By Susan Schindehette Lee Wohlfert Ken Myers
March 20, 1989 12:00 PM

The Synopsis: As breakups go, theirs was a terrifying one. He, after a brief affair, had unceremoniously dumped her to return to his fiancée. She, enraged, began a retaliatory vendetta. Hate mail suddenly appeared in his mailbox. So did pictures of corpses and dismembered animals. Then, one night, he found a mutilated doll at his door—apparently a macabre reminder of his fiancée’s abortion. The doll’s neck had been cut and iodine splashed on its chest to simulate blood. White makeup was caked on the face to make it resemble a corpse.

A sequel to Fatal Attraction? Not quite. This drama isn’t being acted out on the screen. According to court papers, it’s taking place in the lives of two of Hollywood’s most talented and troubled performers, actor James Woods and actress Sean Young. The description of the mail above, and the mangled doll, all come from lawyers and legal documents. Woods, 41, has filed a $6 million harassment suit alleging “intentional infliction of emotional distress” against Young, 29, his co-star in last year’s The Boost. At a time when both their careers are on the rise—Woods in True Believer and Young in Cousins—both are playing roles in a real-life whodunit that has even Hollywood shocked.

While Young has denied the accusation to police and FBI investigators, and even denies having had an affair with the actor, Woods remains adamant that she is his anonymous persecutor. Wherever the truth may lie, the pair are now locked in a poisonous feud. While the movie grapevine buzzes with wild rumors about the entanglement, emotions are mounting on both sides, and lawyers are preparing for a mudslinging court showdown.

Woods’s suit alleges that starting in the late fall of 1987, coinciding with the filming of The Boost, Young harassed Woods and his fiancée, Sarah Owen, 25, trampled $500 worth of flowers in their Beverly Hills garden, made threatening phone calls and put the couple on antiabortion mailing lists. Court documents claim that the material Young allegedly caused to be mailed “includes but is not limited to written letters and also…photographs and graphic representations of violent acts, deceased persons, dead animals, gore, mutilation and other images specifically designed to cause Woods and Owen…great emotional distress.”

The butchered doll was particularly grisly and particularly sinister. The day after its appearance, says Woods’s attorney, Dale Kinsella, “a note was placed on Woods’s doorstep apologizing for the delivery, but indicating that the person who had done so had done it at Ms. Young’s instruction and that Young was upset because he had [not hung] it from one of the rafters per specific instruction.”

A skittish actress with a penchant for theatricality, Young has admitted sending Woods’s fiancée an article about the dangers of smoking (it causes wrinkles, said the story), but vehemently denies all of the other allegations. The motive behind the charges, Young has speculated, may be jealousy on the part of Owen, who is scheduled to marry Woods late next month. “I got along great with Jimmy when we were making The Boost,” Young has said; she claims she has been seeing actor Robert Lujan since 1985. “But when someone like Kevin Costner or Jimmy are doing romantic work, they get agitated, if you know what I mean, and they go home and their agitation is noticeable.”

Young was questioned by the FBI about the antiabortion letters, although the investigation is currently closed. The L.A. police, however, are still looking into the possibility of charging her with disturbing the peace. Attorneys for Woods and Young are now putting together a list of witnesses to be called for depositions. This Thursday (March 16), a judge is scheduled to decide when those depositions will be given.

“Somewhere—between Sean being the worst person on the planet earth, or a totally innocent victim,” says Cousins director Joel Schumacher, “is the truth.”

Filming of The Boost, the story of a coke-crazed real estate salesman (Woods) and his coke-dependent wife (Young), began in Los Angeles in September 1987. From the start, relations between the two stars were volatile. “When they first met, she told him, ‘Don’t be surprised if you’re in love with me by the end of this film,’ ” says screenwriter Wesley Strick, who visited the set of The Boost while writing True Believer. “He kidded, ‘You’ll be lucky if I don’t murder you.’ ”

According to one actor in The Boost, things heated up on the set during Young’s first love scene with Woods. Life, as is its wont, began imitating art. “You don’t have to be a sensitive actor to realize that right after that they started making love,” says the cast member. “I wouldn’t call it a spiritually guided relationship.”

According to Boost screenwriter Darryl Ponicsan, it was “common knowledge” that Young and Woods were having an affair. “One day everybody was being professional,” he recalls. “Then the next day this romance just bloomed. One night I saw them going offhand in hand, and I said to the director, Harold Becker, ‘What’s this?’ He said, ‘Don’t you know? They’re in love.’ ” Swept away by the mutual infatuation, neither star seemed to care about their other relationships. Sarah Owen, who made her anger over the fling quite clear, took to visiting the set on a more regular basis.

By all accounts, it was not long before things went sour. According to several on-set sources, Woods broke off the affair, seemingly at Owen’s behest. An attractive exercise rider for a horse trainer, Owen, 25, reportedly became incensed when Sean dropped by Woods’s West Los Angeles house one evening. Woods told a friend that Owen had kicked him in a particularly vulnerable spot, and offered proof in the form of visible swelling and bruises.

When the affair ended, Young is said to have become noticeably moody. “She got snippy if [Woods’s] fiancée came around the set,” says one observer. “Jim just kept trying to keep her away from him, and she reacted with confusion.”

Young, who in her 10-year film career has earned a reputation as a difficult talent, was also on shaky ground with a number of crew members. A week after she had a bitter argument with director Becker over the proper length of her hair, he received a parcel in the mail containing Young’s cut tresses. The actress also displayed a mystical bent. “She has this religious side, mixing Catholicism with all this occult, New-Agey stuff,” says one crew member. “She was always reading a Bible on the set, an elaborately bound copy…. Then one day a gaffer broke his arm or something, and she went over to him and touched him as if she had the gift of healing. It was an awkward moment because they couldn’t tell the star to bleep off, that this person was in pain. Maybe it was a joke, but I don’t think so. I think she really thought she could heal him.

“I think she tries hard to be outrageous, but I don’t think it’s entirely spontaneous. One thing she used to do that the cast and crew didn’t appreciate [was] flash us without having any underwear on. That happened to me twice.”

Mary Sean Young, born in Louisville, Ky., and raised in Cleveland, is the product of a somewhat unorthodox marriage between Lee Guthrie, a journalist and short-story writer, and Donald Young. “They live together when they want to,” Sean has said. She herself has usually been perceived as an outsider. Few of her classmates at the progressive Cleveland Heights High School have nice things to say about her. “She was not a very pleasant person,” says free-lance artist Alison Farwell, who once refused to cast Young in a school production of Godspell because her audition was boring. “She informed me that without her, the show would be nothing. She made it widely known that she was better than everyone else at the school in every field, especially beauty.” Farwell also recalls that Young told her once, “I don’t even know what I’m doing in this burg. You’re all so beneath me.”

Young admitted her time at Cleveland Heights was not happy. Because she “couldn’t bear” the school, she said, “I was smoking a lot of pot. I remember doing it because I wanted to be accepted, but it was a real diminishment of myself.”

A dance student, Young became a permanent part of Cleveland Heights folklore when she staged her own recital during her sophomore year. “She came out for one number, and she was wearing this sheer white Danskin with nothing on underneath,” says Linda Heuman, one of her best friends in junior high, but one whose admiration cooled as they grew older. “We just all thought, ‘God, how could she do this?’ I was pretty embarrassed by it.”

After graduating from the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan, Young switched to acting. She won roles in such movies as Blade Runner, Dune and, most notably, No Way Out, in which she played a memorably explicit love scene with Costner. Her reputation for being difficult began with Wall Street, in which she feuded with director Oliver Stone and co-star Charlie Sheen. Recently she lost roles in Batman and Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy. Young cites artistic differences, but the timing of her departures, combined with the harassment suit, can only raise troublesome questions.

Yet none of these setbacks, it seems, has had any effect on Young’s provocative manner. During a recent interview with a male reporter, she spent considerable time pulling the stuffing out of her bra, then tossing it into the air.

Some say it is dramatic flair—and nothing more—that drives Young. “Anybody who knows Sean knows this whole [Woods] thing is absurd,” says one friend of Young’s family. “Sean may be capable of making an intemperate phone call or sending an intemperate letter, but disfigured dolls? No way.”

“Socially she’s very bubbly,” says John Ohnemus, a stockbroker who dated Young in New York six years ago and still keeps in touch. “I’d be extremely surprised if any of this were true. It would be totally out of character. I just don’t believe it, and I say that emphatically.”

Actress Isabella Rossellini, who worked with Young on Cousins, supports her friend. “When my [5-year-old] daughter saw Sean for the first time, she thought she had met a princess…,” says Rossellini. “I am aware she is made a target of many negative gossips, in my opinion unjustified and absurd.”

It may be that Young is simply misunderstood, but those who believe Woods suspect that her bent for flamboyant behavior is a habitual indulgence that has somehow gotten out of control. “Sometimes what happens in this business,” she once said, “is that you get to the point where you’re forced to protect yourself. The only way to do it is to make people know that you can be rather dangerous too…. It’s a facade, practically. But the more you work in Hollywood the more you learn…to protect yourself by making people know that you can make them afraid of you.”

Among those who knew him at MIT, where he was a cerebral, scholarship student, there were few who could have guessed that James Woods would one day be one of the screen’s most explosive bad boys. Raised in Warwick, R.I., the son of an Army sergeant, Woods was one of 35 U.S. high school students awarded National Science Foundation grants for the study of mathematics. By his fourth year at MIT, Woods decided that acting had his number. He left school, hitched to New York and within two months had his first small role.

Ever since his mesmerizing performance as a psychotic cop killer in 1979’s The Onion Field, Woods has possessed the image of a driven, angry, over-the-edge wing nut. Some say the image is all too authentic. “He’s a control freak,” says a Young family friend. “He lost control when he fell for Sean in a big way and she wasn’t interested in him. Let’s put it this way: The man hasn’t made a career out of playing psychopaths for nothing.”

Married for three years to ex-Zoli model Kathryn Greko (they divorced in 1983), Woods also has a widespread reputation—some say he’s done most of the spreading—as a tireless womanizer. “I got into this business,” he once boasted, “just to meet women.” But friends say they began to notice a change in 1986, when Woods met Sarah Owen. At the time, Woods’s friend Percy Granger, a playwright, described the actor as “settling down now. For years he was evasive in personal relationships. He would commit more totally than most men would, then burn out. He could be very possessive and very demanding. But when he met Sarah he began to realize he had something special.”

There has been speculation that Woods filed the harassment suit to placate Owen or to strike back at Young, or both. But Woods’s friends, including Onion Field author Joseph Wambaugh, think not. “Actors are different from accountants,” says Wambaugh. “They’re expected to be childlike, emotional people whose lives are turbulent. But it would be a disastrous approach for Jimmy to do this just to cause trouble for Young—and no one has ever accused Jimmy Woods of being stupid. He’s too smart and shrewd and ambitious for that. Jimmy’s the victim here. [The lawsuit] may be the only way he knows to stop the harassment.”

If there is a wild card in this unruly drama, it is Owen, who, according to a friend of Young’s, made Woods-watching an art during the filming of The Boost. “One day Woods and Young were shooting on the beach, and Sarah was up on a cliff overlooking the beach,” says the friend. “She’d follow him, watching him, wherever he went. She’s the woman who’s really threatened here, not Sean. Sean has her career. All Sarah has is Jimmy.”

With his lawsuit pending and the police investigation continuing, Woods has taken the precaution of hiring a bodyguard. For her part, Young professes to be thoroughly baffled. She says she is not guilty of any wrongdoing and has never wished Woods harm. “If you’ve ever seen my boyfriend Robert Lujan,” she says, “you’d know it wasn’t me who came to work every day threatening to break up my relationship at home. I spent three months listening to [Woods’s] plethora of unending complaints about his life and about his girlfriend.”

The ugly mire of charges against Young will be left to the courts to sort out. In the meantime even her mother has to wonder what’s going through her daughter’s mind. “When Sean was little, I called her my Buddha baby because she was so calm,” says Lee Guthrie. “She was a very mellow kid. I think that the worst that can be said about Sean now is that she’s very naive, very innocent about the ways of the world.

“At least,” adds Guthrie, “she used to be.”

—Susan Schindehette, Lee Wohlfert in Los Angeles and Ken Myers in Cleveland