THERE’S NOT A BROOMSTICK IN sight this October morning as Melissa Joan Hart invites a visitor into the kitchen of her family’s Studio City, Calif., home. As for the morning’s breakfast, hold the frogs and newts—Hart prefers a brew of Lucky Charms and milk. The only clue, in fact, that the fresh-faced 20-year-old is the star of the hit ABC sitcom Sabrina, the Teenage Witch comes when Hart’s 3-year-old sister Alexandra bursts onto the scene dressed early for Halloween in, naturally, a witch costume. Hart is tickled, but not surprised: She’s used to being imitated. “To say Melissa has a huge following is putting it mildly,” says ABC programming vice president Jeff Bader. Hart thinks she knows why. “Little kids like me, even though I have to tell them I’m not a witch,” she says. “And teens are drawn to Sabrina because she deals with fitting in—and teen angst. I know all about teen angst,” she adds. “In fact, I think I’m still going through it.”
That might be news to those who remember Hart as the adolescent sage Clarissa on Nickelodeon’s long-running sitcom Clarissa Explains It All. In those days, she had all the answers. “Because I used to talk to the camera on Clarissa, people would really feel like they knew me,” she says. “They’d come up and hug me on the street and I’d be like, ‘Who are you?’ ” Things are different with Sabrina. Based on the comic-book character, she’s a 16-year-old sorceress who’s coping with figuring out hip high school dress codes, trigonometry and the consequences of an inadvertent spell—as when she turns the class snob into a pineapple. “When we’re walking down the street, kids do a double take,” says Hart’s boyfriend of two years, aspiring actor James Fields, 22. “They’ll start poking their mom and dad, and they’ll be so excited.”
The oldest of five children of Billy Hart, a Sayville, N.Y., shellfish purveyor, and his wife, Paula, now divorced, Melissa has appeared in hundreds of kiddie commercials—the first in 1980 for a bathtub doll called Splashy. She was 4 years old and, she says, “really embarrassed about being naked.” By junior high, Hart was on Broadway in The Crucible with Martin Sheen. TV movies and series one-shots followed. Then in 1990 she landed Clarissa and moved to Manhattan with her family. It was a difficult transition. “Basically my only friends were from the show,” says Hart, who attended the Professional Children’s School and went to a tutor before graduating in 1994 from Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando, where Clarissa was taped. “I didn’t have friends my own age.”
After production ended, Hart attended New York University for two years but deferred further studies when Sabrina came along. “When you play one character for so long,” Hart explains, “you really begin to wonder if you can do anything else.” It helps that her mother, Paula (married in 1993 to Leslie Gilliams, the executive in charge of Hartbreak Productions—the Harts’ company—with whom she has two children), developed the series and, in addition to being Melissa’s manager, is the show’s executive producer. “It’s pretty cool to have a bad day, then look over there, see mom and feel better,” says Hart. For her part, Paula says working with her daughter is “fantastic, even though sometimes I have to switch off the mom hat and put on the producer one if Melissa wants to, say, go to a party and we need to finish working.”
Other family members have also gotten into the act. Brother Brian, 12, and sisters Elizabeth, 16, and Emily, 10, have appeared on the show, as has boyfriend Fields, who plays a geek named Howard. The couple, who met through friends, now share what Hart describes as a “corporate, very white,” one-bedroom apartment down the street from her family’s rented home.
Hart makes no apologies for Sabrina’s being a family affair. “Why shouldn’t my favorite people be involved?” she asks. And with the show climbing in the ratings, Hart is happily settling in for a long run. “I have my boyfriend, friends and family all living here in L.A.,” she says.” That makes everything incredible.”
ANNA DAVID in Los Angeles