She was young. She was shy. She was blond She was sitting in the restaurant demurely downing a BLT on white when the bearded stranger approached and offered her the chance to be in his next film. Sounds familiar, right? And Lana Turner notwithstanding, pretty implausible, too. Nevertheless, 10-year-old Heather O’Rourke’s start in showbiz is a replay of that old tale—the stuff of press agents’ dreams.
In Heather’s case, the metaphorical soda fountain was the MGM commissary, where she and her mother waited while her sister was dancing in Pennies From Heaven; the stranger was Steven Spielberg and the film was 1982’s summer smash Poltergeist. As the tyke who’s kidnapped by demons residing in her family’s TV set, Heather turned in a performance that—according to the New York Times’ Vincent Canby—”ranks with the best work ever done by children in Hollywood.” And her eerie announcement of the poltergeists’ arrival, “They’re here,” ranks with the most chilling lines ever uttered in a horror movie.
But Heather has different things on her mind now, such as the box-office performance of the newly released Poltergeist II: The Other Side, in which the ghosts come back to haunt the family in even more malevolent fashion. Then there are other pressures—reviews, investments, fans, fame and a basic-skills test that she and her fellow fifth-graders at Big Bear (Calif.) Elementary School are going to take. Heather is concerned about her math “It’s not my best subject,” she admits
To achieve anything less than her best bothers her. At 4 feet and 45 pounds, she looks young for 10, but she behaves like an older, much more serious child. Sitting with her hands folded, earnestly trying to say the correct things, she displays a demeanor harkening back to an era in which the average kid’s wisecrack and back-talk quotient was much lower than it is today. Heather, in other words, has a pre-sitcom personality.
“She’s very, very professional,” says her mother, Kathy, though professional is not the word to describe the nightmare Heather endured in Poltergeist I. “The wind machine drove her ears crazy, she panicked when the room shook and she even wet the bed one time—Steven cleaned it up. But she wouldn’t tell anyone she had to go to the bathroom. She’d just stand there doing a take, doing it until someone said ‘It’s a cut’ ”
Heather’s grace under pressure has paid off. With some of the money earned from her films and a brief stint on Happy Days (as the daughter of Fonzie’s girlfriend, played by Linda Purl), she’s been able to buy a three-bedroom house in Big Bear, 120 miles east of L.A., where she lives with her mother, sister Tammy, 14, and her stepfather of two years, Jim Peele, who sells all-terrain (three-wheel) vehicles. The home is an improvement over the Anaheim trailer camp where Kathy and her daughters were living a few years ago. That was after Heather’s mother and father split up. “We had really rough times,” says Kathy, who worked as a seamstress.
The rough times don’t show on Heather. Apparently well-adjusted, she’s able to enjoy the spoils of her career without being spoiled. Her room is populated with 18 Cabbage Patch dolls, and she has a shocking-pink telephone and a canopied water bed. Her closet holds numerous self-sewn creations and enough size-one shoes to make Imelda Marcos nostalgic. “I love the fashions of the ’80s,” Heather says breezily. “I like to take a lot of money—Oh $15—and just shop.”
Heather’s prized possessions, however, are a Rocky IV jacket and an autographed glossy of Sly Stallone. “I met him working on Poltergeist II,” she says. “He kissed my hand, and I thought, I’ll never wash it again.’ ”
But Heather quickly regains composure, making it clear that she plans to take control of her career. When asked whom she’d like to pattern her life after, she says, “Sylvester Stallone and Michael Landon.” Why? “Because they act and direct.”