By Tom Gliatto
November 09, 1992 12:00 PM

THERE ARE TWO ISSUES TO BE CLEARED UP HERE. Both of them are dear to the heart of Shannen Doherty, 21-year-old star of Fox’s Beverly Hills, 90210, the Aaron Spelling high school hit that is now in its third season, one in which Doherty’s character, Brenda Walsh—who might be described as Gidget with attitude—will break up with that lean-hipped rebel, Dylan (Luke Perry).

First issue: Why has Doherty—alone among 90210 costars and teen idols Perry, Jason Priestley, Jennie Garth, Tori Spelling, Ian Ziering, Gabrielle Carteris and Brian Austin Green—come to be regarded as “difficult”? Like, is she, in contrast to the feisty but fairly civilized Brenda, one of those women who rhyme with rich? Is she, as the tabloids have gleefully reported, impossible on the set? Is she a prima donna? Also: After hours, does she party too much? And where was she being driven, in those recent tabloid photos, by rapper Marky Mark?

Second issue: What has become of the youngest of her dogs, a rottweiler named Jake? Doherty has arrived home, at her three-bedroom house in Beverly Hills, expecting to find golden retriever Sally gone (her dad was going to slop by to take her to the vet’s), but now only black Lab Penelope is here to greet her. And why is there blood around the hack patio?

Unnerved, Doherty phones her parents. No luck. She calls the vet. Gets the machine.

Perhaps this is not the ideal moment for Doherty to sit down with a visitor and size up that delicate first issue. She chooses an armless chair in the living room and takes out a cigarette. She smiles, but it is not a happy smile, and her fingers shake as the match reaches the cigarette. “Yeah,” she says, exhaling smoke with her sigh, “you’ve really caught me on a good day.”

“People think I’m a bitch,” she says with a shrug. “There was a group of four girls at Torrance High, when; we film the show, and they walked by and said, ‘Oh, what a bitch!’ You can walk away from that, but you really want to turn around and say, ‘Why?’ ”

She can give you a couple of whys, actually. “The tabloids make up stuff,” she says. “Somebody will call [the tabs] up and say, They’re yelling at each other on the [90210] set,’ and they will turn around and make it 10 times worse,” Doherty says. And maybe, she reasons, the tabloids pick on her. specifically, because “I’m a strong woman. There are still some people out there who can’t deal with that.”

Aaron Spelling, whose company produces 90210, describes her as “the best young actress I’ve seen in a long time,” and has no problem with Doherty or her manner. “She is a very honest person who wears her emotions on her sleeve,” he says. “If you ask her a direct question, she’ll give you a direct answer.”

For instance, Doherty isn’t afraid to tell friend, costar and daughter-of-the-boss Tori Spelling if she’s wearing the wrong blouse. “Of all my friends, Shannen is the really honest one,” says Tori, one of the few 90210ers who talked about her. Doherty’s comments are “all meant in the best way,” she adds. “But I can see [her reputation] hurts her feelings a bit.”

If so, Doherty is not about to expose her wounded heart in public. And why should she? Her image hasn’t hurt her endorsement power (she does ads for Gitano jeans). “I’m not saying I don’t have my moments of bitchiness,” Doherty says, not defensively at all, “because everybody has them. But it’s never for no reason. I think that life is short, you should live it and be happy. I’ve always been a ballsy kid,” she adds. “I know it pisses some people off, but isn’t the end result much better?”

In fact, Doherty, who won her first series role when she was 11 (she played Jenny Wilder on Little House: A New Beginning), thinks her “bitch” reputation started with 1989’s cull black-comedy movie Heathers (in which she was one of the three nasty title teens). Doherty says she let a behind-the-cameras player on that film know, in no uncertain terms, that she didn’t approve of an extramarital affair he was conducting with an extra. “It was the first time I actually saw somebody take advantage of the extras,” she says. “He knew I disliked him, and he was the first person to call me a bitch.”

In the past year, though, she also earned the enmity of prince of sarcasm Dennis Miller when she appeared on his short-lived talk show and embarrassed him by teasing him for not being at ease. (Her photo, tacked up backstage, was subsequently defaced with a devil’s horn and goatee.) And would Peter Duchow, who produced her recent TV movie Obsessed, like to work with Doherty again? “How much are you going to pay me?” he asks. He notes that she was late to the set several times (“Professionals,” he says, “make an absolute effort to be on time”) but then clarifies: “Like a lot of talented people, she has mood swings. Hers are perhaps a lot more exaggerated than others. And any 21-year-old is difficult to work with. She has to learn some lessons that everybody has to learn.”

Then there was the headline-grabbing flap at this year’s Emmys show. The day before the ceremony, Doherty dropped out of presenting an award with John Stamos of Full House and 90210 costar Jennie Garth. “She was a colossal pain in the ass,” says Walter Miller, who produced and directed the program.

There have been numerous explanations of that pain. Initially a spokesperson said that she was suffering from bronchitis. Miller, who refers to Doherty as “a barracuda,” thinks she was unhappy that Garth was given the opening line of Emmy dialogue—even though Doherty would have announced the winning name. But Doherty says she was upset that the entire 90210 cast was not given tickets to the ceremonies. “I just said, “This is ridiculous, our cast can’t go,’ ” she explains. ” ‘I just don’t understand that.’ ” Doherty’s manager, Mike Gursey, says he yanked her from the telecast because “tiny” promises about her role, including what category she would present in, went unfulfilled.

Having offended the gods of Hollywood, though, the young “barracuda” arrived in tears al a luncheon the day of the Emmys, reports Aaron Spelling, “afraid even one would be mad at her.”

If so, it was a rare display of public insecurity from a young woman who, says her father, Tom, 48, “has always been self-assured.” Shannen was born in Memphis, the younger of two children (her brother, Sean, 25, is a USC law student) and, on her mother Rosa’s side, the latest in a long line of Southern Baptists. Shannen’s conservative upbringing may have something to do with her public displeasure over 90210’s Brenda’s losing her virginity last year (“We have a whole cast that is sexually active,” she complained in one interview); her disgust with that unnamed. womanizing Heathers crew member; and her August appearance at that feast of family values, the Republican National Convention, at which she led the Pledge of Allegiance. (“I don’t think Clinton would be any different than Bush,” says Doherty, a Jack Kemp supporter, “except maybe he’d do a hell of a lot worse.”)

Growing up in the male-dominated South, though, had its drawbacks. “I saw how women were treated,” she says, “and I wasn’t going to be treated like that.” In fact, she seems to have a Scarlett O’Hara, I’ll-never-go-hungry-again tenacity, developed after her family moved to the comfortable Palos Verdes neighborhood of Los Angeles when she was 6. Her father had bought a trucking firm, but within a few years the business collapsed. “Shannen has seen both sides of the coin,” says her dad, now a mortgage consultant. “We lived in a prestigious area, with an ocean view. Then we had the rug pulled out from under us. There was a time when the doorbell would ring and it might be the utility man there to cut off the power.”

The experience seared Doherty. “People think, ‘She’s sitting up there in a nice house and has money,’ ” Shannen says of herself, suddenly irritated. “Somebody said that to me last night, and I got really pissed off. My parents went from having money to having nothing, to eating rice every single day.”

As Tom Doherty’s company was sinking, his daughter was getting into another business—acting. Initially, Shannen tagged along when Sean tried out for a church production. In short order, she went on to play Sneezy the dwarf in Snow White, also at church (“I hammed it up”), and by age 10 she was doing commercials for Pepsi. Her big break came in 1982, when she did a voice for the animated feature The Secret of NIMH. Then Michael Landon hired her for Little House. “That show changed my life,” says Doherty. “Michael Landon was the one who said to me, ‘Always slick up for yourself. Never let anybody walk all over you. He a strong woman.’ ”

The principal of the Baptist school she attended after her stint on Little House paid the price for Landon’s advice. “I hated that school,” says Doherty, her voice turning sharp again. “It was very repressed. They thought that dancing was evil, and I disagreed. I organized a big dance, and the principal called me in. He wasn’t pleased. He had his Bible out there on his desk and told me how God would punish me. I flipped through his Bible and found references to people dancing and rejoicing. I said to him, ‘It clearly shows they danced and rejoiced. Just what the f—is wrong with you?’ ”

Her father had reservations about Shannen and show business, but he supported her in her fight at the school, which she left alter a year. She finished her studies at the Lycée Français, a private school in L.A. (by then, the family was back on its feet financially). “Shannen believed in something, says her dad, who didn’t know beforehand about the prohibition on happy feet. “She did nothing wrong.”

The family was less approving when she left home at 18 and moved in with a 31-year-old boyfriend (who had told her he was 28). “I wanted so much to be on my own,” she says now. “I wanted to prove I could do things myself But the boy friend turned out to be involved with drugs. “And I tried drugs and drinking,” says Doherty softly. “I was drinking up a storm. Cocaine was something that I tried and didn’t really like. It was more the lifestyle I was into. Every single night I was out clubbing and drinking. It was a bad scene.” This went on, she estimates, for six months and ended—with a shock—the night her boy-friend struck her. “I just remember one slap across the lace.” she says, “and I was out of there.” She went across the street to a convenience store, phoned her parents and went home.

She has since bought and moved into her own place, but remains close lo her parents. She was there for her father in 1983 and again in 1990 when he suffered strokes (his right side is now slightly paralyzed). “She has done the single most important thing lo help my recovery,” he says. “She makes me laugh.”

It was in 1986. while playing Kris Witherspoon on her second NBC series, Our House, that Doherty first caught the attention of an influential member of the viewing audience named Tori Spelling. Tori also liked Doherty in Heathers and recommended her to her father. Doherty got the 90210 job on a Wednesday, started work on a Monday, and now she’s so famous she needs a dog to protect her when she goes jogging.

(The dogs! What about those dogs? Every time the phone rings, Doherty hops up and runs off to answer, only to return with a look of dejection—no news.)

Doherty doesn’t deny that she may have earned her reputation for being tough in the early days of 90210. “I always stood up for the right causes, but I don’t think I was always diplomatic,” she says. “But recently I have learned lo be diplomatic.

That hasn’t prevented the occasional on-set misunderstanding—like the time recently when the day’s shoot ran past midnight and Doherty announced (with the producers’ permission, she says) that it was time to go home. She suspects Jennie Garth may have resented that show of authority. “I don’t think Jennie was very happy,” she says. At any rate, she adds, their friendship has suffered—and the Emmy business didn’t help. “There’s some weird tension there,” she says. “We haven’t really talked about what happened. But Jennie is a great girl, and this is something that can be worked on.”

There are no complaints from Jason Priestley, who plays Doherty’s brother, Brandon. “All of the stories about Shannon are so blown out of proportion,” he says. “She’s a very intelligent young woman who isn’t afraid to speak her mind. I really enjoy working with her. We have a good relationship on-and offscreen.”

For the past year, Doherty’s primary offscreen relationship has been with Chris Foufas, 25, a Chicago-based real estate manager. They met through a friend of Foufas’s (in fact, she was dating the friend at the time). They announced their engagement earlier this year, but now it has been called off. “He is a wonderful man whom I love very much,” says Doherty, “but I’m 21, and it’s not exactly the right time to gel married. Friendship has taken over the romance.’ ” Marriage hasn’t been completely ruled out, she says. And “if he goes out with another girl, it’s [only] because he’s bored.” Now as to the famous night on the town with Marky Mark. Doherty maintains that they were not on a date—it was just a friendly foursome that included 90210 costars Green and Spelling.

Someday, Doherty may have her own rock-and-roll groupies to distract her. A big fan of U2, Guns N’ Roses and Pearl Jam (she would love to meet lead singer Eddie Vedder), she enjoys toying with the idea of having her own band. The basic career plan, of course, is to land some movie roles alter 90210, but Doherty says, “I gel into these modes of sitting in my house writing poetry that could be converted into songs.”

She pauses to light another cigarette and inhales, turning her head toward the sound of a car door slamming and the scuttle of approaching paws. Sally comes bounding in, and Tom Doherty enters carrying Jake, the dog’s back paws wrapped in bandages. Shannen’s father explains that when he arrived to take Sally to the vet, he found Jake in the pool. The pup had fallen in and was frantically clawing the pool trying to get out.

“He looks so funny,” Shannen says. “I’m so relieved!” She pats him on the head, and he regards her contentedly. You will never hear a bad word from Jake about Shannen Doherty.