May 06, 1996 12:00 PM

ELAINE LAMB RETURNED TO HER home in the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale last Tuesday afternoon to find a strange message on her answering machine. It was a neighbor calling the elderly widow to say that someone had been wandering about in Lamb’s backyard. Lamb looked outside, saw nothing and forgot the matter—until half an hour later, when, out gardening, she heard rustling in the woodpile. “You shouldn’t be back there,” she called out as a figure emerged. “There are black widow spiders.”

“What’s chasing me is a lot worse than black widow spiders,” the intruder replied. “You may not believe me, but I’m Margot Kidder.”

In the late ’70s and early ’80s, Kidder rose to fame as the sexy star who played Lois Lane opposite Christopher Reeve in four Superman movies. Since then, the Canadian-born actress, 47, has suffered from hard luck and hard living, though recently her life seemed on the upswing. Last year she was touring in a play, Stieglitz Loves O’Keeffe, with Stacy Keach—and her friend, actor Russell Means, told Entertainment Tonight that he didn’t believe she drank or took drugs. But when the actress finally emerged from Elaine Lamb’s woodpile, she had officially been a missing person for three days. Dressed in dirty jeans and a tattered T-shirt, Kidder was gaunt, bruised and missing her two front teeth. She had been beaten and pursued, she said. Bill Minarik, a neighbor of Lamb’s who had come to see what was happening, concluded, “She did not seem delusional at all.”

The police had a different opinion. Summoned by Lamb, they questioned Kidder for an hour, then took her away in handcuffs to Olive View-UCLA Medical Center, where she is under observation. “The woman we saw was in obvious mental distress,” says Officer Rick Young of the Glendale police. “She didn’t think one person was following her. She thought a whole group of people were after her.”

In fact, police had been looking for Kidder since the previous Saturday, when her agent John Blake reported her missing. On April 20, Kidder had failed to pick up her ticket at an airport near her home in Montana to fly to Arizona, where she was scheduled to teach an acting class. At about 3 a.m. the following morning, she was seen at Los Angeles International Airport by Ted Hall, an anchorman at WBIR-TV in Knoxville, Tenn. Hall says that Kidder, dressed in a black suit and “filthy white shirt,” told him, “My ex-husband has hired a number of people to kill me, and they are all in the airport.” Hall says that before she left, she pointed to a man getting off a plane and called out, “I see you. I know you are looking at me.”

Kidder’s life has been in turmoil since a 1990 car accident while shooting a scene for the TV series Nancy Drew and Daughter. Her injuries left her partially paralyzed and brought her, she told PEOPLE in 1992, to the brink of suicide. “There were many times when I just so desperately wanted to die,” she said. But after an operation earlier that year to remove a herniated disk, she could walk again, though she still suffered severe back pain.

The accident also crippled her financially. To pay her medical bills, Kidder sold her jewelry and her home in Sneden’s Landing, N.Y., but still had to declare bankruptcy in the spring of 1992. She gratefully accepted help from such friends as Richard Pryor, who once sent her $10,000 cash in the mail. But Kidder was an admitted heavy drinker, and as time went on, survival for her meant getting as far as possible from the Hollywood high life. In 1994 she relocated to Prague after filming there. Last year she moved again, to Livingston, Mont., not far from the first of her three ex-husbands, novelist Thomas McGuane, father of her daughter Maggie, 20. (Her subsequent brief marriages were to actor John Heard and director Philippe de Broca.) “I’m not even trying to do the Margot Movie Star bit anymore,” she told the Prague Post last July. “Now I get to go and have my own adventures.”

Not all of them, obviously, are merry. Glendale police believe that Kidder hacked off sections of her own hair to effect a bedraggled look. And her missing teeth, they say, are not the result of a beating but of lost bridgework. Hall says that even if Kidder’s enemies are mostly imaginary, he and his crew are surprised she is safe. After they heard she was missing, “we were sure,” he says, “that she would turn up dead.”



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