|April 18, 1976|
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Born in Smithtown, NY on April 16, 1976 and raised in Sayville, Melissa Joan Hart was the eldest of eight children - seven of whom followed her into the entertainment business - born to William and Paula Hart. Named after the Allman Brothers Band hit of the same name, she began her acting career in television commercials at the age of three, and would shoot more than 20 additional spots before she was five. Inspired by her her s, Shirley Temple and Audrey Hepburn, she began landing small roles in television movies and episodic series, including the Emmy-winning "Christmas Snow" (NBC) in 1986. Hart's mother served as her agent for these earlier turns, and remained in that position well into her daughter's adult years.
She broke into theater in the late 1980s as a member of the Circle Repertory Lab Company; as its youngest member, she appeared in "Beside Herself" opposite William Hurt and Lois Smith before making the transition to Broadway as an understudy in the National Actors Theatre's production of "The Crucible" (1991), starring Martin Sheen. The play coincided with her first big break on television as Clarissa Darling on "Clarissa Explains It All."
A bubbly sitcom about the ups and downs of a teenage girl's life, "Clarissa" benefitted greatly from Hart's finely tuned performance, which made the character's frequent asides to the audience seem more hip and charming than precocious. Clarissa's fresh attitude and the show's buoyant humor and drive made it a hit with younger viewers of both genders, and helped to bring the 'tween market to the attention of producers and advertisers. Hart won three Young Artists Awards before the show was brought to an end in 1994. A pilot for a proposed follow-up series, "Clarissa Now," which brought the character into her teenage years and a career as a newspaper journalist, was filmed in 1996 but was not picked up.
Hart briefly attended New York University, but was unable to complete her studies due to her next TV project - the title role in a television movie based on the venerable Archie Comics character, Sabrina the Teenage Witch. The film closely followed the comic's story arc - half-mortal Sabrina Spellman (called Sawyer in the TV movie) juggles her witchcraft studies with everyday life as a normal teenager - and spawned a wildly popular television series of the same name. Hart essayed Sabrina throughout the show's run, which saw her graduate from high school, move out of her eccentric aunts' home, and study journalism at college while still doing her best to get the hang of her supernatural powers. Hart eventually directed several episodes of the series, and with her mother, oversaw production beginning in 1999 through their shingle, Hartbreak Films, which generated several "Sabrina" TV movies and a cartoon version, "Sabrina the Animated Series" (ABC/UPN, 1999-2001), which featured younger sister Emily Hart as the voice of Sabrina and Hart herself as Aunt Hilda. The title also generated brisk business in tie-in books, CDs (featuring Hart's own singing voice) and DVDs.
Though television was booming for Hart, feature films proved more difficult for her to establish a beachhead. A bit part as a graduating student dead set on getting her yearbook signed in "Can't Hardly Wait" (1998) preceded her first feature lead in the teen comedy "Drive Me Crazy" (1990). The feature, which paired her with Adrian Grenier as two polar opposite teens who pretend to date in order to land the boy and girl of their dreams, was only a modest hit, despite a hit title track by Britney Spears. Hart's eye-raising layout for the U.S. men's magazine Maxim, for which she posed in lingerie, proved to be the biggest item of interest in that year.
As "Sabrina" wound down its lengthy network run, Hart remained exceptionally active in TV movies and guest appearances, as well as voice-over work for animation. There were attempts to break away from her teen-friendly image, like a turn on "Law and Order: SVU" (NBC, 1999- ) as a teacher accused of the statutory rape of one of her students, but for the most part, she remained faithful to her former "Sabrina" fans and their families. Several of these projects were exceptionally popular, such as "Holiday in Handcuffs" (ABC Family, 2007), which earned the network's highest ratings to date. Hart's personal life also served as the basis for a popular series; "Tying the Knot" (ABC Family, 2003) was a six-episode reality program that covered her wedding to musician Mark Wilkerson. Hart also wrote and shot several video diaries for Pull-Ups diapers' web site that documented the potty training of the couple's second son, Braydon. In 2009, she was announced as one of the celebrity contestants for the ninth season of "Dancing with the Stars" (ABC, 2005- ).