March 31, 2014 12:00 PM

For Jason Patric, it was the perfect father-son bonding time: On a sunny day in February 2013, the actor and Gus, then 3, scrambled atop a windswept rock on a Malibu beach – the same rock where Patric’s father once frolicked with him as a child. After watching the waves lap at their feet, Patric, 47, best known for his roles in 1987’s The Lost Boys and 1996’s Sleepers, dropped the boy off at his mother’s house. “I’m missing you, Dada,” Patric recalls Gus saying. “Don’t worry, little man; I’m seeing you tomorrow,” the actor replied.

He never saw Gus again. The next day, a Los Angeles judge denied Patric any parental rights because he and ex-girlfriend Danielle Schreiber were not married when Gus was conceived through in vitro fertilization in 2009. (The court also found there was no co-parenting agreement in place.) The actor, intense but composed, acknowledges that the legal drama has become all-consuming. “It was like my world ended,” he tells People on a recent Saturday in his Santa Monica home, where a bedroom for Gus has gone unused for more than a year. Schreiber counters through her attorneys that the pair had agreed Patric would play no role in Gus’s life. “When Jason offered me his sperm, it was under the condition that his donation never be made public and that he would not be a father to the child,” says Schreiber, 41, a massage therapist. She barred him from seeing Gus after Patric’s “harassing” behavior, which he vehemently denies. Patric insists he never signed away his rights. “We had an understanding,” he says, “that I was going to be a part of the kid’s life no matter what.”

Now Patric’s fight – which escalated to the state capital last year in his attempt to amend reproductive law – joins a new frontier of custody battles in an era of same-sex parents and advanced fertility methods. “Because they were unmarried, used IVF and didn’t spell out on paper how they would parent,” says L.A. attorney Rose Kesten Pondel, who’s not involved with the case, “they went into uncharted territory.”

This much they agree on: After breaking up in 2008 after six years together, Schreiber told Patric she had purchased donor sperm to go it alone as a single mom. (Their prior attempts at conception had ended in miscarriage.) “I told her to hold off,” says Patric, a grandson of Jackie Gleason whose film career stalled after 1997’s Speed 2: Cruise Control. “I thought, ‘Maybe there could be another way.’ ” In a letter, Patric told Schreiber that he wasn’t ready to be a father but instead offered his sperm—proof, she claims, that he never intended to be a parent. “He also [later] demanded that he not be listed on the child’s birth certificate and that the child not have his surname,” Schreiber alleges. The letter, Patric says, was written on a despondent night and “was no different than saying something meaningless in the heat of a fight.”

There were, however, moments of family bliss: After they rekindled their relationship in 2010, the couple vacationed with Gus in Hawaii, spent holidays together and even jointly attended an admissions meeting at a private kindergarten for the boy. In multiple home videos, Schreiber is heard encouraging Gus to call Patric his “Dada,” a connection she now regrets: “I never would have allowed [it] if I thought it would put my rights as a mom at risk.” After he broke up with Schreiber for good in June 2012, he claims she cut him off, forcing him to go to court. “I’m dealing with a scorned woman,” Patric says, “who’s punishing me by withholding my son.”

With his attempt to amend the law stalled, the actor has launched Stand Up for Gus, an organization championing his cause. (Matt Damon and Kiefer Sutherland are among his supporters.) Schreiber, who won a restraining order in 2013 to ban Patric from contacting her, is now asking a judge to stop him from using Gus’s name for his campaign. Unless Patric “recants his lies and threatening conduct,” she refuses to allow him visitation. He says all gestures of civility have failed. “My love for Gus is what keeps me going,” says Patric, his eyes welling with tears. “I won’t stop fighting until I get to see him.”

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