The ex-Brat Packer stars in the new sitcom as a blue-collar waitress out on the town

By David Browne
Updated September 20, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

The scene is both eerily familiar and strikingly different. On a Hollywood soundstage made to resemble a girl’s suburban bedroom, the star is sitting straight-backed on a bed. Her hair is once again an orange-peel shade of red. As cameramen set up shots, the actress and her costar run through their segment, which centers on an eternal debate: Is that cute guy hovering around you your friend — or your boyfriend?

”He is kinda sexy, even in those stupid clothes his mom buys him,” recites the actress, pausing for a laugh that, with any luck, an audience will supply later.

The scene could have been lifted from Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, or Pretty in Pink, the mid-’80s, John Hughes-directed movies that transformed Molly Ringwald into both a movie star and a role model for high school girls everywhere. It didn’t matter that she dyed her hair (from its natural dark brown) and seemed about as average as Claire Danes later would on My So-Called Life. With their potent combination of parent bashing and MTV-geared soundtracks, the movies plastered a new coat of paint on timeless adolescent angst.

The difference on this summer afternoon is that it is 1996, and the setting is not a feature film but a sitcom — Townies, an ABC series in which Ringwald stars as Carrie, a New England diner waitress. After a few more run-throughs Ringwald, who at 5’8 1/2” seems taller than she appears on screen, retreats to her sparsely decorated dressing room. She lights up a cigarette and puts her feet up. Her face is narrower than it was, but there remains the air of the cultured high schooler who always made the honor roll and had a really sharp car.

A sitcom job isn’t the only aspect of Ringwald’s world that has changed. She recently returned to Los Angeles after a four-year hiatus in Paris, and she talks about her first encounter with her new neighbor Shannen Doherty. ”[My roommates and I] said, ‘Hi, we’re your neighbors!”’ Ringwald recalls. ”She said to me: ‘I know who you are. You don’t live here — you rent!”’ Ringwald’s eyes spring open, as if still startled by the incident. Welcome — or welcome back — to L.A.

The house that Ringwald has just moved into is an airy, Spanish-style Hollywood Hills home. Empty boxes litter the driveway; a massive stereo has yet to be hooked up. Curling up on a couch near her pool, Ringwald talks about the 26-year-old she plays. ”There are lots of people in my generation — those characters I played in Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles — that have grown up and gotten to that point of ‘What do I do with my life?”’

Ringwald herself, who is 28, could qualify as one of them. After her initial fame, her career seemed to end as soon as the ’80s did. Seeking to escape stereotyping, she played a white-trash nymphet (1988’s Fresh Horses) and appeared in Jean-Luc Godard’s avant-garde King Lear, among other duds. Whether confused or bored, her audience drifted away, and her box office plunged — especially once she stopped working with Hughes: 1985’s The Breakfast Club grossed $46 million, but five years later, Strike It Rich took in approximately one percent of that — $553,000. A production deal with Columbia amounted to zip.