A FEW WEEKS AGO, IN A TOYS "R" US store in Santa Maria. Calif., not far from his Neverland Ranch, Michael Jackson. 34, and his pal Macaulay Culkin, 12, were pushing a shopping cart filled with water blasters, talking robots and battery-powered laser guns. In one aisle they came upon a 12-inch doll bearing the likeness of Kevin McCallister, the suburban imp Culkin portrayed in the 1990 sleeper Home Alone and now reprises in its much awaited sequel, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, opening this week. The Gloved One grabbed the doll ($9.99 retail) and pressed a button in back, which caused it to throw up its hands and emit Kevin's trademark "Aaaaahhhhhh!"
Laughing devilishly, Michael started to tease Macaulay (Mack to his family and friends) by thrusting his Lilliputian look-alike at him.
"Cut it out. Michael!"
Fearing, perhaps, for his features, Michael did—and the two giggled their way up the aisle.
Ever since he became a household name with Home Alone (which took in $507 million worldwide, carrying it to a place in the box office firmament just below E.T. and Star Wars as the third highest-grossing movie ever), the world has become Macaulay Culkin's toy store. Not only is he moonwalking with pop icons (Mack had a cameo in Jackson's Black or White video), he's also lending his voice to Wishkid, a Saturday-morning cartoon show, and seeing his image emblazoned on a vast array of Home Alone spin-off products. (In addition to the talking Kevin doll, there's the $29.99 Talkboy cassette recorder that Mack uses conspicuously throughout Home 2, as well as video games, sleepwear, nap mats, T-shirts and trading cards.)
Now the 4'7", 78-lb. Macaulay is about to become bigger still, thanks to a big-budget sequel that represents the movie industry's highest hope for the all-important Christmas season. But what his fans love most is Macaulay's extraordinary ability to seem absolutely normal. "Kids really liked Home Alone," says its writer-producer, John Hughes, "because Kevin was like them. He didn't have superhuman powers. He foiled the burglars with plain old stuff from around the house."
Hughes works only a slight variation on that formula in Home Alone 2, as Kevin loses his family at Chicago's O'Hare Airport and winds up spending Christmas alone in Manhattan, where he cons his way into a fancy suite at the Plaza Hotel. As costar Rob Schneider (Saturday Night Livens "Makin' copies" nerd) puts it, "He basically makes jerks of all of us." That includes Home's bungling burglars Harry and Marv (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern), who once again get bonked, burnt, nailed, catapulted, blown up and slimed. (Stern calls their scenes "well-executed slapstick"—especially when Kevin turns the juice up on a shocked Marv. "I raised and lowered my voice when he did that, and Mack thought it was pretty funny.")
For such nifty tricks, Macaulay's salary has skyrocketed from the $100,000 he earned as the 8-year-old star of Home I to $4.5 million (plus 5 percent of the gross) for the sequel—a deal that puts him comfortably above Harrison Ford (who gets a reported $3 million per picture) and not far below Julia Roberts
(who commands about $6 million). Mack will edge into Jack Nicholson territory in his next role, a reported $8 million turn as comicbook hero Richie Rich. He also has a $1 million commercial deal with Sprite and could collect an additional $5 million for Home Alone 2 product tie-ins.
The architects of Mack's financial success are his parents, Kit, 49, and Pat, 38, who, after the surprise success of the first Home Alone, quit their jobs (Kit, himself a former child actor, was working as a Catholic church sacristan in New York City, Pat was a local answering-service operator) so they could manage their son's career.
That suited Mack just fine. "My parents read a script and tell me what I'm going to do in it," Mack has said. And even if he hasn't seriously considered pursuing a career before the cameras—"I don't think about stuff that far ahead," he explains—Kit and Pat clearly have.
"The Culkins are making sure that Macaulay's future is secure as an actor, not as an investment," says Fox licensing and merchandising president Albert Ovadia. To that end they have tried to balance Mack's career with some roles that do not require him to swing a sewer pipe into an on-rushing face.
The first post—Home Alone project Kit and Pat steered Mack toward. however, was 1991's quirky My Girl, in which Mack's character was killed near the end shocking and disappointing many of his fans.
Kit also lobbied then Fox studio chief Joe Roth—as part of his deal to let Mack do the Home Alone sequel—to cast his son in another serious part: a psychotic evil cousin in The Good Son. The film's director, Michael (Hudson Honk) Lehmann, objected to casting Macaulay. arguing that he wasn't right for the role. He eventually resigned from the project when it became clear that Culkin was staying. A year later, the movie is still in limbo, though Macaulay gets to keep his $2.5 million fee, even if the film never gets made.
The strain of managing a millionaire child actor has taken its toll on the Culkins. Shortly after Home Alone came out, the couple separated. When they reconciled a few months later, Pat blamed the split on her husband's business travels. "It's difficult living apart when you're used to a balance," she said. Certainly their most famous son seems accustomed to a stable, down-to-earth existence. Mack, who lives with his parents and six siblings (he is the third eldest) in a five-bedroom Upper East Side brownstone, is a voracious TV viewer. "I watch everything. My parents can't limit me," he has boasted, "because I have a TV in my room and a lock on my door." And now, along with his other passions—bowling, Nintendo games, pro wrestling—you can add girls.
But this is hardly the boy next door. And like many a male star before him, he has fallen for a model—Ford model Laura Bundy, 11, scheduled to make her acting debut next spring in a Disney remake of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. She and seventh-grader Mack attend Manhattan's elite Professional Children's School.
For the most part, Mack seems comfortable in his privileged world. Yet sometimes he can't help but be a prisoner of his fame. Catherine O'Hara (Mack's movie mom) recalls that "when we shot in New York, there was this crowd outside his trailer screaming for him. It was like he was the four Beatles all in one little boy. I told him to put his head out and say, 'What do you want?. I'm only a child.' "Besides, he's the one paid to do the screaming.
MICHAEL A. LIPTON
KAREN G. JACKOVICH in Los Angeles and BONNIE BELL in Chicago