Angela Goethals' story reads like a show-business fable: Famous producer sees kid in small play and gives her a big break.
Producer James Brooks ("The Simpsons," "The Tracey Ullman Show," "Taxi," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show") first saw Goethals in the off-Broadway play "Coastal Disturbances." It was 1989 and she was 11.
"She was extraordinary," Brooks says simply. "She was so convincing. Then we put her in sketches in 'The Tracey Ullman Show.' We were working at a breakneck pace, overwhelmed by work. And the only times that the show would slow down is when we would just stop and be in admiration of her."
Goethals' natural ability convinced the producer that she deserved her own show. "She can't act a false moment," Brooks says.
While he wanted to create a show for her, he wasn't quite sure how to frame it. Eventually, a friend gave him the idea of making her character, Angela Doolin, a tennis player who lives with her mother (Judith Light), her little sister (Ashley Johnson) and her bewildered older brother (Todd Louiso). Her tennis coach, the abrasive Lou Del Le Rosa, is played by former "Knot's Landing" star William Devane. Goethals, who hadn't even picked up a racket before the show, now takes tennis lessons.
The fictional Angela Doolin is not unlike the real acting phenomenon. 'She's definitely a lot like me," Goethals, 16, says from her New York home. "She's doing something that she loves. For her, it's tennis, and for me, it's acting. She's good at it and continues a normal life with her family."
But as the show has evolved, the TV Angela has become less like the real one. Goethals has matured in a way her character hasn't.
"A couple of years ago I would have said that we're exactly alike. But this experience has taught me a lot about responsibility and independence. I've had to be away from home, miss my friends, grow up more," says Goethals.
The "Phenom" star got her start in theater at 9. Her starring role in "The Good Times Are Killing Me" earned her an Obie Award and a Drama Desk nomination. The Times' Sylvie Drake singled Goethals out for her 1992 role in John Guare's "Crashing Symbols" at New York's Lincoln Center, calling her "terrific."
Her co-stars are equally adulatory. From a Toronto movie set, Judith Light, who plays Goethals' TV mom, says, "She is probably one of the most extraordinary actors I've ever worked with, and her age really has nothing to do with the quality of who she is and what she brings to the show. Personally, we have a wonderful relationship. If I could have a daughter, she would be the daughter I would want."
In addition to her theater and TV roles, Goethals' credits also extend to feature films, including "Rocket Gilbraltar," "Heartbreak Hotel," "Home Alone" and "V.I. Warshawski."
Despite the praise she is getting, Goethal says: "Acting is very comfortable for me right now, but I don't know if I want it for my career."
But Brooks sees acting in her future: "I always see her future with her at 80 doing Jessica Tandy-types of roles. She's really a gifted actress."
"Phenom" airs Tuesdays at 8:30 p.m. on ABC.