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`Caroline in the city' still a smalltown girl

Lea Thompson remembers Rochester fondly

Actress Lea Thompson, who got her first taste of theater in Rochester, wears her stardom lightly.

NBC-TV's ``Caroline in the City'' loves playing a smalltown girl pursuing a cartoon career in L.A.

``I'm a perky Minnesota girl, there now,'' she says, mimicking take-offs on folk from ``up north.''

Thompson also has made nearly 20 feature films with such leading men as Tom Cruise and Michael J. Fox and appears regularly on major talk shows. She was one of the presenters on ``The People's Choice'' awards show Sunday.

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``I like to do this one because I won two years ago and because (regular) people do the voting,'' she said in a phone interview from California. ``It's a cool award.''

But she also was thrilled to sing the National Anthem at the World Series last fall.

``That was the scariest thing in the world,'' she said of performing in front of a huge crowd in such a big space. ``I was proud to be asked. I'm as patriotic as the next girl.''

Thompson doesn't even mind her reputation as one of fashion's lesser lights. She was named to the worst-dressed list in 1996.

``I just dress like I feel,'' she said. On this particular day she felt like rock 'n roll. She said she was wearing West Virginia turnpike pants with a silver-goldish leather coat.

As a child, Thompson lived with her parents and four brothers and sisters in a two-bedroom house near Edison School.

And although she left when she was 6, ``I remember a lot about Rochester. I remember my brothers fishing golf balls out of the Zumbro River by the country club, going swimming at Soldiers Field, getting stung by bees and watching baseball games.''

She also had fun watching her mom and dad, Clifford and Barbara Barry Thompson, in plays at Rochester Civic Theatre.

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``Mom was pregnant with me when she played the sexpot in `The Man Who Came to Dinner.' She had to keep letting her dress out.''

Lea Thompson carried on that tradition. ``Both of my kids were in my stomach when I was in plays and movies.''

The 37-year-old is married to film director Howard Deutsch (``Grumpier Old Men''). Their children are Madeline and Zoey.

In her own feature film career Thompson is known for the ``Back to the Future'' series, ``All the Right Moves,'' ``Jaws 3D,'' ``Beverly Hillbillies'' and ``Howard the Duck.''

Her newest independent film release, ``The Unknown Cyclist,'' is about a group of friends biking to raise money for AIDS victims.

Thompson's television films also have delved into serious issues. She played a social worker onto the scam of ``Stolen Babies,'' with Mary Tyler Moore, and was cast with Farrah Fawcett in ``The Substitute Wife.''

There is one career path Thompson didn't follow. As a young girl she wanted to be a dancer and appeared with her brother Andy at the Minnesota Dance Theatre in the Twin Cities.

Mikhail Baryshnikov, the visiting artist, reportedly advised her she was too ``stocky'' to follow that career.

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``Ballet was wonderful,'' she said. ``But I'm better suited being an actress. It's been a real blessing, and I earn a good living. It lets me be really expressive creatively and I'm very grateful.''

Talk show hosts like Jay Leno usually ask her about her commercials (Chevrolet, Burger King) and ``Caroline,'' the sitcom which is doing well in the 8 p.m. slot Monday nights on NBC.

Thompson plays a Peshtigo, Wis., native -- there really is such a town -- with feelings for a slightly nerdy guy she let slip into another marriage. She said things are ``heating up'' but doesn't know how they'll turn out.

Along with the appearance at People's Choice she will play host to Celebrity Marriages In Style at 9 p.m. Sunday on Lifetime television (Cable Channel 42)describing weddings of Kelsey Grammer, Travis Tritt and Marie Matalin.

``It's like a fantasy. Like what you'd do if you had all the money in the world.''

Thompson's own lifestyle is pretty good these days. She is renovating a home in the San Fernando Valley and shares the family retreat in Montana with her mother, an artist who goes by the name of Babah Hanson. Clifford Thompson died in 1995.

The actress makes occasional trips back to Minnesota. Her sister Colleen Goodrich, who is on her staff, and Sheila Sibley Walsh of Rochester were best friends. Thompson recently got Walsh into a taping of ``Caroline'' and Walsh was an extra in the sitcom that week. They reminisced about their childhood in Rochester.

``Those years were really powerful for me,'' Thompson said. ``It was a great, nurturing environment. It's what made me want to become an actress.''@et

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