Second Act

updated 05/21/2001 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/21/2001 AT 01:00 AM EDT

What with his long nights performing at London's Vaudeville Theatre last fall, his PlayStation addiction and the ever-present paparazzi, Macaulay Culkin wasn't getting much of a taste of a lad's life. So Aidan Watts, his Madame Melville costar, took the 20-year-old Yank out to root for the home team—West Ham United. Amid soccer fans oblivious to his celebrity, Culkin reveled in football fever. "I taught him all the West Ham songs," says Watts, 39, including one that ridicules the ref. "He managed to pick that one up pretty quickly." During the play's final London performance March 11, Culkin learned the team had lost in the Football Association tournament. At the curtain, "we were all crying," jokes Watts, "not because the show had finished but because West Ham was out of the cup."

Tough for the team, but as for Culkin himself, he is very much back in the game. Six years ago the Home Alone minimegastar quit acting, burned out at age 14. "He thought he could just disappear," says his mother, Patricia Brentrup. "He just thought he would outgrow that look, hat no one would know who he was when he was older. I said, 'Face it, until the day you die you are always going to be the Home Alone kid.'" In fact, Culkin's dramatic home life kept him in the headlines even after he gave up movies. At 15, he was the center of a bitter custody battle; at 17, he became a husband; and at 19, he and his teenage bride, actress Rachel Miner, separated.

Now, finally, the onetime child star is going public again—and getting a warm welcome. After winning wow reviews in the West End for his performance in Madame Melville—he plays a 15-year-old who is seduced by his French teacher—Culkin is now drawing praise from critics in New York City, where the play opened May 3 for a four-month Off-Broadway run. "There was no way for him to sneak back," says one of its producers, Gregory Mosher. "He had to do it in the full public glare, and he was grace under pressure." Says Culkin: "It feels weird to be back, but it feels good."

After six months abroad he was equally relieved to return to his home town and the 5,000-sq.-ft. Greenwich Village apartment he shares with 500 DVDs and his three cats. "I missed my family and I missed my apartment," he says. He often stops in to see Brentrup, 46, who lives near the Promenade Theatre with his six siblings, two of whom are up-and-coming actors. Kieran, 18, costarred in The Cider House Rules, and Rory, 11, in You Can Count on Me. "I'm very proud of him," Brentrup says of Mack. "He's got a good head on his shoulders."

Separated from Miner, 20, since August, Culkin has remained in touch with her. "Oh, they're civil. They talk," says Brentrup, adding that Miner, whose latest movie, Bully, is scheduled to open in July, visited the family at Brentrup's apartment on Christmas Day. "We still love each other, and it's just a very weird situation right now," Culkin told 20/20 last fall. "We both needed to take a step back."

Part of the problem with his marriage, Culkin has admitted, was the reclusive routine he developed to cope with his fame. Indeed, in London Culkin tended to hole up in his hotel room playing video games or watching sports or quiz shows. When he did emerge, it was to spend several evenings with New York-born model Agatha Relota, 19—"they know each other from school," says Brentrup—or take tango lessons with Irene Jacob, his costar at the time. He even squeezed in a lengthy chat with Britney Spears at her European tour's farewell bash at a London nightclub.

In March he enjoyed a play date with Michael Jackson, a pal since his Home Alone days. Jackson and Culkin, who is godfather to Jackson's two children, went on a DVD shopping spree together. "Michael's still a kid. I'm still a kid," Culkin told New York magazine. "We're both going to be about 8 years old forever...because we never had a chance to be 8 when we actually were." Through a spokesman, Jackson says of Culkin, "He is Huckleberry Finn to my Tom Sawyer."

Culkin's relationship with his father, Kit Culkin, 56, is a different story. The two have not spoken since 1997, when the notoriously hard-driving stage dad was a no-show for a court date in his custody fight with Brentrup. "I was making God knows how much money, and Kit was making me sleep on the couch just because he could," Macaulay told New York magazine. "He beat our spirits down." In the custody hearings, says Brentrup, Kit "made it so that poor kid could never, ever have feelings for this man." Kit now lives in Phoenix and suffers from a debilitating spinal disease. He flew to London to watch his son in Madame Melville, says his girlfriend, day trader Jeanette Krylowski, 56. (Kit declined an interview, but Krylowski disputes Macaulay's suggestions that Kit emotionally abused him or made him crash on the couch.) Kit "didn't try to see Mack" in London, she says. "He just wanted to know for himself that Mack did well."

For years Macaulay did quite well under Kit's management. Having started acting Off-Broadway at age 4 and making his movie debut at 8 in 1988's Rocket Gibraltar, Culkin would become the highest-paid child actor ever at $8 million a film. Released in 1990, Home Alone made more than $500 million worldwide. But as Macaulay's clout grew, so did Kit's reputation as a difficult, bullying negotiator. Meanwhile, "I was telling him I was tired and needed time off," Macaulay told Britain's The Times. "He said, 'No problem,' but it just never happened. After that I turned myself off. It was just about saying the lines so that Dad didn't get mad at me."

Finally, in the wake of his parents' split and flops like 1993's The Good Son, Culkin called it quits. Granted control of his estimated $17 million fortune, he moved to an apartment with brothers Shane, 24, and Kieran. Culkin admits he started chain-smoking and that he experimented with drugs, but says he was never addicted. "People thought I was doing heroin and spending all of my money, the whole cliché, classic tale of a child star," he told TIME. In 1998 Culkin tied the knot with Miner, a classmate at Manhattan's Professional Children's School. (Culkin dropped out in his senior year.) Why wed so young? Brentrup, who was never married to Kit, offers a possible reason: "I think he wanted to not be like his father."

Six months later the family was tested again. Culkin and Miner were living nearby when a fire broke out in Brentrup's high-rise apartment. Brentrup and Culkin's siblings barely escaped, and four people died in the blaze, which originated in an electrical heating unit. (Several lawsuits are pending against Brentrup and other defendants.)

Culkin, who says the play was an ideal chance "to do a good piece of material with good people," is writing his memoirs in his spare time—"more self-therapeutic than anything else," he says. He feels his acting now is very different from his childhood career. "It was controlled by a lot of other people. Now I am just doing what I want to do," he says. Culkin is open to the idea of returning to film but has no current project. "I'm having a great time. That is all I can really ask for."

Samantha Miller
K.C. Baker and Rebecca Paley in New York City and Pete Norman, Liz Corcoran and York Membery in London

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