By Jim Jerome
December 14, 1992 12:00 PM

CHRIS COLUMBUS LOVED THE IDEA OF filmmaking—until he moved to Hollywood. Then the young NYU film-school grad began feeling passionless and “desensitized.” The problem? That crazy film-biz hangup about numbers. “There’s an unreality to the place, a lack of connection with real people,” says Columbus, who arrived in Los Angeles at the age of 23 and split about two years later. Now 34, the native Ohioan, along with his wife and two children, happily splits his time between a Chicago suburb and an apartment on New York City’s Upper West Side. “You become stagnant in your L.A. office,” he says. “Go to a Chicago mall, and you see people who actually don’t make their livings doing this. You see what makes people laugh. I was never one to follow box office figures. Once you get fixated on them, you might as well take a knife to your wrists.”

Then again, Columbus doesn’t exactly have to follow the grosses—because the grosses are following him. A baby-faced wunderkind whose ’80s scripts (Gremlins, Goonies, Young Sherlock Holmes, all for onetime wunderkindred spirit Steven Spielberg) made those terrible turnstiles click for nearly $250 million, Columbus has really grossed himself out in the ’90s—as a director. Home Alone, which he directed from John Hughes’s script, is the most profitable comedy ever filmed, with $500 million in revenues worldwide. The sequel, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, needed but 10 days to pass the $75 million mark through Thanksgiving weekend.

“God knows where this one will end up,” Columbus says of HA2. “The hunger’s always been to make better films. I feel I’ve accomplished that. Kids at previews were saying, ‘Wow, this one’s awesomer than the first.’ ” Not all critics agree. The ’92 version is a clone more than a sequel, some say, while Susan Wloszczyna, in USA Today, called the film’s brutal slapstick “cruder and crueler.”

Can a cartoonish PG dim inspire tiny cereal killers numbed to violence? Nah, shrugs the director. “We throw out gags if we feel kids could duplicate them. I have to laugh when people question the so-called violence—the same people, myself included, who grew up watching cartoons where Bugs Bunny would blow off Daffy Duck’s head with a shotgun, his beak would fall off and he’d put it back on.”

A pompous, preening auteur he is not. In fact, Columbus refers to his stunt-and-gimmick-rich work as “the Road Runner school of filmmaking.” He is happiest puzzling out the details of a particularly challenging piece of film mayhem. For HA2, Columbus had 350 pigeons trained for 12 weeks to perch on Pigeon Lady Brenda Fricker, and he devised long tracking shots of 12-year-old star Macaulay Culkin racing through the Christmas bustle of O’Hare Airport—while keeping other passengers out of frame.

HA2, says veteran stunt coordinator Freddie Hice, “has some of the hardest action-adventure sequences I ever worked on. But Chris kept the set loose. It was like going to a party every day. Chris is like a big kid turned loose in a toy store.”

The big kid loved working with the little kid again. Culkin, says Columbus, “happens to be a perceptive, precocious kid beyond his years, so that makes it easier for me. His energy is very high at some points and very low at others. You just have to be on top of it. It’s like adjusting the knobs on a TV, turning up the brightness, turning down the contrast.”

Columbus is the only child of two Warren, Ohio, factory workers, who sort of named him after the explorer, knowing he’d be in for some teasing. Young Chris often found himself home alone and nourished a rich fantasy life by reading horror magazines, collecting some 1,000 comics, drawing Spider Man himself, building monster models and watching such British horror movies as The Curse of Frankenstein.

Gifted in art and English, Columbus attended coed Catholic schools, where he was a popular cutup. From ninth grade on, he experimented with the 8-mm camera his parents gave him, making short films starring local pals. “He always was a prankster with a vivid imagination,” says his mother, Irene. But the “guilt and complexities” of his “very Catholic” upbringing made him shy with girls, Columbus says. “Saturday nights I was mostly watching The Carol Burnett Show with my parents. I did have a couple of dates, but they were exercises in nervousness.”

Though Columbus was offered a full scholarship at nearby Kent State, a Jesuit teacher recommended film school. But once at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Columbus chafed at what he considered the school’s elitist hang-up on cinematic “angst,” since by then his own influences had evolved from Gothic horror to high jinks (the Marx Brothers, Mel Brooks). “I wanted to be this grand film artist, but it was not ‘artistically correct’ to make comic films.

“Chris was a natural,” recalls journalist Jesse Kornbluth, who taught him screenwriting at NYU. “He was fearless, but not a politician, not a guy looking to jettison the little people as he rose to the top. He saw himself as one of the little people. He’s got those great blue-collar virtues. All the heart in the Home Alone movies is Chris.”

Months after graduating in 1980, Columbus met aspiring dancer Monica Devereux at a Halloween party. “I was hoping to meet girls,” he says, “so I found a leather jacket, jeans, strapped on a guitar and went as Bruce Springsteen.” Columbus was “terrified before their first date—when they hit every bar along Manhattan’s Bleecker Street, ate Chinese and listened to music at the Bitter End. “We stayed out until 4 A. M. and did a lot of laughing. That’s the key—great laughs.” They were married three years later.

Columbus was still living in a rodent-ridden New York City loft apartment when he wrote a wildly imaginative screenplay for a “straightforward honor film.” His agent sent it to dozens of Hollywood honchos. Only one responded, in late 1981—but his name was Spielberg. Eight drafts and three years later, the film was Spielbergized as the horror-comedy Gremlins, featuring the lovable—and marketable—Gizmo. “It was an epiphany for me,” says Columbus, “the rediscovery that comedy is what I do best.”

Gremlins’ success led to a head-spinning apprenticeship at Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment: “He was the godfather. I was made privy to his filmmaking secrets. If I had a problem, I could run down with three pages of script, and he and I would make changes. You can’t beat that.”

But Spielberg cut Columbus loose after he tried two drafts of the third Indiana Jones film. “It was too confining to write other peoples’ characters and stories,” says Columbus. “That experience made me realize I didn’t want to do rewrites.”

After directing the lackluster Adventures in Babysitting and his sentimental musical Heartbreak Hotel, which bombed, Columbus wrote Only the Lonely, a romantic comedy. But action-adventure was in, and romantic comedies were out, so Columbus shelved the project.

That’s when teen-comedy tycoon and Chicago neighbor John Hughes (The Breakfast Club, 16 Candles) sent Columbus a script about a 10-year-old kid whose family leaves him home alone at Christmas. “It was such an incredibly funny script,” he says. “I was dying to direct it.”

Producer Hughes gave him the gig and also agreed to produce Only the Lonely, in which John Candy played Chris’s shy, guilt-stricken homebody alter ego. Columbus was disappointed when Lonely earned only $20 million. “It’s the best picture I’ve ever made,” he says. “Thank God there’s cable and video, and it can take on a life of its own.”

Chris and Monica, a choreographer who worked on Far and Away, split a cozy life of their own between their three-bedroom Oak Park, Ill., home, where they spend most of their time, and their 2,500-square-foot Manhattan apartment, with its huge wraparound terrace. “I like to shoot in Chicago,” says Chris. “Nobody knows who the hell I am. And New York’s the greatest. Nobody cares about anything you do.”

If comedy has made him rich, Columbus hardly flaunts it. His lone indulgence, he says, is rock CDs (Springsteen, Elvis Costello, U2, the Stones), which he grooves to while writing. He says he has no hobbies. drives a ’63 Rambler convertible (the family Range Rover is for hauling Eleanor, almost 4, and Brendan, 7 months), prefers the neighborhood multiplex to fancy premieres and boasts of surviving two bouts of “nasty food poisoning” at his favorite West Side Szechuan joint.

“I called the Board of Health, but they didn’t close it down,” he says. “It’s insane, but I figured it’s safe to go back. I have a simple lifestyle. I’m not a golfer, I don’t play the horses, don’t do indoor rock climbing. I try to read a novel a week, I write, take walks in Riverside or Central Park. My friends are still the same gang from NYU days. I really don’t do anything else but spend time with Monica and the children. Family has always come first. When everything else is going well in your home life, it’s easier to create.

Columbus says the main payoff has been bankability and freedom. His goal is to make a film a year and build a varied body of work like his prolific heroes, Frank Capra, David Lean, Howard Hawkes and John Ford. He starts Mrs. Doubtfire, with Robin Williams as a divorced dad, in March.

But even when there are dozens of films to his credit, don’t look for Columbus to start acting like a mogul. “I don’t indulge in private jets and art collections,” he says. “I mean, that stuff just seems goofy to me.”