September 11, 1995 12:00 PM

THE SCENE OUTSIDE RED LODGE, Mont., on July 30, looked like something out of a sitcom called My Four Sons: The most famous child actor since Shirley Temple, Macaulay Culkin, 15, accompanied by his dad, Christopher “Kit” Culkin, 51, and younger brothers Kieran, 12, Christian, 8, and Rory, 6, was happily cruising down the Stillwater River in a rubber raft. While the kids horsed around, Kit and the guide discussed the joys of fly-fishing. A month earlier, back in Manhattan, Kit and the boys’ mother, Patricia Brentrup, 41, had begun a bitter court wrangle over custody of their six minor children (their brood also includes daughters Dakota, 17, and Quinn, 10, and son Shane, 19). But now those problems seemed far from everyone’s mind. Not even the challenges of filming Amanda—a movie starring Kieran which was being shot nearby—could intrude. “I think everybody was happy to be away from any pressure,” says Marek Rosin, their guide. “We talked a lot and cracked jokes. It was very comfortable.”

Not for long. A few hours later, that cozy Nick-at-Nite feeling vanished and something darker seemed to take over. Around sunset Kit awakened from a post-rafting nap to find himself alone in his rented home. Apparently enraged by the children’s absence, he phoned the rented house six miles away where his kids had been spending most of their time with Patty. She wasn’t there, but the four boys and their college-age nanny, Dominique, were. “I’m coming to get you,” Kit reportedly told Macaulay. Alarmed, the children and the nanny ran to a neighbor’s house. When Kit showed up and began banging on the neighbor’s door, the nanny dialed 911. “The dispatcher could hear screaming in the background,” says deputy sheriff Hanly Loyning, who responded to the call. “She said, ‘You better get over there right away’ ”

By the time Loyning arrived, Kit Culkin had roared back down the private dirt road in his rented bronze convertible. “Mac did most of talking,” says the deputy sheriff of his interview. “He said he and his dad had gotten into it [a shouting match] and that he [Mac] didn’t want to go with him.”

No charges were filed. But the evening’s events took their toll on the Culkin boys as, yet again, their lives were disrupted by the problems of their embattled, never-married parents. The stakes in this particular showdown are high. Most important is The health and happiness of the children. But there’s also the matter of who will manage the kids’ careers, with control over millions of dollars in past and potential future earnings hanging in the balance.

Already charges of alcoholism, infidelity and physical abuse have become a matter of legal record in the dispute. In one court document, Brentrup alleges that during an argument in 1993, in the family’s Manhattan apartment, Kit “punched me in the head…and dragged me to the balcony threatening to push me over the railing.” (Kit Culkin, in court papers, vigorously denies the charge.) When Brentrup and Culkin next meet at a court hearing, tentatively set for Sept. 14, the family that once jealously guarded its privacy will begin publicly sorting out the secrets that have torn it apart.

The crisis in the Culkin-Brentrup household comes at what might have been the family’s happiest time. Back in the late ’80s, Kit, himself a former child actor, had set Mac on the path to stardom. In two years Macaulay went from a small part in an Off-Broadway play to starring in the first of two Home Alone movies that would gross over $875 million worldwide. Kit himself went from a low-paying job as a sacristan in a Manhattan Catholic church to being one of the most notorious negotiators in Hollywood.

Thanks to Kit’s hard bargaining, Macaulay received $8 million for 1994’s Richie Rich. On one occasion, Kit got the role he wanted for Mac, as well as an acting job for his daughter Quinn, by threatening to yank the young star out of 1992’s Home Alone 2, which had already started shooting—a tactic that many industry executives found to be hitting below the belt. Such moves earned him enemies; they also made his family rich. “Kit did not jeopardize [Mac’s] career,” says one Hollywood executive who worked with him. “If anything, Kit’s responsible for getting his kid to earn as much as he earned.”

Even the fact that Macaulay’s career has stalled in the past year could be seen as something of a blessing for the Culkin family. Macaulay had wanted a breather from movie work for years; his younger brother Kieran was coming along nicely as a child actor, winning his first starring role in Amanda; and the family was financially secure. Macaulay alone has earned more than $50 million since 1990. (Kit and Patty take the standard management fee of 15 percent, which they split equally.)

But instead of enjoying their success, Patty and Kit are now engaged in all-out legal combat. Patty made the first move when, on June 20, she filed papers in New York State Supreme Court seeking custody of the kids and the right to manage their careers. “[Kit Culkin] and I have been separated in the past due to his excessive drinking, physical abuse and unfaithful behavior,” Brentrup said in court papers. “I sacrificed my own happiness and safety [for] the good of the family.” Kit Culkin, in his reply, called her statement “fabrications, half-truths and outright lies,” and added, “I categorically deny [her] horrid, false charges of abuse and neglect.”

It was a sad denouement for a relationship that had begun 21 years before in Sundance, Wyo., when Culkin stopped his truck at the construction site where Brentrup was directing traffic. “It was just instant,” Patty said to The New York Times in 1991 about the bond the pair “never found the need to formalize.” But as that union has publicly disintegrated, the experience has been a mortifying one for the couple’s children.

“Kieran is embarrassed” by his father’s recent behavior, says a source close to the family, who adds that Mac “is very annoyed with his dad.” Mac, a family friend says, has seemed especially somber lately. Most of the summer he stayed home with Shane and Dakota while their parents and the younger kids set up camp near Kieran’s movie set, although he apparently managed to pay a visit to his old pal Michael Jackson at his Neverland ranch. Macaulay dyed his hair a punkish magenta for a while, then went back to blond. “All he really wants to do is play basketball,” says his father’s lawyer Donald Frank. Observes the family friend: “Mac has been spending a lot of time cleaning his room.”

The first round in court was brief, and a clear victory for Kit. After initially granting Brentrup’s petition, Judge David Saxe reversed himself, awarding the parents shared custody and management rights pending the Sept. 14 hearing. Those who know Culkin and Brentrup say the two have very different parenting styles. Patty is described by one friend as “a warm, earth mother type,” while Kit, by most accounts, is a stern father, a man who is concerned for his children but who doesn’t smile easily. One source close to Culkin calls him “a dark Irish soul.”

Observers who have encountered Kit professionally echo that description. In Hollywood, he is remembered for bitterly dismissing Macaulay’s 1991 movie My Girl as a failure before he had even seen it and for refusing to allow Mac to do publicity for 1993’s The Nutcracker because the producer balked at removing narration by Kevin Kline. Some movie executives have speculated that the New York native is still bitter over failing to parlay his own work as a young actor (in 1961, the 17-year-old performed on Broadway in Becket with Laurence Olivier) into an adult career, as did his sister Bonnie Bedelia. “He’s probably angry at the movie business for not discovering his talent as a kid,” Arnon Milchan, producer of The Nutcracker, told PEOPLE in 1993. “It’s a vendetta against people that he believes should have discovered him.”

While Culkin was off making Hollywood deal makers quake, Brentrup focused on taking care of the kids. One of 10 children from a close-knit, North Dakota working-class family, Brentrup appeared happy with her role, even before the big money started coming in. The family has never seemed much concerned with material things. Indeed it wasn’t until Home Alone in 1990 that they relocated from their cramped quarters in a two-bedroom on Manhattan’s Upper East Side to a five-apartment spread in a high-rise near Lincoln Center. Before the move, “Mac was already famous,” says a friend, “and he was still sleeping on a cot in the living room.”

People who know the family say that although the kids are remarkably unspoiled and sweet, at times they tend to run a bit wild. “Mac burned my seat once; they were playing with a lighter,” says Jimmy Stathopoulos, owner of the Olympic Flame Diner near where the family lives. “I had to throw them out a couple of times.” On movie locations the young Culkins are known for staying up late and making mischief long after their parents have gone to sleep. While shooting The Good Son in 1993, Mac was often so tired from his late-night cavorting, says a crew member, that sometimes he had trouble remembering his lines.

As long as Macaulay’s movies made money, no one complained too loudly. But since 1992’s Home Alone 2, his films—Getting Even with Dad, The Pagemaster and Richie Rich, all in 1994—have been box office disappointments. Some in Hollywood speculate that Kit simply gambled on risky projects. Or it may be, suggests one insider, that Mac, who became a hit as a 9-year-old wiseacre cherub, “just wasn’t the cute, cuddly kid he used to be.” At the moment, Macaulay has no projects on his agenda, and producers are not burning up Kit’s phone lines. “I think [Kit] pissed off enough people so that there’s no one who’s going to be upset about anything bad that befalls him,” says one Hollywood executive who worked with him.

Brentrup was also aware that industry executives were fed up with Kit. In her court papers, she said that during her negotiations to arrange Kieran’s role in Amanda, “the agents from William Morris informed me in no uncertain terms that if [Kit] deliberately botches up [the Amanda deal], no one in Hollywood will want to work with our children again.”

But the problems between Brentrup and Culkin ran deeper than her concerns about his professional behavior. Sometimes “Kit would just disappear to the West Coast to do some deal and drop out of sight,” says a friend of Brentrup’s. “Patty would confront him with a hotel bill for two people and he would just say, ‘You’re crazy, why would I want to do that?’ ”

Shortly after the incident in which, according to Brentrup’s court filing, Kit threatened to throw her off the balcony—she called police at the time but never pressed charges—Brentrup had two black eyes, says a friend. “If I can just hang tough,” the friend quotes Brentrup as saying, “it’ll be better for my family.” In his legal response, Culkin, in addition to denying all the accusations in Brentrup’s court papers, charges that she “in general, has carried out an ugly, mean-spirited campaign to isolate and alienate me from the children.”

Meanwhile, on the Montana location where Amanda was being filmed, the situation continued to deteriorate. Things weren’t all bad: The kids had a good time rafting, and Macaulay seemed to enjoy hanging out at the Montana Candy Emporium in Red Lodge (pop. 1,800), watching local skateboarders or playing arcade games in the store’s second-floor soda fountain. “We have some 14-year-old girls who work upstairs,” says Mike Majerus, a part-owner. “They think Macaulay’s pretty neat.”

On the set, though, Kit reportedly threw a fit after claiming he wasn’t being given enough time to help Kieran rehearse. Further outbursts prompted Judge Saxe to reduce Kit’s visitation to twice a week. Following the 911 call on July 30, Kit has had to petition the court each time he wants to see the children. His lawyer has complained that this is due to Brentrup’s interference; hers counters that the kids don’t want to visit their dad.

Since Amanda wrapped a week ago, the Culkin kids have been getting ready for the new semester at the Professional Children’s School while their parents prepare for their showdown. In his court papers, Culkin has said, “I have never had any desire…to hurt [Patty], any more than I have any desire to hurt my children, who I love dearly.” In the past, he and Brentrup have separated for a time, then reconciled. But Brentrup’s lawyer Lois Liberman says that won’t happen now. “This relationship,” she says, “is over, over, over.”


NANCY JO SALES in New York City, VICKIE BANE in Red Lodge and KRISTINA JOHNSON in Los Angeles

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