This kid can hold his own with TV mobsters, millionaires, even The Rock!
In a season otherwise distinguished by HBO's "The Sopranos," ABC's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire," and pro wrestling everywhere you look, Frankie Muniz is in the thick of it as "Malcolm in the Middle."
With the premiere of this loopy, hilarious Fox series a month ago, viewers flocked and critics swooned. Suddenly, a woebegone network had a new hit! Suddenly, the moribund genre of half-hour comedy was brought back to life!
"'Malcolm' to the Rescue," a Newsweek headline trumpeted. "May Rewrite Rules," bannered Variety. "May Spawn Host of Imitators," predicted The New York Times.
And it couldn't have happened without Frankie. In fact, it's hard to believe he even had to try out for the role of Malcolm, a grade-school wise guy who discovers, much to his dismay, that he's a genius.
"I finally got to read the script right before the audition," Frankie recalls. "It was so funny -- me and my mom were sitting in the lobby, cracking up."
As a big chunk of TV households already know, "Malcolm in the Middle" (airing Sunday at 8:30 p.m. on KCPQ/13) pulls humor from the crucible of childhood where, for Malcolm, the heat is on.
Besides the newly inflicted stigma of braininess (a test pegged his IQ at 165), Malcolm has other problems. Considering his non-genius parents and three non-genius brothers, you don't have to be a genius to see that he feels a little out of place. Then factor in the family's wiggy, catch-as-catch-can domestic style.
"But his family isn't dysfunctional," Frankie insists. "It's just . . . different. There are real families like that."
He's right. One reason "Malcolm" was an instant smash is that it's as truthful as it is screwball. As Frankie says, "Not every family is like 'The Walkens,' or whatever their name was."
Now 14, he looks four or five years younger, perfect for his character's age. But if he's smallish in stature, he has a larger than life personality. Legs dangling from an office chair at his publicist's office, he is in Manhattan during a return home to Wood-Ridge, N.J., from Los Angeles, where shooting has wrapped on the first batch of "Malcolms."
"It's been awesome," Frankie says, flashing his snaggletoothed grin. "Working every day for three months -- I wanted to keep going!"
Indeed, even on holiday, he has just come from a nearby recording studio, where he "looped" several lines of dialogue to be dubbed into an episode's finished soundtrack. Asked what he had to say, Frankie delivers the disembodied lines with all of Malcolm's gusto: "Oh, no! My teacher!"
"If you add the individual digits, you get 74 and 66."
And: "What do YOU care?"
Now being Frankie again, he thinks back to a year ago, when he filmed the "Malcolm" pilot. Right away he liked his character. And he liked his castmates/"family": little brother Dewey (Erik Per Sullivan); big brother Reese (Justin Berfield); biggest brother Francis (Christopher Kennedy Masterson); plus Dad (Bryan Cranston) and Mom (Jane Kaczmarek).
The only hitch was shooting his first scene. He was supposed to ask the audience, "Wanna know what the best thing about childhood is? At some point, it stops."
Frankie laughs. "I don't know if it was something in the air, because my eyes kept tearing. I was so mad -- it took forever."
After that, "Malcolm" was a breeze. But he confesses that he didn't expect it would be picked up as a series. "When I got the news, I was jumping all over the place."
Frankie readily draws parallels between himself and Malcolm. For instance, the way Malcolm roughhouses with his brothers -- "like me and my sister," 15-year-old Cristina, he says slyly.
But there are big differences. "He's a kid who's not normal and wants to be normal. I think I AM normal.
"Of course, some people think I'm different. But I do all the things YOU do. I just get to do something else that's special."
Frankie began his acting career as another plucky lad, Tiny Tim, in a regional theater production of "A Christmas Carol" in Raleigh, N.C., where his family then lived. He was 8. He had aced his first audition.
Since then, he has been in TV films including "What the Deaf Man Heard," and had guest shots on "Spin City" and "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch." He's starring as a shy 9 year old in the feature "My Dog Skip."
Acting, says Frankie, "is just so fun. You get to do all sorts of things a 'normal' kid (he hangs air quotes around normal) wouldn't get to do."
At least not with adult encouragement as when, filming a future episode, he got to make a huge mess with a foam-spewing floor cleaner.
A great scene for an actor? Frankie cracks up. "One of the best!"