Even in the 1988 Roseanne pilot, you could see which of the black-sheep Conner kids was destined to break out from the pack. While Becky was glued to the phone, and D.J. was scoring pie for breakfast, Sara Gilbert’s Darlene was exhibiting the kind of deliciously insolent behavior — attacking her siblings, sassing her parents, barking in class — that would make her, if not Roseanne’s and Dan’s favorite child, then certainly cynical America’s.
And for Gilbert — who was 13 when the show began — Darlene was as close to teen life as she wanted to get. ”I don’t think I was suited for adolescence, so for me it was great to have a job and feel like I was in this adult world,” she says, adding that she’s felt no emotional repercussions from spending her formative years on camera — or around Roseanne. ”I feel pretty balanced and healthy,” says Gilbert, now 22. ”It was a little tumultuous the first season with everybody adjusting, and the [friction] between Roseanne and head writer [Matt Williams]. But that was years ago.”
Besides, no matter how chaotic things got, it was still the perfect TV outpost for the urbane Gilbert, who, unlike her older siblings Melissa and Jonathan, would have seemed out of place in some Little House on the Prairie. Plus, what Gilbert learned from Roseanne has left a far greater impression than the star’s notorious temperament. ”She carries a sense of wonder, like a child. And technically, in terms of acting and my timing, she’s been invaluable.”
Timing was an issue back in 1993, when Gilbert decided to duck out of the then-top 10 show to attend Yale. ”I went to become something more, or different, than I was,” says the art major. And though Darlene has continued to appear on Roseanne, it’s clear the actress has moved on. ”I don’t really watch the show,” says Gilbert, who had no TV at Yale. ”Sometimes I catch old reruns.”
Now, in a coincidence even more fantastic than, say, a dirt-poor, wisecracking hausfrau winning the lottery, two main phases of Gilbert’s life are coming to an end almost simultaneously. ”For the last year, I’ve been thinking, ‘Wow, I’m going to finish the show and a month later graduate from college,”’ says Gilbert, who, along with her sitcom husband, David (Johnny Galecki), and their new baby, Harris, is the focal point of the show’s May 20 finale.
Although a Darlene spin-off had been suggested, don’t expect it any time soon. ”Sara and I want to take a bit of a break,” says Galecki, who formed an off-camera bond with Gilbert. ”I don’t know what I would have done without her to laugh with, complain to, or get answers from.”
These days, Gilbert has more questions than answers. She’s currently putting the finishing touches on a short film she directed, and is preparing for a postgrad summer trek through Europe. But after that her future — which will include acting and directing — is enticingly murky. ”I left the [Roseanne] wrap party and had this sense of disappearing into the night. It was like, Wow, nobody wants to know what state I’m going to, or what city, or who I’m going to be with. It’s like [I’m] truly an autonomous being.” Roseanne would be proud.