Nickelodeon Lets Kids Name Stars in Their Firmament

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If actress Kyla Pratt wins the much-coveted Blimp for favorite rising star Saturday on Nickelodeon Cable Network's 12th annual "Kids' Choice Awards," she hopes Hollywood at least notices that she's growing up.

A trouper with a dazzling smile and a growing list of TV and film credits, Pratt was nominated on the strength of notable performances last year as a couple of precocious 8-year-olds, first as Eddie Murphy's guinea pig-toting offspring in the Fox feature "Dr. Dolittle" and then as the sassy tyke who upbraids professional basketball players in a flight of well-received Nike TV spots. But in real life, she's almost 13.

"People are always stopping me and saying, 'Hey, you're supposed to be 8 years old,' " the fast-growing seventh-grader chirped the other day after a wardrobe fitting for a Barbie doll commercial. "I'd like to play [Kate Winslet's] Rose in 'Titanic,' maybe if I get older, I mean when I get 17 or 18 or 19."

Pratt is up for one of 17 Blimps--named for the network's orange blimp logo--in the awards show that will be telecast Saturday from Pauley Pavilion at UCLA. Nick taps 6 million-plus youngsters to pick their favorite cultural icons and pastimes. The kids rate movie stars, musical performers, TV shows, athletes, cartoons, books, video games and even animal stars--going tooth and nail for that Blimp are Wishbone the dog, Babe the pig, Sabrina's cat Salem and Buddy the canine athlete of "Air Bud II."

The anything-goes telecast always attracts a flock of celebrities, and host Rosie O'Donnell will return for a third year to usher in Blimp winners and presenters such as Drew Barrymore, Chris Tucker, David Spade and David Arquette. One of the stars, in carrying on a kid-pleasing tradition, will be slimed with a green oatmeal-pea-soup-like goop that pours down from the rafters when the victim says, "I don't know"--a running gag from Nick's departed sketch comedy show "You Can't Do That on Television."

"The best slimee we ever had was James Earl Jones," recalls Albie Hecht, Nickelodeon Film / Television president and executive producer of the awards special. "We put him in the Pantages Theatre in a tuxedo and gave him this stuffy monologue, you know, sounding just like Darth Vader. And so he finally says, 'Why do we give these awards? I don't know.' Then he looked up and got it right in the face--he really got into it, which is great because there's only one take."

Most of the celebrities get into the zany spirit of the occasion in one way or another. Tom Arnold once roller-skated on stage in a bathrobe. Madonna balanced her Blimp on her head.

Pratt was still thinking about how she'd make her entry as she kicked back in her living room after the day in wardrobe. Dribbling out on stage comes to mind, since she's been reading for a part in Spike Lee's upcoming feature film "Love and Basketball"

Indeed, basketball put her on the cultural radar last summer in a series of Nike commercials in which she confronted WNBA players about their performances.

"Ladies will point to me and say, 'That little girl's momma should give her a spanking,' " Pratt says with a laugh.

L.A. Sparks publicist Laura Reid said the commercials were a big hit around the league. "Some people thought the children were being disrespectful, but we thought the commercials were really funny," said Reid.

In sharp contrast to that role, Pratt played a somewhat nerdy youngster in the scatologically madcap feature film "Dr. Dolittle." She was overshadowed by her over-the-top pet guinea pig, voiced by comic Chris Rock. Still, several critics picked up on the sweet father-daughter interplay with star Eddie Murphy.

Pratt has been working steadily in TV and film for more than four years, but other than acting lessons, auditions and trips on location, her life is still relatively ordinary. Born in Long Beach, she shares a modest Westside apartment with her parents and four younger siblings. Her father, Johnny McCullar, is a semipro basketball player and stockbroker trainee, and her mother, Kecia Pratt-McCullar, is a schoolteacher. Pratt goes to a public middle school where she likes running on the track team. She plans to attend either UCLA or Harvard and said she wants to be either a track star, basketball star or movie star when she grows up.

Her career started at age 7 when her grandmother passed her snapshot around on an airline flight, and a modeling scout noticed her smile.

That quickly led to her first speaking role on an episode of "Living Single," and a procession of supporting and feature roles. Recurring parts on "Sister, Sister" and "The Smart Guy" turned into a series development deal with Paramount Network Television and de Passe Entertainment, executives at the network said.

The dozens of guest spots on network sitcoms and dramas from "Friends" to "ER" added up to help land the "Kids' Choice" nomination, which puts her up against actor Leon Frierson ("All That"), singer Natalie Imbruglia and Cubs pitcher and strikeout artist Kerry Wood. Her co-starring performance in the kid movie "Barney's Great Adventure" probably didn't hurt, either, although it was a role that many adults seem to have missed.

Pratt's favorite role, though, was in an episode of "Walker, Texas Ranger" in which she plays a karate expert who works out with series star Chuck Norris, then is wounded in a drive-by shooting. She dies--then miraculously recovers and leads a racial-harmony rally.

"It was really, really cool. I got to do all my own stunts," she said.

One of her most recent performances airs May 9 at 8 p.m. in an episode of the Disney Channel's family fantasy series "So Weird," in which she plays a forlorn child lost in a deserted town. It turns out that a comatose patient is able to communicate with the outside world for the first time in 14 years via computer, and Pratt represents her mind, which is trapped in the past. Pratt's character at first projects rapidly flagging morale that transforms to growing hopefulness and, finally, pure joy as disembodied voices lead her through the vacant cityscape.

"She gave a brilliant performance," said episode director Patrick Williams, a veteran children's TV director ("Secret World of Alex Mack" and "The Journey of Allen Strange"). "She had to be depressed and down on herself at first, but she makes a beautiful change at the end. She had to show a range of emotions.

"The camera really loves her," added Williams. "She has great confidence and poise for a girl of--what is she, 8 or 9?"

There they go again.

But actually, she has a remarkable gift if she can get away with playing kids three or four years younger than she really is, noted Hollywood children's manager T.J. Stein said.

"Kids like that don't grow on trees," added Stein, who does not work for Pratt.

Poised or not, Pratt got a shock last weekend when she finally read a "Kids' Choice Awards" program listing.

"I get the TV Guide and see it's going to be live," she said. "Live? Oh, my gosh! Now it's, like, calm down, calm down. . . . "

* "Kids' Choice Awards" airs Saturday at 8 p.m. (the show is tape-delayed on the West Coast) on Nickelodeon. The network has rated it TV-Y (suitable for young children).

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