Michael Fishman was 6 when he sidled up to Roseanne Arnold at an audition and cracked a joke.
“Why did the turtle cross the road” he asked.
“Because it was the chicken’s day off,” Fishman recalled telling Arnold, gargling with laughter at the memory. “Me and my sister made that up. . . . I think that was the reason why [Roseanne] pushed for me to be on the show. She was a mom and she knew kids’ stuff.”
Eight years later, the 14-year-old is a fixture on Arnold’s popular sitcom, and juggles a 40-hour TV workweek with high school and Little League in his hometown of Cypress.
Fishman is among a handful of successful Orange County child actors who work long hours and endure chaperoned commutes to Hollywood studios as they try to maintain low-profile lives in the suburbs.
Other well-known teen actors from Orange County include Allison Mack, a Los Alamitos 14-year-old who just finished filming Disney’s “Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves,” and Jody Sweeten, 14, who played Stephanie on the sitcom “Full House.”
There’s also Christopher Castile, 16, from the TV show “Step by Step,” and Austin O’Brian, who played the adventurous scout in the movie “The Last Action Hero.”
Several casting agents said the growth of an arts community in Orange County accounts for the increase in young actors whose faces are becoming familiar on-screen. Among the community activities are student acting programs at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, and the creation of the Orange County School of the Arts, a magnet school run at Los Alamitos High School.
“All of the new artistic things have made Orange County kids more able to compete in this really competitive market,” said Judy Savage, owner of Savage Agency, which has represented children and young adults for 18 years.
Living outside of Los Angeles also can give young stars an edge, she said.
“The industry doesn’t like it when kids get real Hollywood and real slick,” Savage said. “They think it’s better that the kids go back to the outlying areas and have a real life. When kids get too programmed the industry will usually look for new faces.”
Fishman, for example, earned his role on “Roseanne” with his raw boyishness. He marched into an audition with no acting experience and few expectations.
“I didn’t think I’d get the part,” Fishman said in between biting his nails during a recent interview at his Cypress home. “It was pretty much an accident.”
Fishman said he jumped into acting because his older sister, Alexis, began at age 8 pursuing commercial auditions to earn money for college. Fishman says he had no choice but to tag along when Alexis went on casting calls. “I figured if I’m going too, I might as well try it out,” he said.
Since landing a part on the comedy series, Fishman has been playing his alter ego, the ghoulish D.J. Connor.
He spends nine months of the year--working two weeks on, one week off--rehearsing and taping for the show. Starting next month, he returns to the familiar grind of hitting the Hollywood Freeway by 7 a.m., with either his mom or dad behind the wheel. Once at the studio, he usually works five hours straight, rehearsing his lines over and over.
After rehearsing and filming, he pulls out his schoolbooks and goes over lessons with a private tutor on the set. By evening, the commute home passes quickly when he tunes into his favorite AM radio talk shows, listening to Larry Elder’s banter or Dennis Prager’s moral perspectives on KABC.
Regardless of the zig-zagging commutes, Fishman’s home life stays consistent, his parents say. He has regular chores, just like his older sister and younger brother.
“My jobs are to water the plants, watch the [the two cocker spaniels] and, how should I put it? Ahem, I clean the grass,” he said, grinning mischievously.
The family has a game room at home and Fishman is a prince of computer wizardry and strategy games. He says his best friends are his parents and his 5-year-old brother, Matthew.
“I’m a homebody. I like having my parents around,” he says, nudging his mother on the knee.
His parents, Darlene and Nelson Fishman, have lived in their Cypress home for 21 years. They describe their quiet community as a safe haven from the glitz and glamour of show business that can rob young actors of their childhood.
“I had a lot of fears about letting Michael get involved in the entertainment business,” Darlene Fishman said. “We’ve made the conscious effort to stay grounded at the home.”
But trying to maintain order in her son’s chaotic schedule can be a headache, she added. Because he’s a minor, a guardian must accompany Fishman every day at the studio and at special engagements.
Some weekends, his father may fly with Michael to Alaska or Hawaii for public appearances. Another week, Darlene Fishman might travel with him to Oklahoma for the opening of a water park.
Luckily, Fishman said, his parents have flexible schedules. Mom is a nursing professor at Cypress College and Dad is a financial planner. She grades papers on the set, and he makes business calls from his cellular phone.
“We’re always smoothing out the ruffled feathers,” Darlene Fishman said. “That’s the nature of the beast.”
This year will be the last season for “Roseanne,” ending the show’s eight-year run. Fishman said he’ll take his time finding another acting job. In the meantime, he wants to focus on his ninth-grade studies and work toward his goal of becoming a veterinarian.
“I’m going to miss what I do, but I think I’m going to enjoy having more free time too,” he said.
This fall, Michael and his good friend, Allison Mack, start as freshmen at the Orange County Performing Arts High School.
Mack, like Fishman, seeks to downplay her entertainment accomplishments. She prefers to show off her doll collection and her cockatiel, Rosie, instead of dropping the names of famous actors she has worked with, such as Cicely Tyson and Anne Jillian.
She started modeling at 4. She switched to acting, winning dozens of commercial gigs with her sparkling green eyes and blond hair. (Her credits include spots for Sunny Delight drinks and Cookie Crisp cereal.
She graduated to television pilots, movies and finally to the silver screen. Her latest major role was the lead part in last year’s Disney movie, “Camp Nowhere.”
“I want [acting] to stay as a hobby. I don’t want to think of it as a profession yet,” she said. “This is something that adds to my childhood. It has helped me grow up a little faster.”
She exudes maturity beyond her years, and is determined to make a name for herself. But she said she realizes that show business gets more competitive each year. She talks about how hard it is for older kids to get as many good roles as preteens.
“There are so many more girls in the industry than boys,” said Savage, her agent. “And there are more roles for boys.”
Like Fishman, she hopes the roles will keep coming. But she too has a backup plan. She talks of studying both English and acting in college and perhaps one day becoming a drama teacher.
“It’s my passion,” Mack said, her legs stretched out on a plaid sofa at home. “But I know I’m one of many. It’s a competitive field and I have to be realistic.”