Bialik) on NBC’s popular coming-of-age sitcom. Here on campus he is regarded with a mixture of awe, indifference and envy. “Joey Lawrence, big deal,” huffs one student.
It is a big deal for a cluster of Abington juniors, despite their best efforts to appear unimpressed. “He’s all right, I guess,” says one girl, pensively twirling her long blonde hair around her forefinger. “Yeah, no big deal,” yawns her pal. “He’s just a regular guy.” Suddenly another female classmate leaps into the group. “Ohmigodwow!” she squeals. “I just asked him what time it was and he told me!”
Her girlfriends all titter and exchange wide-eyed looks. Then, self-consciously, they try to regain their studied cool. “Well, he’s really not my type,” says the hair-twirler.
“Oh come-onnn, you guys!” says the ohmigod girl. “He is gorgeous, and you all know it, and you just don’t want to admit it.”
“He is really cute,” teacher Carol Palmer concedes a few minutes later, wryly observing Lawrence’s coiffed brown locks and sinewy 5’9″, 154-lb. frame as he begins to rehearse a commencement song with his classmates. “What a bod!”
Whoa!, as TV’s favorite teenage slacker is so fond of saying. Palmer, 44, is an otherwise stern-looking math teacher who used to be Joey’s phys ed instructor. Since then, she has become the senior class dean and his academic adviser, and it’s clear that she admires him as much for his brains as for his body. “Any contact with his tutors in Los Angeles and the school here was through me,” Palmer explains. “And believe me, the work Joey has done is excellent.” His transcript includes credits (A’s and B’s) for such advanced courses as English lit, trigonometry, molecular biology and calculus (in which he got a 92 on his final this year). In the fall, Lawrence, an aspiring director, will enter the University of Southern California film school.
But Palmer is glad Abington’s prodigal son has come home to graduate. “This place has been his tie to the real world,” she says. “The fact that he has kept his closest friends here shows how much it means to him.”
Lawrence’s best friend, Chris Wolf, 18, is now goofing off with him in the back row of the senior class chorus. He and Joey have been pals since fourth grade. “I go out to L.A. every three months to visit him,” says Wolf, whose pal picks up the airfare. The two of them usually cruise over to North Hollywood, where Joey lives in his family’s three-bedroom home. His father, Joe, 44, is an insurance broker and his mother, Donna, 41, a former elementary school teacher, manages the careers of Joey and his two younger actor brothers, Matthew, 14 (Mrs. Doubtfire), and Andrew, 6 (TV’s Tom).
But the Lawrences also have kept their five-bedroom house in suburban Philadelphia, where Joey returns during breaks from Blossom to hang out with his friends. Last year he attended Abington’s junior prom. Last month at Emporio Armani in Beverly Hills, he went shopping for his graduation outfit. He bought the first suit he tried on: a $730 navy double-breasted with pleated slacks. “Classic but awesome,” Lawrence declared.
This morning he’s wearing blue jeans and an off-white cotton shirt, and getting playfully nudged by Wolf and pals Seth Bass, 19, Mason Barish, 18, and Ryan Glenn, 19. All are cracking each other up in the back row of the chorus, much to the displeasure of music teacher Lydia Oey, who has been struggling to lead her distractible seniors through a rendition of James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain.”
“Okay, people! Thai’s enough!” she yells. “We can hear that giggling. Let’s straighten up back there.” A chastened Lawrence stands at attention. Also standing motionless, across the lawn, is Lawrence’s personal security guard, Lou Palumbo, his face impassive behind reflector sunglasses.
As graduation day dawns, Abington seniors and their families are greeted by a phalanx of policemen, hired for the event by the school, who have been posted along the edges of the Grove. (One father tries to explain to another just whom the cops are supposed to be protecting: “He’s Joey Lawrence, and he plays this goofy kid on TV, and teenage girls like him.”) Meanwhile, a begowned Lawrence is trying to look not cute but neat as he and school administrator Sue Kirsch struggle to cram his long brown locks under his cap. Another administrator, Debbie Stauffer, lines the seniors up for the commencement march and, like a drill sergeant, barks out last-minute orders. “People, quiet, quiet!” she bellows. Lawrence tries to help by giving a two-fingered whistle. “Okay, people, no chewing gum,” she adds, “absolutely none.” Joey stands listening idly, chomping on a big wad of gum as Stauffer continues. “You may cross your ankles but not your legs,” she instructs. “Do not sit with your legs crossed. It will look ugly. Do not sit with your knees gaping. It looks ugly.” Lawrence and pals laugh at this image and spread their knees.
Marching orders given, the seniors’ mood turns somber. Chris Wolf sits quietly on a folding chair, and Lawrence comes around behind him to massage his shoulders. Several girls gather for a teary group hug. Lawrence stands alone. The teen hunk who performs weekly for millions of TV viewers, who once coolly confronted 3,000 screaming girls who mobbed him at a shopping mall, now seems truly daunted by the ceremony about to begin. “I’ve got to admit, I am a little nervous,” he says with an edgy grin. “I’ll be reading a speech that I wrote and doing it in front of friends and family.”
The speech, as it turns out, is heartfelt and flawlessly delivered. “Though the events of my life removed me from physical contact with this school, I have never been shut off from its influence,” says Abinglon’s most prominent absentee. “Because of the caring commitment of everyone here, I have always felt I was part of what was happening and always a part of my school.” He also includes a tribute to Chris. “People say as long as you have one true friend, you don’t need any more,” says Joey as Chris looks moved. “I know that we will remain best buds for the rest of our lives.”
Several minutes later, when Lawrence finally receives his diploma, he rushes down into the crowd to kiss his tearful mother, then runs back up to his seat. More speeches and poetry follow, as the security men snooze on their feet. Then, with the last chords of “Fire and Rain” fading in the breeze, the ceremonies end and a minor mob scene commences. Autograph seekers besiege Joey and his brother Matt. “He’s just a babe!” shrieks Jen Thomas, 20, as she makes a beeline for Joey. Suddenly she is confronting herself in the mirrored shades of Lou Palumbo. “Okay, stand back, stand back now,” the bodyguard admonishes. But he is helpless against the tide, and the other cops simply shrug. Joey, wearing a USC cap with his graduation gown, poses and signs for everyone.
Donna Lawrence surveys the scene, beaming. “When he came down with his diploma and kissed me,” she says, “he said, ‘Thanks, Mom and Dad.’ I was just so impressed with him today. It’s really a happy day for us.”
Still, no one could be happier on Lawrence’s graduation day than his second-grade teacher, Carol Leckey, who recalls how artistic Joey was as a little boy. “He made this goose,” she says, “and oooh, what a goose it was, in chalk pastel. Oooh, that goose, it was fantastic!” She wanders off among the crowd of autograph seekers, smiling to herself and remembering.
MARY ESSELMAN in Jenkintown
LEAH FELDON-MITCHELL in Beverly Hills