Tiffani Revamps Image

September 14 1995 in the Knight Ridder / Tribune News Service / Written by: Barry Koltnow

Just when you thought it was safe to introduce Tiffani-Amber Thiessen to your parents, she moved last year from the friendly fantasyland of "Saved by the Bell" to the titillating torment of "Beverly Hills, 90210." But wait; she's not done messing with her TV image. No sooner had you revised your impression of her, from virginal Kelly to slutty Valerie, than she went and did it again. Sunday, in the ABC movie "The Stranger Beside Me," she plays a shy newlywed who discovers she is living with the groom from hell.

And even that retiring-bride act doesn't last long. By the end of the movie, her character finds an inner strength and turns into the heroine of the story, without the assistance of a big, strong man. So what exactly is Thiessen trying to prove with these sharp right turns in her career? Apparently, she is not trying to prove anything.

"I just want to keep playing something different each time out," the young actress said over a spartan breakfast of muffins and fruit at a Los Angeles hotel.

"It is the same thing most actors want in their careers; the chance to do a variety of characters. Otherwise, you end up playing the same character over and over again until it gets downright boring. That's not how I want to spend my life." Thiessen, 21, is a Long Beach, Calif., native who has not had much time to get bored since her uncle, a professional photographer, introduced her to a friend at a modeling agency. Thiessen started modeling professionally almost immediately (her first job was an underwear ad for the May Co.).

In 1987, she won the Miss Junior America competition and a year later added the Teen Magazine Model Search to her list of accomplishments. In 1989, she landed the part of Kelly in a seemingly innocuous Saturday-morning sitcom called "Saved by the Bell."

That innocuous sitcom became one of the most popular young-teen programs in television history, spawning a cottage industry and igniting several careers. Another "Saved" alumna, Elizabeth Berkeley, stars in the controversial film "Showgirls," which opens Sept. 22.

"If you're asking me to explain the 'Saved by the Bell' phenomenon, I can't," said Thiessen, who remained on the show for five years and appeared in a couple of the 'Saved by the Bell' television movies.

"To us, it was this cute little show that was on against a bunch of cartoons on Saturday morning. None of us expected it to last very long. We didn't realize anything big was happening until our first personal appearance, and then we were shocked out of our minds.

"We went to a mall and there were 4,000 screaming kids waiting for us. They were tearing off our clothes and begging for the cups of water that we were drinking from. We kept looking at each other in amazement. We had no idea this was happening, and I still don't understand it.

"Maybe all those kids were hung over from Friday night," the actress said with tongue in cheek, "and we were the only show on Saturday morning. Really, I haven't got a clue why that show took off."

Although she appeared in some of the postseries TV movies, she said, she eventually called a halt to those movies and decided to concentrate on a career that did not involve "Saved by the Bell."

She starred opposite Pauly Shore in the forgettable feature film "Son-In-Law," and then auditioned for the Fox nighttime soap "Models, Inc."

Luckily for her, she didn't get the part. That show is already off the air. But the show's creator, Aaron Spelling, remembered the audition.

When "90210" brat Shannen Doherty was canned, Spelling called in Thiessen for a reading. It didn't hurt that she had a trouble-free reputation (there is no truth to the rumor than Spelling really wanted Mother Teresa to replace Doherty) and that she was living with "90210" cast member Brian Austin Green (they have been together 2 years and share a home in the Hollywood Hills).

Thiessen said she was not concerned about the pressure of replacing Doherty, because Spelling and the cast made her feel welcome. But she did admit to some anxiety over the show's ratings. No actor wants to join an established show the season it goes down in flames.

Fortunately for her, the show's ratings shot through the roof, and Thiessen's portrayal of the conniving campus carnivore was given at least partial credit for the ratings rejuvenation.

"I will admit that I felt relieved when the ratings went up," she said. "Nobody made it like it was my responsibility to boost ratings, but still, you don't want people to think you had anything to do with a show's decline."

Thiessen won't reveal any juicy plot tidbits from the coming season, but she did say that we will learn a great deal more about Valerie's past. Her character, by the way, is not a slut, she says, as much as she is a "troubled person." She says that with a smile.

The actress stars in a second TV movie this season the NBC drama "Scared By Love", but Sunday's movie offered her a chance to break out of whatever stereotypes that fans and critics have placed on her.

She plays a woman who is tentative about relationships because of a rape two years earlier. She meets the perfect man (Eric Close) and trusts him enough to marry him. Shortly after the wedding, she begins to suspect that she may be sharing a roof with a sexual monster.

Because no one believes her, she must take action herself to capture him and save other women from his attacks.

"I can't say that my career is well-thought-out in that I never sit around and make strategies for the future," she said. "I just kind of go with the flow, keeping my options open along the way.

"I did '90210' to erase that 'Saved by the Bell,' image and I'm doing this movie to work on that '90210' image. I love all the work because it's all different. The next movie will change my image even more, but I won't tell you how."