September 07, 1987 12:00 PM

Life, alas, all too often imitates soap opera—especially in Hollywood. Exhibit A: The Harmon-Nelson custody battle. It has everything America demands in a scandal: fame, money, booze, drugs, shrinks, football heroes, decorative females, emotional massacres and a ring-a-ding courtroom circus involving two apple-pie American families who owe their celebrity to the tube. And something more, something that clears away the glitz and demands serious attention—a child’s cry for help.

The cast of characters includes: actor Mark (Moonlighting, Summer School) Harmon, 35, TV and movie glamour boy; actress Pam (My Sister Sam) Dawber, 37, Harmon’s bride of five months; Tom Harmon, 67, Mark’s father, a gridiron legend who won the 1940 Heisman Trophy; Elyse Knox Harmon, 69, Mark’s mother, a former actress; former model Kelly Harmon Miller, 37, Mark’s sister; and artist Kristin Harmon Nelson, 42, sister of Mark and Kelly, ex-wife of rock star Ricky Nelson. Then there are Harriet Nelson, 73, actress mother of Ricky, widow of Ozzie; actress Tracy (Down & Out in Beverly Hills) Nelson, 23, daughter of Kristin and Ricky; musicians Matthew and Gunnar Nelson, 19, twin sons of Kristin and Ricky; and Sam Nelson, 13, the bewildered little boy who has served as the living rope in a ferocious tug-of-war among all of the above.

The action turns on the character of Kris. Beautiful, sensual, headstrong, she grew up in a rigorous Roman Catholic family that expected her, she says, to be “a perfect person—and I guess I tried to be that.” She did well in school and developed a considerable talent for painting. She also rebelled. “I had a hard time with my mom. I never cared much about being on the covers of magazines. She did. And cared about her children being there too. More than once, I was told to pinch my nose so the nostrils wouldn’t flare. Her values are different.” Even in her teens, Kris was “a kind of pariah” in her family, she says, because she refused to “put up a facade.” But she loved to romp with her little brother Mark. “I could throw him in the lake—he was scared of the fish,” she recalls. “We were always close.”

When Kris was 12, she met Ricky Nelson and fell in love with his family. “Both Ozzie and Harriet [stars of the classic ’50s TV series] were extraordinary. They were the first adults to listen to me as a bona fide human being.” Later, she fell in love with Ricky. She married him when she was 18. “We were hippie rock ‘n’ rollers,” she remembers. “We did what everyone else was doing all those years.” Namely, drugs.

“At first we were in it together. I tried to be one of the guys, to fix the marriage by going on the road and being involved in road stuff that is really not good for anyone. After a while we were totally messed up, both of us. I got into therapy and so did he for a while but then he started not showing up. I tried telling my family, there’s a drug problem here and we’ve all got to help. But they totally denied there was anything wrong.” (Only two years ago, Tom Harmon told PEOPLE : “I raised my kids hard and there isn’t a druggie in the bunch.”)

“I wish I had been able to delve deeper then,” Kris says sadly, “to bring Rick along with me. I knew that if I didn’t leave, we would both die. I knew that I would just somehow try to make it for my kids. I couldn’t help Rick anymore.”

Such talk infuriates other members of the family. Said one: “This woman’s treatment of Rick was sickening. She was filled with venom. She tried to control Rick’s career, and finally he said, ‘Kris, I’m going to do it my own way.’ So she turned on him, kicked him out of the house and publicly accused him of all sorts of crap.”

Kris acknowledges that the divorce was “messy” but claims she never kicked Rick out. “I was the one who left,” she says. She also complains that her family “never found fault with Ricky—they always blamed me for everything. As Roman Catholics, they’ve never forgiven me for getting the divorce. And they’ve never forgiven me for not being perfect.”

During this period, as she frankly admits, she was far from perfect. She continued to use drugs and to drink “quite heavily.” Too drunk to paint for a living and unable to attach Rick’s bank accounts, she took a job as an assistant casting director at a salary of $200 a week. Somehow, she says, she and her children scraped by on that. “During this time my parents never offered to help me monetarily. Neither did my brother.” Later, her memory jogged by relatives, she admits that in fact her parents did buy a charming two-bedroom house on a jacaranda-lined street in Brentwood (just a few lanes up from the tiny villa where Marilyn Monroe died) and let it to her for a nominal rent. When she was making more money, they allowed her to buy it for $300,000 less than its market value at the time. What’s more, for two years before Kris’s divorce, Kelly says, she took care of Sam every afternoon and all day Saturday; and for the next 18 months Sam lived with Kris’s parents.

All during this period, Kris acknowledges, Sam rarely saw his father. “Sam was very little, and Rick was in a terrible condition at the time.” So was Kris. “I looked awful. I wanted to go to the Betty Ford clinic [for treatment], but I had the feeling that if I checked myself into a hospital my parents would try to take my child. So I didn’t.” But in 1983, a therapist told her to “get yourself to AA.” She did. “And since then,” she says, “I have been totally sober and off hard drugs”—a statement some members of the Harmon family emphatically dispute.

Kris says she had to fight to get Sam back. “My parents made it real difficult. For one thing, Sam had a wonderful life at their house. He had golf lessons at the country club and an amazing assortment of toys. And then I’d find my mother in the driveway in the middle of the night, handing him toys or blankets, saying ‘You forgot this’ or ‘You need this.’ And I’d say, ‘What are you doing!’ My mother never placed any value on the fact that I work. According to her, women should be moms. Forget that I needed the money.”

Two years later, Rick died—along with his fiancée and five members of his road company—in the crash of a twin-engine DC-3. Kris insists that, despite the clawing turmoil of the divorce, she was grief-stricken. “We were karmically connected,” she explains. One member of the family charges that her sorrow was feigned, a gesture inspired by her wish for control of the insurance Rick had left to his children. “Not true,” says Kris. “I wanted the money for the kids.”

Kris insists that, once Sam readjusted, he was happy in his new home. “Sam and I were companions,” she says, “and very close.” Sam apparently has a different impression. As Kelly tells the story, one night last May, when Kris was out of earshot, Sam telephoned his Uncle Mark. “Help me!” he said, between sobs. “Get me out of here. I can’t take it anymore. My mother is like a hill. First she’s up, then she’s down.” Sam said her mood swings were “scary,” that she yelled at him about little things that didn’t really matter. Mark wondered if his sister was having a drug episode, but he calmed the boy down and said he’d see what he could do. But what could he do without firmer evidence?

A few days later he got it. He went shopping with Pam on Santa Monica’s chic Montana Avenue, and they ran into Kris. “She was mumbling and stumbling and bumping into things,” Pam said. “She was obviously blasted. Stoned out of her mind.” Back home, Mark telephoned Kelly, who had looked into Los Angeles drug programs at his request. She recommended New Beginnings, a prestigious facility at L.A.’s Century City Hospital. Mark made arrangements, then paid a call on Kris and urged her to sign herself in. Startled, she denied (and still does) that she was on hard drugs. “What Mark and Pam saw,” she says, “was an extremely exhausted individual. I’d had a relationship go bad—a good, long-term relationship—and I hadn’t slept for four nights. Also, I’d been going to a diet clinic because I was up to 142 lbs. and I wanted to be thin for Tracy’s wedding. [On July 25, Tracy married actor Billy Moses, formerly of Falcon Crest, on Catalina Island.] They give you liquid stuff, powdered stuff and some pills—I still don’t know what it all was because it was not labeled. I honestly didn’t know it was making me crazy. My kids noticed it. So did my friends. But to my way of thinking, I wasn’t abusing drugs. I was very innocent.”

Mark didn’t believe her story, but he went along with it, telling Kris she was “emotionally gone” and needed “to come in for a rest.” She agreed, on condition that Sam stay with him and Pam. “Nobody but my brother could have talked me into this,” Kris said later, “because I trusted him. A voice inside me said, ‘For once in your life, let somebody help you.’ ”

At the last minute, “upset” by an impression that Pam Dawber would be footing the bill (she overheard a nurse saying that Dawber was coming over with an $8,000 check), she went home. The next day, however, having arranged to pay the fees with her own insurance, Kris signed herself into New Beginnings.

Kris says the month was a huge success; her family says it was a disaster. Treatment involved lectures, exercise, meditation, relapse-prevention techniques and family-group therapy. At the first group session, eight members of Kris’s family showed up—among them her sister Kelly, who had flown in from New York to show support. To everyone’s dismay, Kris continued to deny that she had been taking hard drugs. And continued to deny it through session after session. Grim-faced, Mark took notes of everything that happened. When a therapist asked him to give his sister a hug, Mark jumped up irritably and “bolted,” Kris reports, from the premises. “My family wouldn’t acknowledge I had been on prescription drugs,” says Kris. “They didn’t understand the process. So finally I asked them not to come anymore.” Only Harriet Nelson, says Kris, trusted and believed in her. She sent flowers with a card that said, “I love you.”

The Harmons faced an awful dilemma: what to do about Sam, who was alarmingly fragile and withdrawn when he arrived at Mark’s house. The family knew they were almost certain to lose a custody fight—in U.S. family courts, mother and child are assumed to belong together like water and wet—but they could see no alternative. “The intention was never to take a child away from its mother,” says Kelly. “The intention was to put Sam in a healthy environment where he could feel safe and go to school while his mother got well.” Good intentions, but they may well have paved the road to a domestic hell for an emotionally battered child.

Mark reluctantly called a lawyer named Lawrence Stone who specialized in family problems, and set the wheels in motion. At 11:30 a.m. on June 22, just as she was leaving the New Beginnings facility, Kris got the news. “This just arrived,” said a nurse who was visibly agitated as she handed Kris a subpoena that ordered her to be in court in two hours for a hearing “regarding the custody of your son.” Kris recalls: “I just gasped. I walked out the door and there was no family there for my homecoming.”

Kris quickly engaged a lawyer, Carl Osborne, made it to the court on time and managed to postpone the hearing until July 28, three days after her daughter Tracy’s wedding.

At the hearing, Mark was awarded temporary custody of Sam. Kris was ordered to stay 200 yards away from her brother’s house and from anywhere Pam was working. With a laugh, Kris said: “No problem.”

Judge Ronald Swearinger made one ruling in Kris’s favor, however.

Judge: “I want this child to see his mother.”

Mark: “This child does not want to see his mother.”

Judge: “What this child says doesn’t hold water with me.”

Nevertheless, between the hearing (July 28) and the trial (August 11), Kris says she didn’t see Sam at all.

The trial itself was a chainsaw with a wild will of its own that finally and perhaps irrevocably ripped the family apart. But the damage was done in a setting that often seemed more like Sunset Strip than a court of law. In the hallways, lunchtime crowds gathered to gawk and TV cameramen pursued the principals in the case so furiously they occasionally knocked people down.

Mark came to court in California formal: an open-neck shirt and baggy corduroys. Sam wore sneakers and a baseball cap, let his shirt-tail hang out and during much of the trial sat on his spine with his feet propped on the bench in front of him. Kris dressed neatly and wore a calm, pleasant expression throughout the proceedings; between sessions she answered even the rudest questions (“You’re a dope addict. How can you raise a child?”) with good grace. Mark scowled most of the time and icily ignored all reporters. By the end of Day One, the press had cast him as the heavy and Kris as the heroine, and the coverage next morning reflected the feeling.

In the forenoon, the judge talked with Sam in his chambers. In the afternoon, Mark’s principal witness, a child-psychiatrist named Dr. Gary A. Chase (whom Mark was paying $1,800 a day), testified. Under cross-questioning by Kris’s attorney, it turned out that Dr. Chase had interviewed neither Kris, aside from a few phone calls, nor the psychiatrist who had been treating Sam since his father’s death. He apparently based his firmly negative assessment of the Kris-Sam relationship on less than four hours of interviews with the boy, several standard psychological tests, one picture Sam drew of his mother as a dragon and one touching little dream Sam had of reuniting with his father in an airplane.

Clearly, the case wasn’t going well for the family. And on Day Three, when Pam Dawber took the stand, it went dramatically down the tubes. On cross-examination, Kris’s attorney rapidly established that Pam had dropped out of college after one year and could claim little training in psychology. Nevertheless she had made “clinical” judgments about Sam and Kris on the basis of very limited observations. Attorney Osborne also indignantly demanded to know whether she and Mark had entered Kris’s house on the day after Kris checked into New Beginnings, removed a number of pill bottles from her bathroom cabinet, shown them to a psychologist at the hospital and then turned them over to Mark’s lawyer to use against Kris in court. Pam answered yes.

In another series of questions, Osborne dealt the coup de grâce.

Osborne (suddenly): “Have you ever used cocaine?”

Dawber (indignantly): “No!”

O: “With Robin Williams?”

D (confidently): “Absolutely not!”

O: “With Actor Robert Hays?”

D (firmly): “No!”

O: “With Actor Gregory Harrison?”

D (agitatedly): “Never.”

The list went on. Finally:

O (harshly): “Are you saying that if I brought these people into court and they said you’d done coke with them, you’d say they were lying?”

D (shakily): “Absolutely.”

End of cross-examination. End of case. Dirty linen would soon be flying to the four winds, and the family really didn’t want that. Pam was still full of fight—she called several friends who agreed to testify that she had never used drugs—but she was overruled. Next morning, before the session began, Mark approached Osborne. “We don’t want to go any further with this,” he said. “Too much blood has been spilled.” Reporters grinned as Osborne gloated: “This is an unconditional surrender. I don’t think Pam Dawber wanted to get more deeply involved. She has a successful career.” The next day Judge Swearinger privately chuckled and agreed: “It was an interesting coincidence, wasn’t it?” Other observers sneered, certainly unfairly: “They’re obviously more concerned about their own careers than they are about the boy’s welfare.” Almost everyone agreed with the onlooker who said: “This was a typical family dispute and it should have been settled around the dining room table.”

All parties adjourned to the reconciliation court and by the end of the day they had worked out an agreement: Kris retained custody; Mark was granted visiting rights; Kris, Sam and Mark agreed to enter family therapy.

Kris and Mark came out of the session arm in arm and next day interviewed a therapist together. “We like him very much,” Kris said. On Sunday, Kris took Sam to the Raiders game and reported afterward that they both had a good time.

Not a bad new beginning. But this family, like Humpty-Dumpty, has had a great fall. Mark’s public silence resounds with desperation; in the prevailing Harmon family view, he is an uncle trying to hold on to his nephew, a man trying to save a boy’s emotional life. Like Mark, Kelly remains suspicious of the extent of her sister’s rehabilitation, but—like him—she’s rooting for it. Though a family member says Sam has been given the numbers of a doctor and an attorney to call if he sees a regression in his mother’s behavior, the result of his last cry for help may leave him afraid to use them.

Meanwhile, a jubilant Kris sees the positive side. Significant, she says, is a recent call Sam received from his grandmother Nino (a pet name for Elyse) at a friend’s house—she’d gotten accustomed to phoning him there. According to his mother, Sam said, “Nino, I don’t want you to call me here anymore. I want you to call me at home.”

A devout wish to provide a safe haven for Sam unites the Harmon family. Right now, it’s the only thing that does.

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