`Skip' star Frankie Muniz finds sudden superstardom

Thanks to a dog named Skip and a kid named Malcolm, Frankie Muniz, age 14, is in the middle of an awesome show-business career. He's starring in the title role of TV's hottest new series, "Malcolm in the Middle," and opens nationwide Friday in the eagerly awaited movie "My Dog Skip."

It all started in Raleigh, N.C., where he got his first role, Tiny Tim in a local production of "A Christmas Carol," after he went to auditions with his sister. She got the part of one of the Christmas ghosts but he got the idea to go home and ask his parents if he could be Tiny Tim. They reluctantly agreed.

Now, he says, older sister Christine, 16, "keeps complaining that she can't look in any magazine or any television screen without seeing what she calls `my stupid face.' She keeps telling me that `you're lucky. You look stupid. That's why they hired you.' But I keep telling her that I play a genius. She doesn't mean it. I overheard her talking to some of her friends on the phone and she was bragging about me. I think, secretly, she's proud of me."

Frankie, with ears flapping to the side, looks as if he might be the son of Forrest Gump. Actually, he says, "My dad is Puerto Rican and my mom is half Irish and half Italian. But I don't look like any of that. Casting directors say I look like everybody."

"Malcolm in the Middle" is the hottest, highest-rated television series in the history of the Fox network. It stars Frankie as a regular-guy genius who is part of an eccentric family. Mom sometimes answers the door nude. The lawn is not kept up. The house is not clean. Malcolm is perfectly happy skateboarding and hanging out with his friend Stevie until it's found that he has a genius IQ, and he's carted off to a "gifted" class. Critics are going wild about the show.

The same is true of "My Dog Skip," the movie based on World War II-era, small-town Mississippi memories of award-winning writer Willie Morris. Frankie stars as the 8-year-old Willie, who is a shy kid until a Jack Russell terrier named Skip teaches him to be independent and outgoing. The low-budgeted movie may turn out to be the Cinderella movie of the year. Originally not scheduled for national release, it opened a month ago in Los Angeles and New York and surprised Warner Bros. studios by doing great business.

After good intentions that turned into several box-office disasters, the studio has become wary of "family" movies. Everyone says they want them, but the same people who do the talking don't always show up at theaters - except for movies with the Disney stamp. WB was frustrated that its "The Iron Giant" and "The Little Princess" got terrific reviews but were ignored at the box office. Buoyed by response from adults and children, the studio has decided to try an all-out, national release for "My Dog Skip."

Born in Ridgewood, N.J., Frankie moved with his family to North Carolina when his father, an IBM employee, was transferred. While in North Carolina, he appeared in shows such as "The Sound of Music," "Oklahoma!" and "The Wizard of Oz" for such places as Mannie's Dinner Theater and North Carolina Theater Stage. Moving back to New Jersey at age 11, he got commercial jobs, which led to television movies, including the Hallmark Hall of Fame telefilm "What the Deaf Man Heard."

He was chosen from more than 1,000 auditioned kids for "My Dog Skip," which was filmed in the steaming Mississippi summer in 1998, well before his "Malcolm in the Middle" fame. "My mom and I flew down to Mississippi two weeks before filming started to meet and make friends with the dogs," he says. "It was all-important."

Skip is played by six dogs, including three puppies. For most scenes, the star is played by 3-year-old Enzo, making his film debut. Enzo is asked to play a range of moods from fierce to lovable, to drive a car, and to play baseball and football. It may be his debut, but he comes from acting stock. Enzo's father is Moose, who plays Eddie on the television series "Frasier," and plays the older Skip in some scenes of the movie.

Frankie, who is short for his age, has no trouble playing ages 8 to 10, even though he's 14. Off screen, he is home-tutored by his mother. He tried regular school, he says, "but missed 90 out of 120 school days last year because I was working."

He doesn't mind not going to regular school. "I actually like talking to adults more than kids my age."

Asked why Enzo didn't show up for the interview, as scheduled, he said, "Enzo is off on a tour with Moose, his father, to promote book sales."

As for himself, he was eager to finish the interview so that he could go play golf. "I started playing when I was 5, and I'd probably rather be in the PGA than win an Oscar."

Within weeks, he returns to the television studio, where he'll make 16 new episodes of "Malcolm in the Middle." Asked if we needed to take a handkerchief along when we see "My Dog Skip," he said: "You better. I might die in it, but, of course, no one is worried about me. I'm just the kid. Everyone seems to worry that Skip might die. I'm not telling."