Michelle Tauber
January 15, 2001 12:00 PM

Memorizing dialogue can be tough for any actor, but especially for one who has just learned to read. Luckily, Kim Richards, the child star of 17 Disney films (including the 1975 hit Escape to Witch Mountain) as well as the TV series Nanny and the Professor and James at 15, had a system. “To keep it natural, I would just play a game, skipping words, which she’d fill in,” recalls her mother, Kathy Richards Fenton, “and I’d do that until she memorized it.”

The technique worked so well that Richards, 36, still uses it to help her own children—Brooke, 14; Whitney, 10; Chad, 9; and Kimberly, 5—with school assignments. “When I want Kimberly to learn the Pledge of Allegiance,” she says, “that’s what I do.”

But that’s the only use Richards has for her old tricks from the set. Since giving birth to Brooke, her daughter with then-husband Monty Brinson, a movie producer, in 1986, the former Disney darling has remained far from the camera’s eye. “I thought after I had her I’d go right back to work, but I couldn’t put her down,” says the twice-divorced Richards, who now lives in a 6,000-sq.-ft. ranch-style home in the Southern California desert, paid for by film residuals and real estate investments. “When people ask why I gave up acting, I say, ‘I love being a mom.’ That’s all I want to do.”

Motherhood has also offered Richards the chance to experience vicariously some of the moments she missed during her own growing-up years, spent almost exclusively on movie and TV sets. “I remember driving home and seeing people in windows having dinner, wishing we were doing that,” she recalls. “And I didn’t have a whole lot of friends at school because I wasn’t there enough to make any.”

The second of three daughters born to Kathy, a onetime aspiring actress, and Ken Richards, a retail businessman who died in 1998 (the pair split in 1972, and both later remarried), Richards won her first role—in a carpet commercial—at 8 months. Before she was 5, she was charming audiences on Nanny and the Professor and by 8 had become only the second child actress (after Hayley Mills) to win a long-term contract with Disney.

Even so, recalls her Escape to Witch Mountain costar Ike Eisenmann, Richards never let her fame go to her head. “Kim was always a real jokester,” says Eisenmann, now 38 and an L.A.-based writer-director specializing in voice-over work. “I was so serious, and she spent a lot of time teasing me about it.”

Richards credits her mother for that lighthearted attitude as well as for a moral compass that helped her avoid the pitfalls of child stardom. When she was 14, she recalls, she let pals Todd Bridges and Dana Plato, stars of the TV series Diff’rent Strokes, talk her into climbing a fence to get into Magic Mountain amusement park for free. “We had celebrity passes but noooo, they wanted to sneak in,” she says. She felt so guilty, she confessed to her mother immediately. “Dana and Todd laughed at me,” she says, “but I respected my mom and never wanted to let her down.”

These days, it is Richards who looks after her mother, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1998. Then living in Calabasas, Richards packed up the family and bought her current house, close to Fenton, when she got the news. “I’m not going to lose out by not being around her,” says Richards, who also remains close to sisters Kathy, 41, a New York City socialite, and Kyle, 31, an actress who appears as a nurse on NBC’s ER.

For now, juggling family commitments keeps Richards busy. (She shares custody of Whitney and Chad with second husband Greg Davis, an oil company executive. She has primary custody of Brooke and of Kimberly, whose father is former boyfriend John Jackson, an aircraft-parts supplier.) But she does daydream about a return to acting. “Now that my youngest is in school,” she admits with a smile, “I think about it.”

Michelle Tauber

N.F. Mendoza in Riverside County, Calif.

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