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Performing is like breathing for vivacious Raven-Symone

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One of TV's most seasoned and skillful comic actresses can't get served in a bar.

Raven-Symone has been featured on "The Cosby Show" (1989-92), "Hangin' With Mr. Cooper" (1993-97), and "That's So Raven" (2000-present). More than a dozen years of solid sitcom experience. By TV standards, a long career. And Raven still hasn't turned 20.

She's also extremely active as a recording artist, a feature-film actor, and a voice talent for cartoons. Obviously, for a teenager to amass such an impressive resume, she has to start early. The performer, born Raven Symone Christina Pearman in Atlanta, was 3 when she began playing the cherubic Olivia on NBC's "Cosby Show."

Even then she was a natural. "Because of her age, the bar was set extremely low," recalls Warren Littlefield, an independent producer who at the time was president of NBC's entertainment division. "Bill (Cosby) said, `She's adorable. We'll let her run around on the set and take whatever the camera gets.'

"In the first week everyone took a deep breath and said, `Wow!', because she was doing things no one ever thought possible. She took to the world of acting like a duck to water. The next thing we knew, she was intricately scripted into the material."

Raven's own memories of the landmark series are vague and olfactory: the smells of soul food from the catering table and the ever-present acrid odor of Cosby's cigars.

"I was 3 years old," she explains. "There's only so much conversation you could have with adults."

One could reasonably claim to have watched her grow up on TV. Except that Raven (who seems to embrace, then drop, the hyphenate "-Symone" every other year) has always seemed like a trouper trapped in a child's body.

Playing her father on the Disney Channel's "That's So Raven," Rondell Sheridan has had a front-row seat to the actress' almost preternatural maturity.

"We were shooting an episode in the first season and in the middle of a scene Raven's shoe flew off. It didn't just fall off. There was some distance involved," Sheridan recalls. "Most people would stop or plow ahead as if it hadn't happened. Raven went over to retrieve it, making up lines about the shoe flying off. It got huge laughs. Then she went right back into the dialogue from the scene. She was ad-libbing in character. I remember thinking, `There's a 40-year-old woman in this 14-year-old body.' "

Raven's vivacious, go-for-broke style of comedy recalls Lucille Ball, TV's sultana of slapstick.

"Raven's gift is that's she's not just funny, but she's fearless," says Gary Marsh, the Disney Channel's entertainment president. "As a comedienne, she will try anything to get a laugh, even create laughs at her own expense."

Her approach has turned "That's So Raven" (nightly at 7:30 EDT) into the channel's top-rated series, averaging two million viewers per episode (slightly more in its 10:30 Saturday-morning slot on ABC). It's the most popular show on basic cable among girls ages 6 to 11 and tween girls, 9 to 14.

Raven, who plays a teen with mild psychic powers that always seem to land her in trouble, has been promoted to producer as the program tapes a fourth batch of episodes for showing next year. (It's the channel's first original series to extend beyond three seasons.)

She also profits from the deluge of "Raven" products available in stores - everything from a clothing line to video games, school supplies to cosmetics, bedding products to an MP3 player.


"Up until we licensed Lizzie McGuire' (starring Hilary Duff), there was no history (at the Disney Channel) of merchandising a live-action figure," Marsh says. "'Lizzie' was the first time anyone figured it out. WhenRaven' came along and did bigger numbers than Lizzie' did, our consumer-products division said,We know how to do this.'

"They went after lifestyle licensing - the clothing and the school supplies, the things fans associate with Raven. She's turned into a corporate franchise property."

Star/producer/franchise property. That's a considerable burden for a 19-year-old to shoulder.

"I don't think about it," Raven says. "It's kind of overwhelming. I've worked so hard for so long."

With no signs of slowing down. Raven recently filmed the TV movie "For One Night," which Lifetime will debut in February. It's based on the true story of a girl in 2002 Georgia who tried to end her high school's policy of segregated proms.

"It's my first venture into drama," Raven says. "I could do anything - a bubblegum project that might do great in the movie theaters but wouldn't have significance. I wanted to show people I'm not in the business to make money. I'm here to make a difference."

The actress missed her own prom because she was off reprising her role as Eddie Murphy's daughter in "Dr. Dolittle 2." Raven was enrolled in public school from kindergarten through 11th grade. She opted for home-schooling only in her senior year.

Because of her animated personality, she's in demand as a cartoon voice on both the little screen ("Kim Possible") and the big one (the coming "Yankee Irving"). "That's one of the easiest parts of the industry. I can go to work without having to worry about putting on makeup."

For Raven, reporting for duty in casual dress is what passes for downtime. After working on "That's So Raven" from Mondays to Fridays, she usually flies out early Saturday mornings for a concert date. Very early.

"Once I get there, I'm loving it. But the red-eye? I cringe," she says. "I hate getting up at 4 in the morning to get on a plane. But that's it. I have no problem with the back-and-forth, or the fans liking me or not liking me, or getting dressed up. After a while, it is what it is."

Of course, these days every teen actress with a fan club is handed a record contract and a touring schedule. Raven, who is serious about her music, bridles at being lumped in with the glossy lip-syncers.

"People put that on me and I say, Hey, I had two albums prior to any of those girls. I toured withN Sync.'" All that occurred before "That's So Raven" came along.

Though the role of Raven Baxter may seem tailor-made for her, it involved considerable alterations.

Marsh recalls, "We made the pilot. It was entitled Absolutely Psychic.' It starred another girl and Raven was the sidekick. We looked at the pilot and said,What have we done? Raven is the gold here.'

"She infused her character with this amazing leap-before-you-look comic sensibility. We wanted to keep that quality. So we redeveloped it for Raven, making her the lead and layering on the psychic piece."

As far as ambitions, Raven will reveal only her long-term plan. "I want to go to culinary school eventually and have my own restaurant."

However, she's rather cagey about her immediate showbiz aspirations. "A lot of things are being talked about but I don't like to express it yet."

The people who work with her are convinced that her talent, already on display for so long, will only mature.

"When my career is over and I'm sitting with my grandkids," Sheridan says, "I'll be bragging, `Hey, I got to work with Raven-Symone.'"

Of course, if this comic prodigy keeps up her blistering work pace, a lot of people will be able to make that claim.


(c) 2005, The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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