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March 20, 1994|BETH KLEID | Beth Kleid is a frequent contributor to TV Times and Calendar

Gaby Hoffmann bursts into the brightly colored '50s-style Johnny Rockets diner, apologizing over and over for being late. She settles into a red vinyl booth. She's had a long day in seventh grade, a long week working on her first TV series. And on this warm Friday afternoon, she's thirsty.

"Chocolate Coke, I've never heard of that!" she exclaims, checking out the menu. "It's weird." Intrigued, she orders one. It comes, she sticks in her straw and takes a big sip.

"Ewwww," she scrunches up her face into one of those trademark expressions that made her a scene-stealer in movies such as "This Is My Life" and "Sleepless in Seattle." "What is that taste?" She pushes it away, and without a moment's delay, starts chattering. Indeed, this animated 12-year-old is aptly named.

"I would have ordered, like, a cheeseburger and fries and a float or something, but I'm going out tonight," she explains.

Gaby makes kid faces, she eats kid food. Her world is typical teeny-bopper: "The Diary of Anne Frank" ("I've read it like four times"), "Beverly Hills, 90210" and "Melrose Place" ("They're obsessive"), her best friends ("I have four"), movies, Madonna, '60s music. "Like" and "Oh my God" are sprinkled through her every sentence.

But this regular kid, who has been in high-profile films since her debut in "Field of Dreams" when she was 6, now has her own TV show. NBC's new comedy "Someone Like Me" stars Gaby as alter ego Gaby Stepjak, a typical 11-year-old living in St. Louis. The TV Gaby deals with the usual stuff involved in growing up: blowouts with her sister, a ragamuffin boy who has a crush on her and deciding whether to run away from home.

Executive producer and creator of the show, Bruce Helford (a former executive producer for "Roseanne"), says the thing that appealed to him about Gaby, and made her perfect for the role, is that despite her show-biz success, she truly is a normal preteen.

"She's a really natural kid--you don't get any of that glossy, slick sitcommy kind of kid you can't stand," he says. "And she's wise. She's really a bright young woman." He describes the young actress, with her mix of impishness and winning charm, as someone other kids (and TV-viewing kids) would want for a friend: "She's the girl you want to hang out with in school."

Helford conceived of the show before meeting Gaby, but once he met her and "fell in love," she became the basis for the character.

Gaby agrees that she and the character Gaby are very much alike. "She tries to get what she wants. She gets in big fights with her mom, like I do all the time. She gets in fights with her friends, and says the same things I would say, like fine ," she says dramatically.

Gaby is quick to point out a crucial difference: "Well, Gaby is e-le-ven, and I'm 12. And I'm in seventh grade, and she's in sixth grade. And I hate it, I hate it, I hate it. God, I just hate it. I mean it's OK to act older. . . ."

She has strong opinions and doesn't hesitate to express them. Director Nora Ephron, who worked with Gaby in "This Is My Life" and "Sleepless in Seattle," explains why the young star makes such an impression. "She has this kind of divine bossiness that I have a weakness for," Ephron says. "I just think she's a remarkable person and actress."

But please, don't call Gaby precocious. "Most people my age are just like that," she insists. "And obviously lots of people are, like, still stuck back in the '50s or '60s or whatever because it's different now. Everybody says, 'Oh Gaby, you're 12 going on 30.' That's, like, not true. I mean, people are mature nowadays.

"A lot of TV shows don't get that. The kids aren't real," she says, rolling her doe-like brown eyes. What she likes most about her TV character is that she rings true.

So true, that even her clothes are somewhat like the real-life Gaby's. "She wears Docs," she says, referring to the clunky Doc Marten shoes. Docs are part of Gaby uniform, but on this day she's wearing platform Mary Janes, along with a white Gap T-shirt tied at the waist and Levi's.

"I love to shop," she says.

She's also taken with more intellectual pursuits. "I love to read and I love to write. I read, like, four books at a time." Currently, she's in the middle of "All the Pretty Horses" and "Little Women."

Gaby says it's not easy to juggle school and the series. She's also busy getting used to a new school and making new friends, after moving to Los Angeles from New York City with her mother three months ago to do the show.

One of her new friends, 13-year-old actor Matthew Thomas Carey, who plays the disheveled boy who has a crush on Gaby, says she hasn't let the fame get to her. "It's not, like, 'This is my show,' at all."

Gaby describes herself as "very open to people. I get that from my mom." She and her mother, Viva Auder, the former Andy Warhol groupie, are close. "I can ask her anything."

Gaby isn't worried that she'll go the way of some child stars who have had problems. "I want to go to college and everything." She says she plans to keep acting and eventually become a director.

Her more immediate goal is to host "Saturday Night Live." "Oh my God, that would be the best," she says, breathless. "That would really be nerve-racking for me."

"Someone Like Me" airs Mondays at 8:30 p.m. on NBC (preempted this week).

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