Lara Jill Miller boasted a Phi Beta Kappa key, a law degree from Fordham, lofty scores on three states’ bar exams and a job as a litigator at a small Manhattan law firm. But those credentials weren’t what brought the courtroom to attention when the 32-year-old picked a jury for the first time, in a lawsuit involving an auto accident two years ago. When she asked the pool of potential jurors whether they were familiar with her or her firm—a standard question—some were, Miller says, “just sort of like, ‘We know who you are. Ha-ha-ha!’ ”
Busted! They had recognized Miller as tomboy Samantha Kanisky on the sitcom Gimme a Break (1981-87), which featured Nell Carter as the down-to-earth housekeeper for a widowed small-town police chief (Dolph Sweet) and his three daughters. A few months afterward, the former child star recognized that maybe Hollywood, not the courthouse, was where she belonged. After practicing law for 15 months, Miller headed back to Los Angeles last year to attempt an acting comeback. “Law wasn’t my passion,” she says. “Acting was. I love show business. I always did.”
So, 18 years after her sitcom debut, the chipper pixie with the still-chirpy voice is renting part of a pal’s Studio City home and hunting her next break. So far she has played a teacher in a recent episode of PAX TV’s series Chicken Soup for the Soul and landed a role as the voice of a young girl on the FOX cartoon series Digimon: Digital Monsters. “I always wanted to do a cartoon,” she says. “You get to act, you get paid for it, and you don’t have to wear any makeup.”
Or get perms. When she started on Gimme a Break in 1981 at 14, Miller recalls, she dreaded sessions with the show’s hairstylist. “Smoke would be coming out of my head,” she says. The theater-loving daughter of an Allentown, Pa., pajama-factory owner and a homemaker landed the role after touring in The Music Man with Dick Van Dyke. “I was in the right place at the right time,” she says. As young “Sam” evolved from a curly-topped tomboy into a French-braided college girl, teen mags paired Miller off (fictitiously, she says) with idols such as Ricky Schroder and Jason Bateman.
Miller says she was never close to her young costars or to Sweet, who died mid-series of cancer in 1985. But she and Broadway veteran Carter bonded, dining at Denny’s and playing Pac Man. “Lara Jill was my little girl,” coos Carter. With her mother by her side and her father investing her earnings, Miller skirted the drug pitfalls that plagued peers like Diff’rent Strokes’ Todd Bridges and Dana Plato. “I was at the same parties,” she says. “I think you put out an aura. I never even got the chance to say no.”
When Break bit the dust, Miller failed to land another TV gig. In 1987 she headed for New York University, where she majored in politics and French and played varsity tennis. “She’s that type who can do five things at once and do them well,” says her mother, Lois, 62.
Next came law school at New York City’s Fordham University—though Miller ducked out of graduation early for a stage role as Peter Pan—and her litigator job. She says she enjoyed law but disliked the hours. “If I had to play a lawyer for 12 hours, I’d be fine,” she jokes. Her legal education, she adds, is “a foundation to have if my career path takes me in another direction.”
For now, Miller is staying put. “She’s really upbeat,” says housemate Jennifer Wharton, 32, a TV writer who befriended Miller after writing her a fan letter in the early ’80s. “She has no shortage of energy,” attests Reed Armstrong, 42, Miller’s actor boyfriend of three years. And she has a strategy worked out for when she’s recognized. “I don’t think a day goes by that someone doesn’t ask me, ‘Where did you go to school? Do I know you from camp? You look so familiar,’ ” she says. She stays coy about her identity. “I let them think they know me from somewhere,” she says. “And they do—from their living room.”
Karen Brailsford in Studio City