Father: whereabouts unknown. Mother: troubled, prone to violent arguments. Home: New York tenements, frequent evictions. Traumatic experiences: seeing a girl’s breast slashed in a knife fight, being splashed with boiling water.
There were social workers on Linda Manz’s case, of course, and their write-ups must have sounded that chilling. As for lasting effects, Linda, now 17, has several scars on her face (“I got them falling down,” she claims). But emotionally she seems to have survived the worst of a brutal Manhattan slum youth. Of course, it hasn’t hurt that from a fluke, brilliant movie debut last year in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, Manz is now a contender for parts right along with Jodie Foster or Tatum O’Neal. Linda appears in the current movie The Wanderers, as a gang leader’s punk girlfriend, and she co-stars in Dorothy, a CBS sitcom on a brief trial run beginning this week (Aug. 8). When she showed up for that first comedy role, a hubcap-stealing juvenile delinquent at a fancy girls’ school, Linda admits, “I was scared. Then I tripped and everybody laughed, and now I love it.” Says her TV producer, Bob Carroll: “She’s an unusual mixture of sweetness and toughness—and a real pro on the set.”
Growing up, Linda never dreamed of having a regular job at $5,000 a week. Her father split when she was 2 (she’s thought of seeing him again but says, “I don’t know where to look”). She lived out of a suitcase with her mother, Sophie, now 54 and a housecleaner in New York. “She never abandoned me,” Linda admits. “But we do have an adversary relationship.” Manz says herself that she “ran away a lot” and went through half a dozen schools. Then three years ago a teacher at Quintano’s, a showbiz high she attended sporadically, told her that casting director Barbara Claman was searching bars, drug rehab groups and topless joints for a young unknown to star in Days of Heaven with Brooke Adams and Richard Gere. When Manz showed up at her office, Claman recalls, “Linda was smoking and looking all of 10 years old but had that special quality we wanted.”
Now based in L.A., Linda is beginning to put her past behind her. Her mother is still in New York, with Linda paying the $450 monthly rent. “That’s where I want her,” says Linda. “We still don’t get along too well.” (Indeed, her jealous mom was given a part in Linda’s upcoming CBS movie Orphan Train and got into a public fight with Linda at Savannah’s airport.) Claman, now her manager, is in charge, but a former schoolteacher, Huxsie Scott, 25, is Linda’s live-in companion while on location.
After a day of TV shooting at the Warner Bros, lot, Linda grills steaks by the pool of their bare two-bedroom North Hollywood flat or goes out for Japanese sushi. Boyfriend Carey Stratton (son of L.A. sportscaster Gil), 16, may come by to watch TV. Weekends, Linda reports that “a whole bunch of us go up to Oxnard to a beach house and have a ball.” She smokes cigarettes, but drugs are not part of the fun. “I won’t go near any of it,” she says. “Once someone gave me some brown stuff to stick in my nose. It made me so sick that I think I practically died.” Manz also is mindful of the story of another street kid cast for Days of Heaven who couldn’t cope with her success and wound up in a New York mental institution.
Linda swings from outgoing (“When I see someone I like, I lean out of the car and shout, ‘You’re cute’ “) to insecure (“For a long time I was always asking people to adopt me”). “Physically and emotionally, she’s about 13,” says Claman, who predicts her future will be “stormy.” But Linda is “supersmart,” according to companion Scott. “Given a different background, I wouldn’t be surprised if she turned out to be a professor or something.”
Next week Linda turns 18 and is thus no longer under the aegis of the California laws that protect juvenile actors. That means she can dispense with school and Scott—and she intends to. “I’ve got to try responsibility. I want my own place and my own things,” she says. Claman is looking for a teacher to help Manz shed her accent so she can play roles other than street kids. But if Dorothy is renewed beyond the summer, she plans to stay with it. “Acting’s in my blood,” says Linda. “I hope it lasts forever.”