By Karen S. Schneider
March 23, 1998 12:00 PM

AT FIRST, PRODUCER LEONARD GOLDBERG WAS more than a little worried—and then he got mad. After all, landing two-time Academy Award winner Jodie Foster for the lead in his upcoming thriller Double Jeopardy had been a coup. He hadn’t blinked at Foster’s requests to rewrite her part, and they’d met several times to go over her changes. She was, he says, thrilled with the final product, and they were all ready to go—until a few days before shooting was scheduled to begin in December. Goldberg says he was stunned, and very concerned, to get a note from Foster telling him she was dropping out of the movie “for medical reasons.” She offered no further explanation—and he didn’t ask. “Jodie is a very private person. [She made] it very clear she didn’t care to elaborate.” Goldberg had no choice but to swallow both his fears and his frustration and wish her the best. “Well,” he told her, “I hope it [turns out] positive.”

It has—and for the record, Goldberg has forgiven his ex-leading lady. Last week, Hollywood’s 35-year-old wunderkind—whose resume includes credits as director and producer, magna cum laude graduate of Yale University, not to mention her bare-bottomed breakthrough in a Coppertone commercial at age 3—announced what was about to become obvious anyway: Come September, the actress, who is single, is expecting a little wunderkind of her own. She says she doesn’t know (or care) if it’s a boy or girl. Within hours any hopes for a quiet pregnancy were swept aside as friends and fans—most as surprised as they were delighted—buzzed with the news.

“I had no idea this was on her mind,” says her friend Michael Apted, who directed her critically acclaimed performance in 1994’s Nell, which she also produced. “Whenever we talked it was about work. It never occurred to me to just say to her, ‘Are you going to do the womanly thing and have a child?’ ”

According to Foster’s best friend, Randy Stone, who produced her 1991 directorial debut, Little Man Tate, there were only two challenges left. “I guess she could be President if she wanted to,” he says. But since politics doesn’t seem a top priority, “it is the most natural thing in the world that she will be a mother. She’s a kind and generous human being. She’s a great listener. This kid is very lucky.”

Unless, of course, the kid happens to be a stickler for propriety. Foster has no comment on the paternity of her child, or, for that matter, the manner of conception. “I’m not going to discuss the father, the method or anything of that nature,” she told gossip columnist Liz Smith, who broke the story on March 5. Two days later, Foster sat in the audience as an honorary guest at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, listening to master of ceremonies James Woods laud the mother-to-be and quip that her unborn child’s father is “one of the L.A. Lakers.” Famous for keeping her private life private, Foster just laughed—and then, remarkably, she cried. “I know everybody’s been through pregnancy, but it’s still a big deal,” she told PEOPLE. “I’m just very happy.”

She’s also joining a growing club of celebrities who knowingly go into motherhood alone. The roster includes Diane Keaton, Rosie O’Donnell, ex-Charlie’s Angel Kate Jackson and former Knots Landing star Donna Mills. Unlike Foster, each of those women adopted their babies. But, whether by adoption or not, planned single parenthood sends up some red flags, and not just from Dan Quayle’s camp. “We worry about single parents,” says Dr. Richard Paulson, director of the fertility clinic at the University of Southern California. “We want to see a support system—[at least] one other individual who is going to help parent the child.”

Foster, who earned a reported $9.5 million for her last film, Contact, will have plenty of support—and not just from nannies, family members and friends. “Pretty much the entire planet has been giving me advice as of the last few days,” a laughing Foster told PEOPLE. But those who know her best believe she doesn’t really need it. “Jodie’s an innate mom,” says her close friend Jon Hutman, who was production designer on Little Man Tate. When his own daughter was born in France in 1994, Foster not only sent “the most exquisite flowers we’ve ever gotten in our lives,” she hopped on a plane to help change diapers. “She very intuitively understood the process of having a newborn,” he says. “She in many ways was my mother for a period of time. That’s just her nature—to take care of other people.”

Indeed, she has, by all accounts, been taking care of other people since she was in diapers herself. Born Alicia Christian Foster on Nov. 19, 1962, little Jodie, as she was soon called, barely knew her father, Lucius. An Air Force pilot turned real estate developer, he left her mother, Brandy—along with older siblings Cindy, Connie and Buddy—a few months before Jodie was born. Raised in L.A. on a shoestring by the strict but loving Brandy—as well as by her sisters and brother, who, she says, “had to take care of me a lot”—Jodie soon proved an extraordinary child. She was talking by 1 and then reading and helping bring home the bacon by 3: when Buddy, then 9 and a successful child actor best known for his role as Ken Berry’s son in Mayberry, R.F.D., was auditioning for Coppertone, she waddled on the set, stole the show—and launched a career.

Under the management of her mother, Foster appeared in more than 50 TV shows—including Gunsmoke, Bonanza and The Partridge Family—by age 12. Though Buddy’s career stalled when he hit his teens—he dropped out of school, left home and began a long battle with drug addiction—Jodie managed the transition from child to adult actor with finesse. While earning top grades at the prestigious Lycée FranÇais high school in L.A., she took on challenging film roles—including, at 12, her Oscar-nominated performance as the streetwise hooker Iris in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Foster relished the limelight and the intense bond she formed with her mother. “She credits much of her groundedness, of her confidence, to her mom,” says Foster’s longtime friend Universal Pictures production chief Marc Piatt. And yet at times the young actress chafed at the demands. As Piatt recalls Foster saying: “I know what it is like to be a child doing adult things…but really wanting to go out and play with the other kids.”

Foster was not entirely excluded from the rites of youth. At 15, while in Tahiti, she fell for a French soldier whose cologne—Vetiver—she wore well into adulthood. “I always wonder what happened to him,” she told Ladies Home Journal in 1995. Nor was he her only brush with the heartthrobs—and aches—of romance. “Of course I’ve had boyfriends who were disappointments,” she told the Chicago Tribune in 1988. (She has not been publicly linked with anyone in years.) In quest of other “normal” life adventures, Foster enrolled in Yale University in 1980. But the following year her hopes for normalcy were dashed when a young loner named John Hinckley Jr. obsessed with the star since seeing Taxi Driver, decided that shooting President Ronald Reagan was the way to impress her. As she later wrote in Esquire magazine, the press “swarmed through the campus like a cavalry invasion. I couldn’t protect myself from being trampled.”

The attempted assassination changed Foster’s life forever. “She walked on campus with bodyguards with guns,” recalls retired French literature professor Jacques Guicharnaud of the student he calls a true intellectual. Reluctant to hang out with the college crowd, she spent much of her time alone. Says Guicharnaud: “I got the feeling she was a little lonely.”

Mais non. As she told Vanity Fair in 1994, “I do everything alone…I like it.” She is, by nature, extremely selective about whom she lets into her personal circle. She is estranged from her father, now 75 and living in L.A., and also from Buddy, now 40, who lives in Minnesota, owns a construction company and is drug-free—but who earned her ire by writing an unauthorized biography called Foster Child in 1997. She remains, however, close to her mother, 69, and to her sisters—Connie, 42, is an interior designer in Long Beach, Calif., and Cindy, 43, is a teacher living in France—and their children. “She is so good with her nieces and nephews,” says her longtime associate Stuart Kleinman, who is producing the drama Waking the Dead for her Egg Pictures production company. Whether taking them to virtual reality game arcades near L.A., skiing in the Sierra mountains or doing her Beavis and Butthead imitation, she is, friends say, empathetic, nurturing, funny—in short, the perfect role model. Says Kleinman: “I would love her to be my mother!”

As the child of a single mother herself, Foster has had plenty of opportunity to think the issue through. “A single parent has to be everything to a child,” she said to Redbook in 1991. “And the needs a parent has, which might have been fulfilled by a partner, are fulfilled by you or your siblings.” And yet, as her friend Jon Hutman points out, “she can think all she wants, but everything she thinks is going to go out the window when she’s holding that little creature in her hands.” Last week, reflecting on the matter, she expressed optimism. “There was just a genuine respect between my mother and me,” she said, “and I hope I can bring that to my child.”

For now she is concentrating on more immediate demands: running her production company, cooking dinners for friends in her L.A. home, taking her 2½-year-old boxer, Lucy, for walks, and reading—not scripts for a change, but that pragmatic classic What to Expect When You’re Expecting. “That’s what you’re supposed to read, right?” she asks.

Oh, yes, then there’s the baby’s name. “Everybody’s getting together their lists to give to me,” she says. Call it a hunch: When the time comes, Foster will have the matter in hand. “She is a great director, a great producer, a great actress, a great student,” says her friend Paramount production president Michelle Manning. “Why would I question if she will be a great mother? She will be fabulous.”