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Punky, We Hardly Knew Ye...

So the other day I'm logging off of America Online after searching the White House Web site for press briefings when the little AOL banner shows up to tell me what's hot and available online.

Usually, I ignore these bulletins, because, frankly, who cares about interviews with the cast of "Men Behaving Badly" or the producers of "Townies"? I have no interest in hearing anything about New Republic journalist Andrew Sullivan. And I don't care to see info about yet another newsgroup on cooking.

But this bulletin was different. It was an undeniable (double D) eye-catcher. For that night on AOL, a "very special kind of interview" took place. Members finally got the opportunity to resolve the most burning question of our age: Whatever happened to Penelope "Punky" Brewster?

For years I have been waiting to see Leonard Nimoy and "In Search Of..." tackle this mystery. And thanks to the magic of the online chat, I got to ask the question myself.

That's right, America's one-time cutie, actress Soleil Moon Frye, is making a comeback, and what better place to relaunch a career than on America's largest online service?

Ever since Ms. Moon Frye wore her red little cap askance, America couldn't get enough of the little NBC-ling. Remember those days? Little Punky was growing up without her mom and dad. Somehow that bitch goddess Fortune had struck another poor child. She was just another victim like Arnold and Willis Jackson, or the sinister Webster.

Despite life's bitter hand, trusting Punky went on to win our hearts with her smiles and rainbow suspenders. She was innocent. She was cute. She was just so darned... Punky!

And once again, the TV gods would turn the parentless scamp into a morality play -- an opportunity for America to learn little lessons about life. Her old, grisly guardian Mr. Warninot (George Gaynes), taught her to share with friends, saving her from a life of theft, prostitution, and the crack pipe.

As Ms. Moon Frye remarked during her conference: "I mean, if you think about it, it's pretty deep: An 8 year old girl whose father leaves her; mother abandons her in a parking lot; finds an empty apartment with her dog, and gets found by an old man who becomes her foster father. She finds a father who is as real as any blood father. I think that it was very timely and timeless, and could relate to almost anyone. I think that's one of the most important gifts we have in television -- the ability to heal through laughter."

I confess that at the time I hadn't seen the Nabokovian influences on the show. And who cares that Punky's guardian would go on to play a filthy wife-beating drunkard in real life? And who knew Punky would grow to have enormous breasts that required reduction surgery?

America was innocent back then.

It was the Eighties. Ronald Reagan was in charge. Making money was in. Men wore suspenders and wire rim glasses. Women had surrendered the ERA. Nancy was preaching Just Say No and Clinton's nose was working like a vacuum cleaner. Everybody watched Cosby.

Sure, the Japanese were kicking our chrome-plated Detroit-made ass and Congress was spending money like a bunch of drunken sailors. But we were kicking Russkie butts by day and watching NBC by night. We were riding high.

Somewhere, somehow this dream came to an end. Poor Punky vanished. Just as she was beginning to mature she was cut down in her prime. Like Lolita, the adolescent waif and her old man disappeared.

America had apparently had enough of Punky's spunk.

But Ms. Moon Frye was in for some more bad hands.

Exhibit A in the case of The People v. Punky Brewster: the Webster Holiday Special. Punky never got the chance to co-host a show with Bob Hope. She never got to dance with Brooke Shields or rub shoulders with George Burns.

What's happened to Webster? Emmanuel Lewis, the poor bastard, never made anything of these opportunities. The Bigwigs in Hollywood put him in charge and he blew it. Today, you won't see Webster on either the big or the little screen. He doesn't play a quickly-killed Navy SEALs during the beginning of major action flicks, nor does he have a minor role as an inner-city teacher in a quirky independent dramatic film.

Nope. It's just off to the dialysis machine for Mr. Lewis.

What if the tables had been turned? What if Punky had been given such a chance. Would things have turned out differently?

I think you'd have to agree life would be a lot different. Punky's career wouldn't have ended so mysteriously. She wouldn't be surfacing for strange interviews on AOL. Poor Punky. The lesson you never taught us was that life is a cruel bitch.

But in real life Ms. Frye has gone on to her some success. As she says, "I was a lot like Punky. In a lot of ways." And you just can't keep Punky down.

She says her greatest accomplishment was playing Electra in the eponymous Greek tragedy while in college. And now she is staging her comeback. She is going to play a part that Webster can't cheat her out of.

That's because tonight she's co-starring in the NBC Movie of the Week, "The Secret." As she puts it punkily, "I play a pregnant teenager with heavy issues."

But you should never put Punky into a box. At her AOL conference, we learned about Punky's other sides. For instance, there's Punky the Charitable: "The (charity) that (I) think is most important right now, that I am trying to find out more about, is Alzheimer's Disease. I think there needs to be more research done on this disease."

And Punky the Diplomat: What happened to the other kids, Punky? "They've all grown up beautifully," she punktificated. Yes, they have.

Which is more than we can say for Meeno Peluce.


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