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HE APPEARED, LOOKING MORE LIKE AN APPARITION from Madame Tussaud's waxworks than a movie star—complexion wan, speech slurred, face puffy under a heavily applied mask of makeup, lip shorn of his familiar mustache. But he was there to set the record straight, and Burt Reynolds's unsettling demeanor on the Aug. 24 telecast of ABC's Good Morning America: Evening Edition was matched by the testimony he delivered. "I was so unhappy," he said as he delved into his account of the abrupt end of his five-year marriage to Loni Anderson. Yes, he admitted, he had gotten involved with another woman—but only after becoming convinced that his wife had betrayed her marital vows. "I caught her cheating on me," he told interviewer Chantal Westerman. "And so I just...I made a decision to call it off." Anderson, he contended, was an underemployed actress suffering from low self-esteem who, he added, was not a good mother. He challenged her to join him and "take a sodium pentathol test"—to determine, he said, who cheated first. "If she wins, I will give her everything I own, including my ranch, my house, a lot of Western art she doesn't want and her $13 million she was asking for. If I win, I get Quinton [the couple's 5-year-old adopted son]. That's all I want."

By contrast, Anderson had but a simple, two-sentence reply. "I do not intend to engage in a media war," she said in a statement sent through her publicist. "I have to consider the welfare and best interests of my little boy."

No one who knows the toppled wedding-cake couple doubts that each wants the best for Quinton. Nor can anyone deny that they are, in fact, involved in a media war that could be as disastrous in its way as the Woody Allen-Mia Farrow imbroglio. In celebrity custody battles, as in war, truth can be the first casualty.

Both Reynolds, 57, and Anderson, 48, have spun their own versions of the facts to magazines, TV and the tabloids. Reynolds and his friends charged in the National Enquirer that Anderson is an adulterous conniver and indifferent mother. In her own opening salvos in Good Housekeeping and TV Guide, Anderson—who recently joined the cast of NBC's sitcom Nurses—and her defenders have variously claimed that there were no hints of any problems with Reynolds, that she never looked at another man and that she has been a blameless victim of a middle-aged egomaniac run amok.

Anger and ego aside, at the core of the wildly differing scenarios are two issues: cash and custody. When they married in 1988, Reynolds was worth $15 million; Anderson $1 million. They signed a prenuptial agreement staling that all assets would remain separate, including any income earned during the marriage. In the event of a divorce, they agreed, they would keep what belonged to them, and neither would pay or receive alimony. But there is a loophole in their agreement: If the couple have a child, says paragraph 23, "Loni may elect, at her sole option, to have this Agreement...be of no force and effect."

Loni has so elected—and the fight is on. Reynolds took the offensive in a June 22 National Enquirer article. He blamed the breakup on the long hours he was devoting to his CBS sitcom Evening Shade, called rumors of extramarital affairs "flat-out damn lies," and claimed that, when he told Anderson of his decision, "I knew she was going to cry. And she did."

But, after countersuing in California (where there are longstanding 50-50-split community-property laws), Anderson claimed in Good Housekeeping that the divorce papers came as a total shock. "There were no signs of discontent or discussion of divorce or separation," she said. "I had no inkling there was a problem in our marriage."

Neither story, however, turned out to be the absolute truth. Just weeks after his initial statement to the Enquirer, Reynolds admitted that he had been carrying on a two-year affair with 37-year-old Pam Seals, the cocktail-lounge manager at Malio's restaurant in Tampa. "Burt is every woman's dream as a lover," Seals told the Enquirer (for $150,000, reportedly donated to charity). "He's considerate and gentle and more than any woman could ask for."

Anderson's initial version of events also was contradicted. Despite her claim in Good Housekeeping that "there was no hint, no indication anything was wrong," Anderson admitted in legal papers that she and Reynolds had very recently had marital problems. In fact, the two had planned a getaway to their North Carolina vacation home because, Anderson contended, "[Burt] realized that he had been neglectful as a husband and a father" and wanted to "make it up to me." But, she said, Reynolds canceled the trip, pleading that he was busy editing an upcoming TV movie. Instead, in what she now claims was a blatant trick to lure her to Florida to serve divorce papers, he asked her to fly there from their other home in Los Angeles, she says, so "we could be alone and we could discuss his plans for an improved relationship."

Insider accounts of just what went wrong with the relationship run from the silly to the sobering. During the marriage, Anderson "only cooked nine or 11 times," asserts Reynolds's friend and personal photographer, Lisa Smith, "and it was all pasta." Pam Seals, on the other hand, "cooks him Southern fried chicken and mashed potatoes—from scratch."

The couple's kitchen incompatibility evidently earned over to the bedroom; their sexual relationship seems to have ended long ago. Reynolds says the cause was his discovery that Anderson was having affairs (at least four, according to one tabloid claim). Anderson angrily denies the charge, declaring, "I have never looked at another man." But 29-year-old Terry Warren—a former Florida State University football player and aspiring actor who became a Reynolds protégé after Burt heard him singing the national anthem at a 1987 FSU game—says differently. According to Warren, Reynolds invited him to move into his Florida ranch—and later his California home—where Warren acted as Anderson's escort on shopping trips or to the theater. Over the course of three years, until Warren left in 1991, he says Anderson tried repeatedly to seduce him. "I never gave in to Loni's advances," Warren told the Enquirer. "But Burl became suspicious his wife and I were sleeping together—and he threw me out like yesterday's newspaper."

Speaking up for Reynolds, friends and hired help tell a similar story: Anderson felt neglected, was extremely flirtatious and made inappropriate, sexually explicit comments about other men. At times, say insiders, so miffed was Anderson by Reynolds's sexual inattentiveness that she even questioned his sexual orientation.

As Reynolds himself conceded in his Good Morning America interview, rumors about his sexual preferences have been making the rounds in Hollywood for years. His debilitating bout with TMJ (temporomandibular joint disorder) was falsely attributed to AIDS, and there has been conjecture that even his current cooperation with the tabloids was a response to journalistic blackmail. "I have had so many things said about me," he said during his GMA interview. "I'll get up from this too."

Despite his attempt to laugh off the gossip, says one friend, "he is afraid that rumors like that will ruin his career." His buddies are quick to quash the speculation of homosexuality. "Thai's the most ridiculous thing I ever heard," says Bernie Little, a Lakeland, Florida-based beer distributor and longtime friend of the couple's. "Burt is a man's man. He's just a country boy from Florida who likes boiled peanuts. There's one thing he is, and he isn't a [homosexual]."

What he is, according to many sources, is irascible, moody and sometimes withdrawn. (Reynolds has admitted past substance-abuse difficulties—most notably with the sleeping pill Halcion.) "At times when he was around, he was difficult," says Deidra Hoffman, 28, Anderson's daughter from a first marriage that lasted just three months. "Mostly, he wasn't around a lot." Hoffman, who teaches school near Lake Tahoe, claims that during a family get-together at her home last Christmas, Reynolds "stayed in his hotel room the entire time."

Still, says Hoffman, her mother was determined to salvage the union. "This is her third marriage," she explains. (Anderson's second marriage, to actor Ross Bickell, ended after seven years in 1981.) "This time, no matter what, she was going to do everything she could to make the marriage work, so Quinton wouldn't have [a broken home]."

Sadly, Quinton, who sees a therapist and has lost four pounds since his parents' separation, has landed in the middle of the marital maelstrom. Reynolds's camp is trying to portray Anderson as a distant mother who al times seemed to have little control over the boy. A British couple—Janet Spring, a licensed practical nurse, and her husband, John, a former merchant seaman—served as nanny and house manager at the Reynoldses' Florida and California homes for several years until Burt dismissed them because of friction in the household. According to them, Anderson was little more than an observer in the raising of her own child. "She was more a playmate than a parent. You wouldn't see her get out of bed till noon," says Janet, 54. "By the time she'd shower, dress and everything else, it was [Quinton's] nap time. She'd play with him 20 minutes. I would bathe him and feed him."

According to Victoria Boll, 28, a stuntwoman who served as Quinton's relief nanny during the last eight months of the marriage, Anderson sometimes lashed out at the boy. "If he did something that would make her mad, I've seen her pick Quinton up by his little arms, carry him across the room, slam him down on a chair and say, 'Did you do that because you were mad at Daddy? Don't take it out on Mommy, because you're not mad at Mommy. You're mad at Daddy.'"

Upset that her mother is being so harshly portrayed by detractors, Hoffman insists, "My mother is warm, loving and devoted to Quinton. She spends a lot of time with him." Typical, she says, was the visit she had at her mother's home recently when, on arriving, she found Anderson playing catch with the little boy in the backyard.

Anderson, for her part, does not deny that Reynolds is a loving and attentive father. But in her successful bid to limit his visitation rights until custody is resolved (he gets Quinton every other weekend and Wednesday evenings in L.A. but is not allowed to take him to his home in Florida without her permission), she questioned his parental judgment in court papers. "[He] exposed Quinton to a photographer who was allowed into the house to photograph and speak with Quinton and who sold the story and pictures to the National Enquirer," she said. "This type of publicity is confusing to Quinton and may present a security risk."

As determined by a Sept. 1 ruling, custody and child support will be resolved by the California courts; property division and spousal support will be decided in Florida. Both parents have been ordered to attend counseling sessions on how to minimize the split's effect on their son. The effect of charge and countercharge on the two principals, of course, is already profound. Anderson, who declared in the Aug. 21 issue of TV Guide, "I have always had my own money, and I've always spent my own money," has since recanted. In asking for $75,000 a month, she told the California court, "I have no funds with which to support myself or Quinton."

Reynolds, meanwhile, has lost a lucrative $500,000 endorsement contract with the Florida Citrus Commission, as well as his long-running ad campaign for Quaker State motor oil. Now he is testing the patience of his colleagues. During a guest spot on a recent taping of HBO's The Larry Sanders Show, Reynolds angrily threw a prop brick at a production assistant when an unexpected break was called. Moments later, he scrambled to explain. "You don't know what it's like to have your son taken away from you," he told crew members. Acknowledging that Burt "will have to do some fence-mending," Reynolds's executive assistant, Scott Jackson, suggests that his boss will get over this latest crisis in his life. "From now on, Burt will comport himself as the gentleman he is and think things through more judiciously.... Short of murder, you can vindicate yourself from any backlash." Divorce is a messy business, he says, adding a coda that now seems all too obvious: "There's a lot of emotion there."

SUSAN SCHINDEHETTE
LOIS ARMSTRONG and DORIS BACON in Los Angeles, DON SIDER in Miami, SARAH TIPPIT and LINDA MARX in Tampa

  • Contributors:
  • Lois Armstrong,
  • Doris Bacon,
  • Don Sider,
  • Sarah Tippit,
  • Linda Marx.