"I Was Just Hoping To Disappear"

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Socks. That's what Macaulay Culkin remembers most about the fire that destroyed his family's New York City apartment two days before Christmas in 1998. Culkin, who was living a few blocks away, heard about the blaze in the middle of the night. When he finally reached his family, who had taken refuge in a downtown hotel, he asked if they needed anything. Roused out of bed, they had been standing outside in the wet snow. What they needed most, they said, was dry socks.

To the rest of the world, of course, the fire (which resulted in four deaths, and lawsuits) was just more fodder for the irresistible tabloid spectacle of a former child star's long spiral downward. There were, first of all, those chilling tales of his domineering father and manager, Kit. Then came the trial in which Macaulay sought to gain control of his entire fortune, estimated at $17 million. He grew up all too speedily, marrying actress Rachel Miner at age 17; they separated, all too predictably, two years later. And one of his best friends is Michael Jackson. "He's a good guy," says Culkin. "We make sure we're there for each other." Which raises the inevitable question: Is this kid still on earth, or in Neverland?

His career, at least, is being rebuilt on a solid foundation. This week Culkin, now 20, will open off-Broadway in Madame Melville, a Richard Nelson play that drew rave reviews in London, in which he plays a 15-year-old student who is seduced by his French teacher (Joely Richardson). His performance, at least in previews, struck this viewer as a bit tentative and mannered. But offstage, Culkin--who talks politely and openly, in between puffs from a pack of Parliaments--appears to have his feet somewhere in the vicinity of the ground.

"People thought I was doing heroin and spending all of my money, the whole cliche, classic tale of a child star," says Culkin. "But I'm not going to go down that route." Sure, there's been some weird kid behavior. He dyed his hair purple and, when he got his first credit card, bought "a whole bunch of stupid stuff that I didn't even really want," like a tux-and-tails outfit, complete with top hat and monocle. But life is hardly simple for a boy who became the world's most recognizable 10-year-old with the success of Home Alone. Even now he has "a semi-fear of the outdoors" and rarely goes out to movies ("sometimes the theater experience is a little, you know, there's a person chatting in front of you, a person coughing next to you..."). He watches wrestling and The Simpsons on TV and just bought a 5,000-sq.-ft. apartment in Greenwich Village for himself and his three cats.

Though he remains close to his mother and six siblings, he hasn't spoken to his father in four years. "He was an abusive man," says Culkin. "Not so much physical, though there was a little bit of that. It was this mental abuse." Kit Culkin, a former actor who served as his son's manager, kept the movie projects coming, even when Macaulay pleaded for rest. "I just wanted a little bit of a break. I wanted a summer vacation for the first time in, you know, forever." Macaulay says he didn't even have his own bed in the family apartment. "[Kit] had a king-size bed and a big-screen TV, and I was sleeping on the couch. It was just something he was doing to kind of break your spirit, I figure."

Kit Culkin, now split from Macaulay's mother (they never married) and living in Phoenix, Ariz., won't talk about his son. But his girlfriend, reached by TIME, relates that Kit went to London to see Macaulay onstage (getting a ticket under an assumed name) and sent him a congratulatory telegram. "Thankfully I didn't see it until a week after opening," says Macaulay. "I think it's funny that he hasn't tried to make contact with me in years. The one time he tries to, it's in this very cold telegram, basically wishing me luck just because I'm getting back to work."

Macaulay quit movies in 1994 after his 15th film in seven years and went to a private high school in Manhattan (he dropped out during senior year). He has fended off plenty of acting offers ("I could have done a million cheesy teen movies by now"), but was persuaded by producer Gregory Mosher to try theater, which he hadn't done since some child roles in the 1980s. Now he's willing to see where his second show-biz career takes him. "When I stopped, I just thought it was over and I was never, ever going to do it again ... I was just hoping to disappear off the face of the earth. It took me about six years to figure out you can't back out of this." And to realize that the only tabloid story as good as a child star spiraling downhill is one making a comeback.