For 20 tumultuous years Valerie Bertinelli and Eddie Van Halen's rock-steady bond inspired admiration—and sometimes just plain amazement—among their peers. "It's a miracle how that marriage has survived," a friend of the couple's told PEOPLE last fall. "It's all because of her tenacity. Eddie loves her. He listens to her. She's definitely the backbone in that relationship."
But now, after enduring Van Halen's battles with alcohol, his bandmates and even cancer, that bond has finally cracked. On July 2 the former teen-sitcom starlet and the rock-guitar god—the ultimate good girl-bad boy coupling of the '80s—revealed that they have been separated since last October. A source close to Van Halen says Bertinelli, 42, wanted to keep the split secret until after her husband announced he was cancer-free, which occurred in May. "We're friends," says Van Halen, 47. "We love each other. We're just separated. I can't tell you if it will lead to a divorce, because I don't know."
Bertinelli has moved out of the couple's San Fernando Valley home with their only child, Wolfgang, 11. The star of TV's Touched by an Angel declined to comment, calling the situation "really, really personal." But her mother, Nancy, says the actress and her son are "doing great. Valerie said to me that this is something she tried very hard not to have happen, but it finally came to the breaking point." Why? "It's a combination of things that I'd prefer not to go into," says Nancy. "Right now it's just a separation, but I believe it will result in a divorce. I think Valerie is going on with her life." The couple kept their split hidden even from friends. "I had no clue," says MacKenzie Phillips, 42, Bertinelli's costar on the 1975-84 sitcom One Day at a Time and still a pal. "She hasn't talked about it at all. My immediate sense is that the marriage became a brother-sister kind of thing instead of a husband-wife thing. But from my experience with them, they'll be close forever." Former record executive Ted Templeman, a Van Halen buddy, has higher hopes. "I would bet you anything they get back together," he says. "I know how much they both love Wolfie and each other. I think he's probably getting his life together like a lot of us are."
Van Halen's inability to do that in the past has been a cause of strain. Over the years, Bertinelli has urged him into rehab again and again as he has struggled with alcoholism. "Sometimes he has bad bouts and sometimes he has it under control," says a source close to the guitar great. "Eddie's been this way for a million years." Van Halen's fight with mouth cancer put new pressure on the marriage. In 1999 doctors diagnosed a lump on the lifelong smoker's tongue as malignant. He quit smoking and had a portion of his tongue removed in 2000. But a few months later he started lighting up again, and the cancer returned. He was given only a 50 percent chance of survival.
Bertinelli was frightened—and furious. "Valerie is the kind of person who doesn't have any tolerance for somebody who knows what they have to do in order to help themselves and they won't do it," her mother said last fall. "She throws up her hands and says, 'Well, you're on your own.' " It worked: Van Halen chucked the cigarettes again and, after undergoing treatment, declared he was free of cancer in May. "My health is okay," he says. "I feel great."
There's no question the two remain close. They haven't yet filed for legal separation, and Van Halen, who remains in the family's recording-studio-equipped home, says he still sees her "every day." When she returns to Park City, Utah, in mid-July to begin filming her second full season of Touched by an Angel, Van Halen, as he has in the past, will play Mr. Mom. Wolfie "doesn't want to go to school in Park City, so he will stay with his father," says Nancy. "Edward takes him to school and picks him up. Whenever Valerie gets a break, she comes back to L.A."
From the moment they met, friends say the pair seemed inseparable. After attending an August 1980 Van Halen concert in Shreveport, La., Bertinelli went backstage and met Eddie, whom one of his pals calls "ultimately a shy guy without a guitar in his hand." She was 20, a native of Wilmington, Del., and a big TV star. By then, Van Halen, born in the Netherlands and reared in Pasadena, was considered one of the best rock guitarists ever, and his band topped the charts. "The moment they laid eyes on each other, it was like, 'Aw, man, forget it,' " says Templeman. "There was a lot of pressure on him by the band not to marry her, but I think they were meant for each other."
They wed the next year, but the band's wild lifestyle on tour led to rumors the romance was on the rocks. Strife within the band didn't help. In the early '80s Van Halen's flamboyant lead singer, David Lee Roth, forbade Bertinelli—and other members' wives and girlfriends—to come backstage. "Eddie and I used to hang out by ourselves in the tuning room," Bertinelli has said. "The mood was absolutely miserable." Things improved when Roth quit the band in 1985, replaced by Sammy Hagar (who would later also feud bitterly with Eddie). But the guitarist's drinking "put a lot of strain on the marriage," says a Van Halen pal. "It was just bourbon, bourbon, bourbon. He'd be out on the road on tour, then come back home, burnt out and tired with nothing to say, except, 'Hey, I need a drink.' "
Bertinelli took it "very hard," her mother recalled. "Eddie's father was an alcoholic and died from it. Knowing this, Valerie tried hard getting Eddie to rehabilitate himself. He spent quite a few occasions in rehab." She had another savvy tactic: When Van Halen was on tour, "Valerie would show up sometimes unannounced, and hell, that'll keep you straight," Hagar said last year. "Valerie is a pretty strong woman. She's not intimidated."
In 1986 their union took a hit when Bertinelli had a miscarriage. In 1991, after five years of trying to conceive, she gave birth to Wolfie, named for Van Halen's favorite composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Bertinelli cut back her workload to be a full-time mom, and Van Halen sobered up after stumbling in one morning and startling Wolfie. "When your young boy looks at you and says, 'What's wrong, Dad?' it's time to change," he told PEOPLE in 1997.
At Wolfie's school talent show last year, Bertinelli watched misty-eyed as the preteen played drums on Kenny Loggins's "I'm Alright" with his dad at his side on guitar. "Eddie is hardworking at his family life," said Hagar. "Wolfie's gonna be a great little guy." As for his parents, "they've been through a lot," says a friend of the rocker's. "They just ran out of steam for each other."
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