By Karen S. Schneider
December 13, 1993 12:00 PM

WHEN PRODUCER ARNON MILCHAN PICKED UP the phone one day last October in his Los Angeles office, his spirits sank. On the line—again—was an agent calling for Kit Culkin, Macaulay’s father. “[Kit] doesn’t like the noise of the Christmas tree growing,” the agent said, referring to a sound effect in Milchan’s The Nutcracker, a film version of the Tchaikovsky ballet featuring the 13-year-old Home Alone star. The elder Culkin, 49, wanted the sound changed immediately—or he would exercise his contractual right to prohibit use of Macaulay’s image in the film’s advertising or promotion.

Milchan, 48, hung up and groaned. The producer of Sommersby, Under Siege and JFK had spent his career dealing with tough negotiators and temperamental superstars. Was he going to let this stage father get the best of him? Culkin had tried other power plays during the Nutcracker production, asking for the elimination of a narrative voice-over (that was eventually retained) and demanding (successfully) that 12-year-old costar Jessica Lynn Cohen not be allowed to share Macaulay’s top billing. Surely more demands would be coming. Milchan, still smarting from the bitter battle over the narration, felt his anger rising and called the agent back. “Life is too short,” he barked. “We don’t want your promotion anymore. We don’t want you. We don’t want your kid.”

It was a bold move, and a reckless one too. To revise the ad campaign would cost about $1 million, and without Macaulay appearing on David Letterman and other shows to promote the movie, The Nutcracker might make much less money. “Imagine,” says a still-moaning Milchan. “Millions of dollar bills flying through the window, and you are throwing them away. Yourself.”

One comfort Milchan may have, though, is that he is not alone. Something is happening in Hollywood, and it’s not good news for Kit Culkin. Powerful types are starting to grumble about his tactics. And not long ago the once-unthinkable happened: Macaulay suddenly seemed to fall out of the running for a coveted kid’s role, that of the venerable Harvey Comics character Richie Rich in the upcoming movie of the same name. Infuriated by the elder Culkin’s refusal to agree on a single candidate from a list of half-a-dozen well-respected directors under consideration, Warner Bros, executives called a hall to two years of negotiations and a deal that would have paid Macaulay $8 million for one film—and 810 million for a possible sequel.

That’s a radical stance considering Macaulay’s track record. In November 1990, the youngster turned Home Alone from a cute Christmas sleeper into the fourth-highest-grossing film of all time (more than $500 million worldwide), behind only Jurassic Park. E. T. and the original Star Wars. In 1992 young Culkin brought in an additional $375 million for Twentieth Century Fox with Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. But now, just when Macaulay is entering adolescence—a critical lime for any child actor—he finds himself in an increasingly hostile environment. “Everyone is wailing for Macaulay to fall on his face,” says an industry insider. “They’re praying for the moment they can close the door on him.”

No one, no matter how angry, blames Macaulay himself for the backlash. “He is a gentleman and a complete pro,” says Elektra Entertainment chairman and Nutcracker coproducer Robert Krasnow. Concurs another source: “The kid is a really, really wonderful actor—it’s the dad who’s a pain in the ass.” Consider: Even before seeing 1991’s My Girl, the elder Culkin pronounced the film a failure and refused to let Mac do any publicity. After seeing the film, Kit changed his mind, but by then, according to producer Brian Grazer, “He made us neurotic nuts.” Some people at Fox feel no differently. When Kit decided in the fall of 1991 that he wanted the studio to cast Macaulay—against the director’s wishes—in The Good Son, he threatened to back out of Home Alone 2 if they didn’t. The studio caved in, postponing production for a year. In the meantime, The Good Son’s budget ballooned from $13 million to $34 million, and the original director, producer and writer had either quit or been fired.

Is Culkin Sr.—who refused to be interviewed for this article—simply playing hardball, Hollywood-style? Some say his attitude and tactics are nothing extraordinary. “Everybody here uses muscle when they have it to get what they want,” says one casting agent.

Others say Culkin is just protecting his son and allowing him to grow as an artist. Take, for instance, Culkin’s insistence on getting Mac to play the bad seed in The Good Son. Whatever anyone thinks of his method, says producer Joe Roth, who ran Fox at the time of the film’s pre-production, “Kit’s motive was noble.” Mac’s dad, says Roth, wants only “to make sure his child gets to play a range of parts, so that it doesn’t say on his tombstone, Here Lies the Home Alone Kid. He doesn’t want his son to be a phenomenon, he wants him to be an actor.”

Like Roth, Joe Johnston, live-action director of The Pagemaster, a mostly animated fantasy starring Mac and scheduled for release next year, recognizes Culkin’s devotion. “I realize what he wanted more than anything,” says Johnston, “was for his son to be treated with a lot of respect.”

But Milchan, for one, isn’t buying that argument. “I don’t think it’s a career strategy,” he says of Kit’s persistent demands for changes that sometimes seemed to have nothing directly to do with Macaulay. “He’s probably angry at the movie business for not discovering his talent as a kid. It’s a vendetta against people that he believes should have discovered him.”

Culkin Sr. was, in fact, a kiddie performer, though hardly in a class with his son. As a child, he danced the role of the Nutcracker Prince in the New York City Ballet’s The Nutcracker with his sister, actress Bonnie Bedelia. In 1961 he performed on Broadway in Becket with Laurence Olivier, and in 1964 he appeared in Hamlet with Richard Burton. Kit also won a tiny part in the 1961 movie West Side Story. But his career went into a tailspin when he was 20 and his mother died. “It was very difficult for him,” says a longtime friend, Susan Selig. Adds New York actor Ray Anthony Thomas: “After that, his career seemed to burn out.”

By 1988—when 8-year-old Mac first appeared onscreen in Rocket Gibraltar, with Burt Lancaster—Kit’s own dreams of stardom were all but finished. He had a wife, Pat, and six children (a seventh was yet to come). They lived in a tiny, cluttered apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. To make ends meet, Pat worked as a receptionist; Kit drove a cab and worked as a sacristan at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, a job that provided a tuition break for his children at the parochial school. Still, Culkin’s passion remained the theater, and through the years he spent time performing Off-Broadway. Selig remembers seeing Kit in a small production of The Trojan Women. “Greek tragedy is pretty hard, and most actors don’t look good when they do it, but Kit was great,” she says. “It’s the kind of thing he likes best—older, more poetic drama.”

It was Selig, a stage manager, who first encouraged the Culkins to let their children act professionally. “They needed money,” she explains. “I would tell Patty, ‘Look, your kids are cute and blond—they can make money doing commercials.’ ” When New York casting agent Billy Hopkins was looking for a cute kid to work cheap in an Off-Broadway play called Afterschool Special in 1987, she sent along Macaulay, then 6. Hopkins adored the boy. So, eventually, did the theater critics. And little Mac had a ball. Says Selig’s husband, actor Steve Massa: “After the show he’d go out and look under the seats to see if anybody lost money or stuff.”

Back then, Kit was an enthusiastic—and easygoing—stage dad. After rehearsals, Hopkins recalls, “we would give [Mac] cab fare and send him and the baby-sitter home.” However, a few years later, after great reviews Off-Broadway led to Macaulay’s being cast in a series of movie roles culminating in Home Alone, Culkin Sr. had become far less nonchalant. Thanks to his son the superstar, he was finally a player.

On the set of My Girl, Mac’s first major role after Home Alone, no one had thought to provide Culkin Sr. with a chair. “Finally he had to go over and say, ‘Look, I shouldn’t have to ask for this, but I’d like a place to sit down,’ ” recalls the unit publicist, Mack Newberry. “He wasn’t ugly about it, but he very quickly let them know that he expected that kind of courtesy.”

Pat also took lime to adjust to her new status. Both parents—who together receive 10 percent of Macaulay’s earnings—quit their jobs to manage Mac’s future. But when the entire brood trooped to Orlando for the My Girl shoot a few years ago, Pat, 39, tended to the needs of the kids as if she were still a working-class mom. “She didn’t even have a housekeeper,” says Newberry. “She had to cook for six kids all the time. I told her, “”You should get help in the contract up front.’ ”

Eventually, they got much more than that. Kit learned quickly to use Macaulay as leverage to get what he wanted. Culkin Sr.’s demands on The Good Son, for example, didn’t stop with the casting of his star son. Three weeks before shooting was to begin, Culkin told director Joe Ruben he wanted his 8-year-old daughter, Quinn, in the film. Ruben auditioned her—and didn’t want to cast her for the part. “Oh, that’s okay,” Kit reportedly responded. “But my son won’t be showing up on the set either.” Kit, of course, eventually got his way—much to the chagrin of both the director and, some people say, of his daughter as well. “Quinn doesn’t want to be an actress,” says a source. “Kit has to shove her in front of the camera. She wants no part of it.”

Whatever his excesses, Kit does have defenders, and no one questions his devotion to his children. “He is a stern but loving father,” says his friend Thomas. “He draws with the kids, reads them stories.” And he expects Macaulay, like his other children, to help out with chores, starling with making his bed each day before heading off for class at the elite Professional Children’s School in Manhattan. “I wake up every day at 7,” Mac told The Boston Globe last year. “Then I walk the dog [a collie] for 20 minutes. That’s my favorite. Then I go to school, come back, all that baloney.” His income—a reported $16 million last year—is being held in trust. Not that money seems to be much on his mind. “I don’t get any allowance,” the young actor said. “But whenever I need money, I say, ‘Mom, can I have ten bucks?’ ”

Those who know them say the Culkins’ no-frills parenting seems to work. “They live really normally, in a nice, middle-class brownstone,” says producer Grazer. “It’s messy, like any family with a bunch of kids.” Says producer Craig Baumgarten, who worked in June of 1992 with Mac’s younger brother Kieran, 11, in the feature film Nowhere to Run: “The kids are good kids—not obnoxious movie brats.”

Then again, it’s not the kids anyone is calling obnoxious. “Macaulay has something people respond to—good instincts and a real charm,” says former Fox chief Roth. “But if in fact Kit is preventing people from assigning directors to movies, then you would have to consider him a liability.” The way it looks now, until Macaulay can deliver another blockbuster, Kit will rank with the onset of pimples and the inevitable voice change as something that his client-son needs to overcome.