By Lee Wohlfert-Wihlborg
Updated June 03, 1985 12:00 PM

Two and a half years ago a spunky 10-year-old Manchester, Maine schoolgirl, Samantha Smith, dispatched a letter to Soviet Communist Party chief Yuri Andropov inquiring, “Why do you want to conquer the whole world?” Now, having written her own memoirs about her 1983 trip to Russia, hosted a Disney special called Samantha Smith Goes to Washington: Campaign ’84 (in which she interviewed most of the 1984 presidential candidates) and appeared on umpteen television talk shows, it would seem that the person who really may conquer the world is Samantha herself. To top it all off, the pretty 12-year-old is now about to co-star in her first television series, J.G. Culver. Set to air next fall on ABC, the show stars Robert Wagner as an insurance investigator, with Samantha playing his elder daughter. The two-hour pilot has already been shot, and cast and crew alike were bowled over by Smith’s charm. Predicts the show’s co-producer and writer, Linda Bloodworth, “I think she’s going to be President in a couple of minutes.”

Samantha came to Bloodworth’s attention early this year when the writer’s brother-in-law spotted the effervescent preteen on a talk show and suggested she might be perfect for the part of the daughter, Elizabeth. Blood-worth describes Elizabeth as “an old-fashioned kind of girl, nothing Cyndi Lauperish, who is polite, well-read and aware of something in the world besides MTV.”

Though Samantha may be thought of as a precocious world traveler, she is still a giggly seventh-grader. When Hollywood called she was happily back in Manchester (pop: 2,000) with her parents, classmates puppies and “terranium—I mean terrarium” of 20 mice. The prospect of acting sounded interesting enough to put her dreams of becoming a veterinarian on hold. Along with her father, Arthur, 44, a former English instructor who’d quit his job two years ago at the University of Maine to accompany Samantha to the Soviet Union, she flew to Hollywood for the audition—and instantly got the part. Bloodworth says Samantha’s reading before 20 of ABC’s top brass—a difficult scene in which she discusses her first period—was flawless: “She never missed a line and was never nervous,” recalls Bloodworth. “The head of casting said she was ‘magnificent, another Margaret O’Brien. A total natural.’ ”

Samantha has acted only once before—on an episode of Charles in Charge last fall—but has taken easily to her job. If she flubs a line, she grins a second, presses a hand to her face, then does another take—and usually does it perfectly. Initial scenes for the pilot were shot in Washington, D.C. and Virginia. Then Samantha and her mother, Jane, 40, an administrator in Maine’s Department of Human Services, settled into a hotel in Los Angeles while filming was being completed.

Smith and her parents will return to shoot the series in August, but Samantha already feels right at home in Hollywood—having hit the LaBrea Tar Pits, Disneyland and shops in Beverly Hills. She is chummy with co-stars Lew Ayres, 76, and Wagner, 55, whom she calls by his nickname, “R.J.” There were a few diplomatic gaffes at first. During a TV interview she described Wagner (whom she had never seen on Hart to Hart because it was past her bedtime) as “homely” when she really meant “homey.” Wagner, who lightly shrugged off Samantha’s apology with a gentle “that’s okay,” has become a solid supporter, praising Smith’s naturalness. “There’s nothing contrived about her,” he says.

Though Smith is looking forward to living in Los Angeles, she has mixed feelings about being away from her Maine home. “It seems like every time there’s a dance or a party I’ve been looking forward to,” she laments, “I have to be away.” But there have been compensations as well, like getting a sophisticated “new look.” Says Samantha, parting the soft, blown-dry, curled coif she now prefers to the “terrible” ponytailed style she wore to Russia, “I got a little more ‘with it’ by coming to California.”

Nor has Smith forgotten her Soviet adventure. Though she didn’t meet Andropov personally (he was ailing), she brought back several gifts from him (including a samovar and a tea service) and memories of meeting Russian youngsters whom she described as “very outgoing, very forward. They didn’t ask a lot of questions about America,” she says. “It was more like, ‘What would you like to do today?’ ”

Smith has yet to write a letter to Gorbachev, although she says she may, “as I get to know more about him.” But don’t get the impression Samantha considers herself an expert on world affairs. Her philosophy is simple: “I urge peace. I’m against all bombs and the MX missile, but I don’t talk about it all day long. In fact,” she adds, sounding like the 12-year-old she is, “I don’t talk about it much at all.”