Alyssa Milano grew up in our living rooms, and now she's ready to leave home.
"I want to showcase what I'm capable of doing," said Milano, who has played the effervescent Samantha on ABC-TV's hit sitcom "Who's the Boss?" since 1984. "Creatively, it's been very frustrating. I gave her more of a personality. I changed her wardrobe, cut her hair, anything to give her new life."
Samantha may not get her new life, but Milano will. This spring, she'll leave "Who's the Boss?" Speculation is the show won't last beyond this season anyway, but Milano isn't going to wait for network cancellation.
She is currently appearing in a four-week run of "Butterflies Are Free" at the Court Theatre in Los Angeles. Milano plays a jilted divorcee afraid to commit herself to anyone again.
"I had been looking for a play," Milano said, "and didn't want to do anything with a lot of sets. I wanted to do something intimate, a play about people."
The play, written by Leonard Gershe, is directed by Tom Villano, who most recently directed "Rumors" at the Torrance Community Theatre. And it is being presented by Milano's company, AJM Productions, which also produced record albums she released in Japan, and "Teen Steam," an exercise video for teen-agers.
Milano's eagerness to embark on a new artistic path is not sudden. Since she was 15, she has anticipated the end of her sitcom days, and was ready to depart from "Who's the Boss?" last year when ABC persuaded her to come back for one final season. At first she planned to attend college. But after eight highly structured years on the set, she said the thought of another four in the classroom put her higher education plans on indefinite hold.
"And I feel I have something to prove," Milano said. "I can always go to school down the line."
Milano has worked for a majority of her 19 years. Born in New York, she grew up in an artistic environment. Her mother, Lin, currently runs AJM Productions, and her father, Tom, is a music editor, whose credits include "The Hunt for Red October" and the new feature "The Last Boy Scout."
At 7, Milano got her first career break: one of the four principal parts in the national touring company of "Annie." Her baby-sitter, without notifying her parents, had taken Milano to an audition, where she was selected over more than 1,500 other kids. Milano, accompanied by her mother, was on the road for 18 months.
When she returned, she did several roles in off-Broadway productions, including the first American musical adaptation of "Jane Eyre." During all this time, she still figured she would settle down into a normal childhood.
But fate intervened again.
Milano accompanied a friend from "Annie" to the office of a New York agent, who asked who she was. Soon, it was Milano, not her friend, who had representation.
Things continued to move fast. At 10, Milano was flown to Los Angeles to audition as Tony Danza's daughter on "Who's the Boss?" She won the part and moved with her family to Los Angeles, where the show is produced.
"She was just the sweetest little girl of all time," Danza said about the early days. "She became much like my daughter."
Fans sensed the same sweetness, as Milano was inundated with fan mail from teen-agers around the world. In Japan, after she appeared as Arnold Schwarzenegger's daughter in "Commando," Milano became a folk hero among teens. A Japanese record label signed her to a four-album contract of pop music. Each album, Milano said, went platinum. She's even planning to give a few concerts there this spring.
But she won't introduce her music to America.
"A lot of actors who release albums here are laughed at," Milano said. "I'm not interested in crossing over. I'd much rather have it released where it's appreciated than laughed at."
Instead, she will focus on her acting. After "Butterflies Are Free," she'll appear as a prostitute in "Where the Day Takes You," a feature film due for release in January about a group of homeless teen-agers, which also stars Ione Skye. Besides "Commando," Milano's movie credits include "Old Enough" with Danny Aiello and TV's "The Canterville Ghost" with Sir John Gielgud.
"People are going to see me as a prostitute and say, 'That's the girl from "Who's the Boss?" ' The important thing for them is to have an open mind," Milano said.
Judith Light, who plays Danza's boss and love interest on the series, said Milano is already a huge talent.
"We've watched her grow up to become a very sophisticated woman," Light said. "There are so many things she can do."
Milano said she recently auditioned for practically every role in her age bracket, even for B movies.
While she got callbacks each time, Milano didn't land any of the parts. But she said she's not discouraged. "I just wanted to meet people," Milano said, "and show them that I can do these roles."
She said that, in a way, she will be starting over despite her TV experience.
"It's not like I will be able to get any part because I've been on a television show for all these years," Milano said. "I'll be going in there like the girl who has never done anything."
Her colleagues have few doubts.
"People always want to pigeonhole you in this business," Danza said, "and it's that one performance which always allows you to shed the stereotype. And she's definitely got that performance in her."
Milano knows she will not be able to change her image instantly.
"The scariest thing is that it will take people a long time to forget about Samantha," she said. "The show will probably be on Nickelodeon when I'm 50. But it's also so exciting to do something new."