Genius at Work
I SOMETIMES GET A FUNNY FEELING,” says Chuck Lorre, creator of the CBS sitcom Cybill, “that Alicia Witt has to shut down half her cerebellum to have a conversation with me.”
Witt, 19, who on the new series plays Cybill Shepherd’s grungy, deadpan daughter Zoey, is arguably the smartest person ever to perform in the genre that gave us Green Acres. Exposed to Shakespeare as an infant—her mother, Diane, a former junior high reading teacher, would read aloud from his plays—Witt was able to recite from Romeo and Juliet and the sonnets at 2. By then, on some cognitive tests she was scoring at the level of a high school senior. Her father, Robert, a former science teacher who’s now starting up a photography business in Worcester, Mass., remembers his tiny daughter greeting him one evening with a salutation derived from As You Like It: “Is thy name Robert? A fair name. I’ll have no father if you be not he.”
Witt started piano lessons at 7, and within six months she had won her first competition. “Alicia was angelic,” says David Patterson, music professor at the University of Massachusetts, who taught the 11-year-old. “Yet she could play Beethoven ferociously or Bartok at a raging tempo.” As her mother says with quiet pride, “She’s very talented in everything she’s ever done.” Alicia’s brother Ian, 16, is also “a very talented boy,” she adds, “and I was advanced. But no one has seen anything like Alicia.”
Dressed in black, Witt looks more like your basic X-er than a poster girl for Mensa. Not that she has ever applied for membership in the high-IQ club. “I don’t feel special,” she says. “I was just full of energy and loved to learn.”
It was her mother who launched Witt on her unusual trajectory from whiz kid to starlet. Back in 1977, Diane Witt—who, to give her her due as an amazing person, currently has the world’s longest hair (documented as 12’8″ in the 1994 Guinness Book of Records)—dropped a line to Good Housekeeping. She enjoyed the magazine, she wrote, and noted that her 2-year-old did, too. Housekeeping staff promptly visited and photographed “our youngest reader.”
Thanks to this bit of exposure, Witt was invited to appear on ABC’s That’s Incredible, where she played a scene as Shakespeare’s Juliet. Working with the cameras set off lightbulbs in Alicia’s head. “I loved it,” she says. “It was like life, only 10 times more intense.” At 7, brought to the attention of director David Lynch, she made her film debut in the sci-fi epic Dune as space princess Alia. She learned her lines in one reading. “It’s easy,” Witt says. “You memorize the thought process instead of the words.” Of course.
Dune opened and closed, and Witt stayed in Worcester, racing through her piano studies. She even created her own variations, in the style of Debussy, Chopin and other masters, on Over the Rainbow. Academically, both she and brother Ian were taught at home by their mother. One family acquaintance describes this round-the-clock teacher as “unconventional, what with the long hair and raising the children the way she has. But this was a mother who was behind her child.” Mrs. Witt explains, “I wanted to be there for Alicia and let her enjoy the love of learning that you should have. School is about competitiveness.”
Witt enjoyed setting her own pace. “I could practice piano at midnight and get up at 11 in the morning and study math all day long,” she says. The one drawback, she admits, was that “I didn’t have any friends my own age. I was able to relate to adults, but had a hard time relating to other children. I didn’t have any real friends until I came to L.A.”
Witt made that move with her mother when she was 14, after she had earned her high school equivalency diploma; Dad and Ian stayed home. “I was pushing to go to Hollywood from 11 or 12,” she says. Never mind that she hadn’t acted since Dune. “I’ve always wanted to do my own thing,” she says. “And my parents allowed me to do what I needed.” College? “There was no reason for me to go,” she says.
Witt began landing small TV parts, including (thanks to old pal Lynch) a young denizen of Twin Peaks, and supported herself playing piano at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. (She also went on Wheel of Fortune and spun herself bankrupt twice.) “A sitcom was the last thing I thought I’d do,” says Witt. “But then the Cybill script came, and it was funny.” After several callbacks, she recalls, “Cybill gave me a big hug and said, ‘Congratulations, honey’ I cried.”
So she has it made, right? Not quite. For one thing, the demands of a series make extracurriculars tough. “My love life,” she says, “is nonexistent.” Witt lives alone in a one-bedroom apartment (her mother lives nearby). She is currently reading How to Get Your Cat to Do What You Want for the benefit of her tabby Jessie. She still plays the piano and also likes listening to old big-band recordings. “I love music of the ’40s and ’50s,” she says. “It has so many things going on at once.”
Witt wants her life to have that same fascinatin’ rhythm. “Whatever you’ve accomplished,” says the very early achiever, “there’s always more to experience.”
LEAH FELDON-MITCHELL and LOIS ARMSTRONG in Los Angeles