SUSAN ANSPACH HAS A MESSAGE for the Mercedes driver who experienced the golf-club-swinging wrath of Jack Nicholson in that 1994 traffic spat. She feels your pain, and then some. "That guy was just in the wrong lane," says the 53-year-old actress. "I'm the one getting battered emotionally." Indebted to Nicholson, 59, to the tune of half a million dollars, she finds herself faced with the prospect of losing her Santa Monica home to him. "I'm trying not to judge, trying to understand," says Anspach.

She is also suing for breach of contract, claiming her ex-lover is threatening to call in a loan she was assured she would never be pressured to pay. The parties meet this week in Santa Monica Superior Court to set a trial date in the case.

The dispute seems to have begun two years ago with a letter to Vanity Fair magazine in which Anspach took issue with a profile of Nicholson in which he mentioned three children—Lorraine, now 6, and Raymond, 4, both by model-actress Rebecca Broussard, and Jennifer, 32. But, wrote Anspach, Nicholson has another, older son, and she ought to know—she's the mother. Caleb Goddard, 25, now a New York City producer and writer, was conceived, Anspach claims, while she and Jack were having a fling during the 1970 filming of Five Easy Pieces. (Caleb takes his last name from Mark Goddard, best known as Don West on Lost in Space, who married Anspach in 1970, while she was pregnant. The two divorced in 1977.) Father and son, she wrote, share a "warm" regard for each other and, she told PEOPLE last week, Nicholson gave her the money that paid for Caleb's Georgetown University education. She says Nicholson once told her, "I accept him totally."

Even so, Anspach says, Nicholson has refused to acknowledge his paternity publicly and expected Anspach to keep mum as well. Then came the letter. After it ran, Anspach says, Nicholson called her several times and gave her what she describes as terrifying tongue-lashings. "It felt just like being hit," she says.

Nicholson, in a deposition in March, admitted calling Anspach a "miserable drunken bitch" in one phone conversation, and tried to explain his anger. "I do not agree with this endless publicity-seeking and so forth about personal affairs," he said, "and we had a discussion not unlike it at other times when this particular something that I consider a confidence in private was used in a public way to exploit the situation."

Anspach has characterised her relationship with Nicholson as generally "friendly," but in the deposition Nicholson told her attorney, Paul Hoffman, that he viewed her with "mild antipathy." Then why, asked Hoffman, had Nicholson provided financial assistance to Anspach? Nicholson, by whose tally Anspach was lent nearly $500,000 between 1988 and '92, replied: "I'm a humanitarian."

A star in such '70s films as Blume in Love, Anspach had found fewer and fewer roles in middle age and asked Nicholson for help when she could no longer meet payments on the four-bedroom Santa Monica house she bought for $420,000 in 1979. As security, she signed over a second, $476,000 mortgage to the Proteus Pension Plan. The company, run by Nicholson's agent and manager, Robert Colbert, handles some of the star's finances. "They said, 'That's just on paper, it's a tax thing,' " says Anspach. "Since he was helping me financially, I thought, 'The least I can do is do it in a way that benefits him.' " But, she continues, Colbert assured her orally that Nicholson wouldn't foreclose.

There things stood until January 1995, six months after she wrote to Vanity Fair. Then Anspach received a letter from Proteus informing her that she was in arrears by $629,286.97, interest included, and telling her to pay up or lose the house.

Was Letter One the catalyst for Letter Two? That's Anspach's belief. "He is trying to ruin me absolutely," she says. "The only power he finally had over me was to have me sign my house over to him. I found out fast what that was about."

Nicholson has refused to comment on the case. But, according to a legal declaration made by Anspach's son in her support, "Jack told me [on the telephone] that one of the reasons he was fighting was that he never liked my mom and that his decision to go ahead with the foreclosure and the lawsuit was a personal matter. He further said that my mom had tried to use the press against him, that the press didn't matter once you got to court and that he was not the one going around writing letters to the editor of Vanity Fair magazine."

Nothing was resolved in that phone conversation, but there was one surprising development. It marked the first time, according to Caleb, that Nicholson had ever called him his son.

TOM GLIATTO
JOHN HANNAH in Santa Monica

  • Contributors:
  • John Hannah.