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'BRAD WAS HAVING A BLAST' PLAYING DAD TO FIVE BOYS

Only last December, Brad Pitt told Diane Sawyer he was ready to start having babies with wife Jennifer Aniston. "Yeah," he said, "I got family on the mind." He sure did: There he was Easter weekend at a luxe late-'50s home in Rancho Mirage, Calif., proudly pushing a stroller and romping in a sunny suburban paradise with five little boys. (Boys, even though he had said he wanted all girls.) One of them was Pitt's spitting image and sat on the star's lap in an old-fashioned paneled station wagon. "Brad was having a blast," says one witness. "Just playing with them like crazy. One kid kept beating him with a toy and Brad thought that was funny as hell."

But Aniston, 36, was no part of this paradise. On March 25, the same day Pitt was playing dad in the desert, she filed for divorce from the 41-year-old actor in Superior Court in L.A. County, emphatically ending any talk that the couple, who announced their separation Jan. 7, might reconcile. She then headed for the Malibu home of her close friend Courteney Cox Arquette. And Pitt the papa? Pure fantasy—or maybe a weird joke, given the "wife" at his side: Angelina Jolie. Gearing up the promotional machinery for Mr. and Mrs. Smith, their upcoming romantic thriller about a married pair of professional assassins, he and costar Jolie, 29, were doing a two-day photo shoot March 25 and 26 for the June issue of W. With Pitt's friend and favorite photographer, Steven Klein, handling the camera, he and Jolie play-acted a happily married couple in a retro, picture-perfect style suggesting an American family of the Kennedy era. False smiles all around. The kids? Hired models.

In short, there was a fun-house-mirror aspect to the whole shoot (which Aniston didn't know about, a source says). How could anyone see those five boys and not think about the flawless marriage that had now proved unsalvageable, and childless, after less than five years? Or the rumors (denied by all parties) that Jolie and Pitt had fallen for each other during the movie's protracted shoot? Even though Pitt and Jolie were also photographed for steamier shots minus the children, "the only time Brad and Angelina came in contact was to take a picture," says the onlooker. Otherwise they kept to separate trailers (Jolie had toted her son Maddox, 3, along with her) and separate rooms at a nearby hotel. Yet "there was definitely that wink-wink feeling on the set."

At one point a member of the crew tried to set the mood by playing Frank Sinatra's "Love and Marriage" on the stereo. "The whole set was laughing—even Brad and Angelina," says the source. "They just kind of snickered."

While Mr. and Mrs. Smith got ready for their close-ups, Mr. and Mrs. Pitt were quietly bidding the world farewell. In the brief, five-page divorce papers, Aniston cites "irreconcilable differences" as the reason for the split, asks to have her name restored to Jennifer Joanna Aniston (she had legally taken Pitt's last name when they married) and, unsurprisingly, doesn't ask for spousal support. (She's worth an estimated $80 million to Pitt's $100 million.) From here, expect the divorce to proceed with a minimum of fuss. If Aniston and Pitt can privately agree on how to divide their property, Pitt need not respond to her filing in court. "Most likely the public will never see their settlement agreement," says L.A. divorce lawyer Lynn Soodik, who has represented Meg Ryan. The divorce could be finalized as soon as September after a mandatory six-month waiting period. "There'll just be some notice that a judgment has been entered," says Soodik, "and that'll be it." One possible point of contention has already been dealt with: Sources say Aniston wants to keep their showcase $13.5 million Beverly Hills mansion (see box). Pitt was ready to sell it and move on, but he doesn't want to make her unhappy: He'll leave it off the market and in her hands.

Not that anyone expected the couple—who remained so close after their separation that reconciliation rumors flew constantly (see sidebar)—to come out fighting at this point. Friends and family reacted to the news of Aniston's filing with disappointment and resignation. "It's sad," one close relative said simply. Friends have said that after their separation, the two did entertain thoughts of getting back together. "The separation is a step back to see if their relationship is going to be forever or if it's not," a source said at the time. That Aniston, not Pitt, was the one to cast the official vote for not may reflect her decision-making in the breakup. She initiated the separation just a step ahead of her husband, sources have said.

Of course, once the decision to divorce was made, Good Friday is an excellent day to drop news into the media pond and hope to reduce the ripples. Aniston may have been the one to file simply to get the ball rolling, according to lawyer Soodik. "It can be like they'll ask each other, 'Who's going to file? Oh, I'll do it.' "

They certainly had ample time together to discuss their options. After the separation announcement, the two sometimes stayed together at their Beverly Hills home, though each also decamped to hotels and other digs for stretches. On Feb. 12 they threw open their home to celebrate Aniston's birthday party with guests such as Gwen Stefani, Gavin Rossdale and Cindy Crawford. During Oscar weekend in February, they showed up separately at a party hosted by CAA agent Bryan Lourd, hung out together (even as Pitt chatted with ex-girlfriend Gwyneth Paltrow and cooed over photos of her baby Apple), then left separately. Next night, same deal at an industry benefit. They stood in a corner with each other and Cox and her husband, David Arquette, Jamie Foxx and Sean Combs. A friend later said that Aniston's pleasure that weekend was genuine—but a reunion? No, said the friend, not in the cards.

That seemed even less likely a few weeks later at Las Vegas's Sho West, Hollywood studios' annual preview extravaganza for theater owners. Pitt and Jolie jetted in together (along with Fox executives) March 17 and gamely touted Mr. and Mrs. Smith while carefully planting their feet at a safe distance from each other. But Aniston, arriving several hours after Pitt and Jolie departed, kept to herself and appeared noticeably glum, even though she accepted a top acting award. Was she girding herself for the unhappy eventuality? Asked by Access Hollywood about dealing with the public fallout of her problems, she said only, "There is always going to be the tough and the nasty. You just tune out to that."

That may be easier for the busy Pitt. As of last week, he and Jolie were still shooting scenes for Mr. and Mrs. Smith, due out June 10 (he was also spotted scooting around L.A. on his motorcycle). "We just finished up with the last little go-around of reshoots last Tuesday," says an insider from the set. "But we're still threatening" to do one more little piece." With that done, Pitt, who last November visited South Africa and Ethiopia to learn about land mines and the HIV crisis, maybe possibly returning there as soon as next month on another humanitarian mission.

Meanwhile, with the release of her comedy Rumor Has It delayed until winter, Aniston now has the whole summer to herself—if she so desires. She has rented a house just up from Cox and Arquette on Carbon Beach. Pitt was said to be eyeing a summer beach house even farther north. Maybe they can train their telescopes on each other, or meet at a cookout in the sand. But however amicable the aftermath, it's done. "Neither of us wants to be the spokesman for happy marriage, for coupledom," Pitt told Vanity Fair last June. "I'll tell you what I despise: This two-becomes-one thing where you lose your individuality. We don't cage each other with this pressure of happily-ever-after." Aniston has opened the cage. For better or worse, they're free.

By Tom Gliatto, Allison Adato and Brooke Bizzell Stachyra. Todd Gold, Michael Fleeman, Kwala Mandel and Pamela Warrick in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Todd Gold,
  • Michael Fleeman,
  • Kwala Mandel,
  • Pamela Warrick.