Some of the socialites, models and moguls who crowded into the Union Square apartment of New York nightclub owner Chris Barish for his annual Halloween party were confused. Who was the genial Texan, with the mop of blond hair and crooked nose, working his way through a mob of outrageously garbed partygoers? “At first, we thought it was someone dressed as Owen Wilson,” recalls a guest at the lavish Oct. 31 bash. “Everyone else was in costume. So he stood out.” But it was indeed Wilson–enjoying a night out with a male friend and, even on a night for disguises, in no need of a mask. “I’ve never seem him look better–or happier,” says the fellow guest. “He was glowing.”
Eleven weeks ago Wilson’s friends were simply praying for him to pull through. Rushed to L.A.’s Cedars-Sinai Medical Center on Aug. 26 after slashing his wrists, the famously easygoing actor revealed himself to be a man overwhelmed by his demons (friends dismiss speculation that his breakup with Kate Hudson last May was a factor). “It would be irresponsible to say it was any single thing” that brought Wilson to a low point, said a friend at the time. “People are complicated.” After the incident Wilson’s close-knit family (including brothers Luke, 36, and Andrew, 43) and friends rallied around him. In the weeks that followed, the star stayed far from the limelight, spending his days walking his Australian cattle dog Garcia and swimming in the Pacific near the sprawling home he recently built in Malibu. But in recent weeks, Wilson, who turns 39 on Nov. 18, has cautiously reemerged, hitting parties on both coasts and hanging out with old pals, including ex-girlfriend Carolina Cerisola, a dancer at Ivan Kane’s Forty Deuce club in Hollywood. He’s also been making new ones, keeping company with an array of beautiful young women, among them Jessica Simpson, who joined him for drinks at the Rose Bar of New York City’s Gramercy Park Hotel on Nov. 3, where they were seen whispering flirtatiously. “Owen was in great spirits, really chilled,” says an observer. “He seemed like he was in a great space.”
Still, Wilson’s return to the party circuit is troubling to some who know him, given his past struggles with drugs and depression. Says one longtime friend: “If he doesn’t acknowledge and address the underlying issues [that led to the suicide attempt], the probability of some sort of recurrence is pretty high.” Though Wilson has entered rehab at both Promises and Hazelden in the last decade, a source close to Andrew and Luke says the brothers “have this attitude like this was really blown out of proportion by the media and they just don’t like to talk about it.”
How is Wilson confronting the problems that could have cost him his life? He has been sticking close to a very protective group of friends since he was hospitalized, as well as his brothers and his parents, Laura, 68, a photographer, and Robert, 66, a retired PBS station manager, who rushed to his side after the incident. “He does have a powerful support system,” says a source.
Since leaving the hospital, Wilson has had another constant presence in his life–the paparazzi. It’s a degree of attention the star does not enjoy. On Nov. 5, outside the New York club Butter, Wilson and a female companion were taunted by photographers shouting, “Why are you running? Are you scared?” as they chased Wilson down the street. The scene “was gut-wrenching,” says an observer. Still, it hasn’t dissuaded Wilson from venturing out to hot spots in Manhattan (during his recent visit, the star swung by nightspots Goldbar and Bungalow 8 and dined at the exclusive Waverly Inn), Los Angeles (at a pal’s Oct. 26 Halloween bash, he flirted with a brunette in a sailor suit) and Austin, where he hit the bar at the Four Seasons Hotel and hung out with pals at Willie Nelson’s ranch.
Wherever he goes, Wilson’s brothers are rarely far away. Growing up in an affluent Dallas neighborhood, the Wilson brothers “all looked out for each other,” says actor Russ Vandeveerdonk, who played sports with them as a kid. He recalls Owen as “a little bit shy always following in his brothers’ footsteps.” That shy kid also got into some trouble: He was bounced from St. Mark’s prep school for cheating on a geometry exam in tenth grade, sent to a military institute and he later dropped out of the University of Texas.
The underachieving streak ended with a film career that includes hits like ’05’s Wedding Crashers. Wilson’s quick wit endeared him to costars such as Vince Vaughn. (“Owen’s the best,” he told PEOPLE at the Nov. 3 Fred Claus premiere in L.A. “He’ll be fine.”) David Dobkin, who directed Wilson in Shanghai Knights and Crashers, says Owen is “doing great” and reveals they have been “discussing the possibility” of a Crashers sequel. Despite dropping out of a cameo role in buddy Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder (he was replaced by Matthew McConaughey), Wilson’s rep confirms that two upcoming films–including a comedy with Jennifer Aniston–are “options” at this point, but won’t comment further on his career prospects. “He’s not exactly thinking about his next project right now,” says a family insider. “But there’s been discussion of stuff he’ll do down the road. He’ll be around.”
That’s exactly what friends want to hear. And if his Halloween costume is any indication, perhaps the healing truly has begun. “He came as Owen Wilson,” says a fellow guest. “He looked really, really good. He looked at peace.” By Alexis Chiu. K.C. Baker, Ryan Pienciak, Jeffrey Slonim and Rachel Teitelbaum in New York City, Jed Dreben and Jennifer Garcia in Los Angeles and Darla Atlas in Dallas