As She Likes It

02/28/2002 at 01:30 PM EST

At least one purpose of the calls, says the source, was to help him get work on a low-budget film called Grand Champion. Starring Roberts's 11-year-old niece Emma (the daughter of her estranged older brother Eric, 45) and written and directed by longtime friend Barry Tubb, Champion was filmed last May and June in the tiny town of Snyder, Texas. The cast and crew stayed at the modest motel-style Beacon Lodge, where Moder had room 22, with Roberts, acting as Emma's guardian, next door. On a circle of grass enclosed by the motel, she and the Champion gang "barbecued and played music and football," says Beacon owner Shirley Schulze. Roberts was "very sweet and low-maintenance," Schulze adds. "A maid would come by, and she'd just tell her to leave fresh bed linen and she'd take care of it." Though now and then Roberts and Moder sat outside their rooms chatting and sipping soft drinks, their friendship, says Schulze, seemed just that: "It was innocent."

Roberts's idyll was jolted back into reality on June 28, when the news finally broke that she and Bratt were no longer an item. While promoting America's Sweethearts, Roberts gamely fielded questions about her love life, telling David Letterman that "I've been practicing in front of the mirror: 'Hi, I'm Julia. I'm single.' " Back in L.A., however, Vera Moder wasn't buying the act. According to one family friend, the marriage was already strained: "They were both on location a lot." Still, when her husband moved out of their Woodland Hills, Calif., home in late June, says another source, "Vera was devastated. She tried to reason with him. She said, 'Look at Julia's dating life. Are you going to give up four years of marriage for a fling?' "

The youngest son of Mike Moder, 65, a Hollywood producer (Beverly Hills Cop, Crimson Tide), and his homemaker wife, Patty, Danny did not see it as a casual affair. But his family, including four L.A-based siblings, "were resistant to Julia because they all loved Vera," says a friend of the Moders'. When Patty died on Aug. 20 at age 63, Roberts had to walk a fine line between comforting her new beau and offending his grieving family. She apparently succeeded: At the end of August the Moder clan invited Roberts to their vacation home in Big Bear, about 100 miles from L.A. "They went waterskiing," says a friend, "and Julia went with them." Despite their sadness over the end of Moder's marriage, he adds, "they do like Julia."

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