When "Race to Witch Mountain" director Andy Fickman wanted to track down Kim Richards, the former child star who appeared in the original 1975 version "Escape to Witch Mountain," he sought an unlikely ally: Paris Hilton.
As it turns out, Hilton is the niece of Richards, who had all but disappeared from the Hollywood scene 20 years earlier.
"My first crush was on Kim Richards. She had long blond hair. It was 90 feet long," the director recalled. And as he geared up to make his own version of the mythology -- which stars Dwayne Johnson and opened Friday, bringing in an estimated $25 million over the weekend -- he also wanted to find Iake Eissinmann, who played Richards' brother Tony in the first film and in "Return From Witch Mountain," the 1978 sequel. "No one was cooler than Iake."
So with Hilton's aid, Fickman called up Richards -- now a single mom living in Malibu with a brood of four -- and started babbling his adoration of her. He took her to lunch on the Disney lot and tossed out ideas of how she and Eissinmann, whom he tracked down in Florida, could be wound into the new story line.
"He said, 'I don't know what you want to do. I was kind of thinking maybe you and Iake could be hovering over in a spaceship, or you could be the parents of the kids,' " said Richards. She laughed heartily at that thought. " 'We're brother and sister. We can't do that!' " she told him.
Last week, Richards and Eissinmann were having coffee at the bar of the Four Seasons hotel before the premiere of the film, in which they both have small roles -- he as the sheriff of the sleepy town of Stony Creek and she as a waitress; both wittingly and unwittingly help the two alien children as they try to escape from the evil government operatives on their tails.
At 44, the onetime ubiquitous TV and film star remains perky and high-energy, a cute Malibu mom with long, bleached-blond hair, a red minidress (albeit not tight) and black tights. The sloping eyes and aquiline nose suggest a distinct family resemblance to her now ultra-famous niece. The 46-year-old Eissinmann (who in his childhood spelled his name as Ike Eisenmann) is far more laconic, and businesslike in a blazer and jeans.
The two said they first met when they screen-tested for the original "Witch Mountain." Richards was already a screen veteran, and Eissinmann said he was cynical, despite being 12. He'd been acting professionally since he was 9 and had failed repeatedly to land a Disney movie, one of his ambitions. "I was tired and I was jaded," he said, laughing, recalling he didn't believe he was going to land the job. "Walking in, we were perfect brother and sister. There was no doubt."
Richards remembered the experience of making the first movie fondly, whether it was "this little dumpy hotel, this Motel 6" in Monterey, where all the cast and crew stayed, or the glorious kid fantasy bedrooms that were constructed in a mansion that served as the home to the evil industrialist menacing the children. She added that she was told never to go downstairs in that set, because there was a pet gorilla in the basement.
"I don't really know if they were lying," said Richards.
"Of course there was. It was a pet gorilla," insisted Eissinmann.
Richards said she loved their costar Bruno, a giant brown bear that followed their characters through the woods. "I bathed him on weekends," she said. "He was like going home to your golden retriever."
"As small as we were, he was huge," said Eissinmann. "Very docile, very sweet, but he stunk to high heaven. Animals smell, and he's been working in show business for a long time."
Even back then, the duo was as different as they appear today. Richards spent her time on set, hamming about, playing cards with the crew and tricks on the director.
"This one," she said, pointing to Eissinmann, "played Frisbee, alone. He did. I'd be like, "Iake, you want to play? He'd be, 'I'm OK.' Then he'd draw these animated troll characters for hours."
"I was a little bit of a loner in those days," concurred Eissinmann, though he said he liked learning about the special effects. In this pre-"Star Wars" sci-fi flick, the gimmicks were pretty basic. The objects that were telekinetically transported on screen were actually simply hanging from fishing lines. Occasionally, Eissinmann himself was the one being suspended midair. "Me jumping up into the air to catch the ball -- I was pulled by a crane," said Eissinmann. He did, however, learn to play the harmonica, as his character controlled his telekinetic powers via music. "I thought I had to. Little did I know they were going to put in their own harmonica sound."
Richards remembered the L.A. premiere of the old "Witch Mountain" was her first real encounter with crowd madness. "People were pounding on the limousine door" when she and her mother drove up to the theater on Pico Boulevard, Richards said. "I had on this little white rabbit jacket and this little dress. I remember being a little girl, so scared; I couldn't see anything, not one speck of daylight. Just people pounding. My mom said, 'Kimmy, what do you think they want?'
" 'I think they want to get my coat,' " Richards recalled herself saying. "I didn't realize it was me."
For the last two decades, Richards has devoted herself to full-time mothering and has been a volunteer at her children's schools. She recently began acting again and had a small role in Craig Brewer's 2006 film "Black Snake Moan." As an adult, Eissinmann worked as a painter making large-scale photo-realistic drawings, primarily nudes, and also as a voice-over artist in animation. Several years ago, he left Los Angeles for Orlando, Fla., where he opened a digital animation studio.
Richards said she was still recognized on an almost daily basis. She also occasionally catches herself on TV. "I will be flipping through the dial, and then it's 'Oh my gosh, look how little I was. I was so cute. What happened?' "