Melina Gerosa and Margot Dougherty
December 07, 1990 AT 05:00 AM EST

On a rainy May afternoon this year, Macaulay Culkin was exactly where a 9-year-old boy ought to be: in school. But Culkin wasn’t at Chicago’s New Trier West High for its classes. The school, shuttered years ago, had been taken over for the filming of Home Alone, a comedy written and produced by John Hughes (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), and Culkin was its star. If there was pressure on him, however, it was hardly showing. New Trier West’s cavernous gymnasium had been converted to one of the movie’s sets, and Culkin turned it into his own indoor playground when the cameras weren’t rolling. In one corner of the gym, representing a messy suburban basement, he casually rearranged the props for a little impromptu croquet. First he cleared away a dress form and some Halloween skulls from the floor. Then he placed an old football helmet on its side, and backed up. Finally, dropping a croquet ball on the floor, he took a swing with a mallet and — thwack! — a helmet in one. ”Yes!” shouted Culkin, raising his small fist in the air.

Home Alone has become this holiday season’s first major blockbuster, and with its success Culkin has scored a hat trick in little more than a year. The young actor first found fame playing John Candy’s nephew in 1989’s Uncle Buck. This year he appeared as Tim Robbins’ angelic son in Jacob’s Ladder. But as Home Alone‘s Kevin McCallister, Culkin makes the transition from sidekick to lead.

Home‘s phenomenal success demonstrates the growing clout that kids — both on-screen and in the audience — are showing at the box office. The movie broke the preholiday fall release record (held by 1989’s Harlem Nights) by pulling in more than $17 million its opening weekend (it earned another $28 million over the long Thanksgiving weekend), kicking the daylights out of Stallone’s heavyweight Rocky V in the process. ”Rocky is probably wondering, ‘Who is this kid? I want to beat the crap out of him,”’ Culkin says gleefully. And Home Alone is only the first of an onslaught of child movies. After the 1989 hits Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and Look Who’s Talking, movie marketers fervently embraced the idea of putting small faces on the big screen. Three Men and a Little Lady opened to strong business over Thanksgiving weekend, and the sequel Look Who’s Talking Too and Kindergarten Cop, with Arnold Schwarzenegger as a policeman who poses as a teacher, are expected to jam multiplexes this Christmas.

But while the kids in those movies play roles supporting such grown-ups as Tom Selleck and John Travolta, Culkin is the star of Home Alone. In the movie, he gets to run wild as an 8-year-old who receives for Christmas every child’s greatest wish and biggest fear: having his house to himself. (His family overlooks him in a frenzied rush to the airport and his parents are halfway to Paris before they realize their awful mistake.) Taking advantage of the situation, Kevin goes sledding down the front stairs, watches trashy television, eats junk food for dinner, and then defends his home from a pair of bungling burglars, played by Joe Pesci (GoodFellas) and Daniel Stern (Coupe De Ville).

In light of the movie’s popularity, Hughes’ concept for Home Alone now seems surefire, but it didn’t always look that way. Warner Bros. was originally slated to release the movie but backed out four weeks before filming was to begin. ”They were concerned about the [$15 million] budget,” says executive producer Scott Rosenfelt (Mystic Pizza). ”As they saw it, it was a big movie to hang on a 9-year-old.” Twentieth Century Fox, willing to take the gamble, picked up the movie. But despite confidence in Hughes, Culkin, and what Rosenfelt calls ”a wonderfully commercial script,” the producers still took precautions to minimize the risks inherent in an expensive film with a star whose greatest love is Nintendo. ”The idea was to have strong actors around Macaulay,” says Rosenfelt. ”Normally we wouldn’t have had to cast names like Catherine O’Hara (Betsy’s Wedding), or John Heard (Big), or Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern.”

The actors were good insurance, but the movie’s most important big name was Hughes, the 40-year-old writer-director-producer whose Hollywood clout is so complete that he doesn’t have to live or even work there. Instead he operates his own film fiefdom, Hughes Entertainment, in suburban Chicago. Hughes made his name directing teen comedies and dramas such as Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Pretty in Pink — sophisticated coming-of-age films that grabbed grown-ups as well as adolescents. It’s perhaps a sign of the times that he has now turned his attention to smaller fry. ”I used to take my kids (now ages 11 and 14) to see animated pictures when they were little, and I’d end up out in the lobby with all the other fathers who couldn’t sit through 101 Dalmatians again,” Hughes says. ”And I thought, what if we did a picture that didn’t put the kids to sleep and entertained the parents at the same time?”

Hughes turned his finished Home Alone script over to director Chris Columbus, 31, with a suggestion to consider Culkin for the lead. The young actor had nearly upstaged star John Candy in Uncle Buck (his deadpan interrogation of Candy was Buck‘s funniest scene), and Hughes thought he could handle a movie of his own. The suggestion made sense; Culkin boasts experience to match that of much older performers.

The third of seven children in a stagestruck Manhattan family — his father is a former stage actor, his aunt is actress Bonnie Bedelia, his brother Shane, 14, acts on Broadway, and his brother Kieran, 8, appeared with him in both Uncle Buck and Home — Culkin first trod the boards over half a lifetime ago at age 4, appearing in a string of Off-Broadway shows, the New York City Ballet’s Nutcracker, and the films Rocket Gibraltar and See You in the Morning. By the age of 7, he was in the rarefied company of kids who have received rave reviews from The New Yorker and The New York Times.

Columbus first met Culkin in 1989 between rehearsals for The Nutcracker. ”I was impressed, but he was the very first kid I saw,” says the director, a Steven Spielberg protégé who scripted The Goonies, Gremlins, and Young Sherlock Holmes. ”So I thought there was no way I would cast him. We saw about 200 other kids — none of them came close to Mack.” Still, Columbus was apprehensive. ”There was a lot of dialogue and I wasn’t convinced he could do it,” he says. By the callback interview, Mack had memorized two scenes, and Columbus was sure.

”Mack is not like a 9-year-old,” says costar Joe Pesci. ”It’s like working with a 30-year-old midget. He’s an old man already.” Columbus agrees: ”Mack is such an intelligent kid and so far advanced it’s like working with an adult.” But not everyone involved with the film was enamored of Culkin’s special status. ”There was an actor or two who had problems with me blocking scenes around Mack and having him be the focus of attention,” says Columbus. ”It was just painfully obvious that he was the star.”

Working with such a youngster required Home Alone‘s producers to make certain adjustments. For example, most leading men don’t bring their parents along on a shoot, but Culkin’s mother, Pat, or father, Kit, accompanies him to all locations. Also, as part of their contractual agreements, the movie’s child actors appeared before a judge, who looked into their working conditions and asked if they knew where their money was going (Culkin reportedly received a salary ”in the low six figures”), before the cameras rolled. The Board of Education in Illinois also requires that school-age actors must receive three hours of instruction per day and an hour for lunch. Since Culkin couldn’t be on the set for more than 10 hours at a stretch, that left him only six hours for shooting. The restrictions, along with the film’s intricate gags and special effects, made Home Alone ”a very difficult movie to mount,” says producer Rosenfelt. ”The tough part,” adds Columbus, who often directed with his baby daughter, Eleanor, in his arms, ”was scheduling our time around Mack. I’d usually start the day with him and then find something for Joe and Dan to do.”

Even so, the days could be long for Culkin. One afternoon near the end of shooting, dressed in army fatigues and boots, with a toy gun slung over his shoulder, Culkin was supposed to be taunting the robbers into chasing him up a flight of stairs. ”Up here, you morons!” he shouted. But even at full throttle, the boy’s voice could barely be heard. During the lengthy pauses between takes, he sprawled on the top step and his eyelids fluttered, then dropped. ”You can tell when he’s tired,” Columbus says. ”He just slows down.”

”Sometimes during the filming I felt pressure,” admits Culkin, who has already seen the movie six times. ”I had to do so many things at one time and I was like, ‘Okay, what do I have to do first?’ And I had to keep on doing lines over and over because I would keep on forgetting.” To help him along, Columbus introduced a learning incentive. ”During rehearsals, we had a deal,” he recalls. ”Mack could play Nintendo if he’d memorized his lines. He’d show up and go through the entire script in about 15 minutes.”

Since Home Alone‘s opening, Culkin has adapted as easily to the demands of celebrity as he did to the challenges of acting. Sporting a hip new haircut and clad in faded jeans, he is relaxing in an enormous limousine that carries him, his dad, a publicist, and assorted siblings on a lengthy victory lap of press interviews and TV appearances in New York. ”I drive around in limos a lot with my family and stuff,” he says. ”Sometimes we even have two.” While the car creeps through holiday traffic, Macaulay’s sister Quinn and brother Kieran pass his Nintendo Game Boy back and forth. ”Probably the worst part of doing interviews,” Culkin notes, ”is that I can’t play with my Nintendo.” Sometimes he also finds the hoards of autograph seekers a little overwhelming. ”I need a ski mask so they can’t see my face,” he says.

Despite the pressures, Culkin keeps his priorities straight. Asked to name his 10 favorite things, he reels off a list that has nothing to do with the perks of stardom: ”Nintendo, TV, going to video arcades, sleeping, eating (fruit usually, I don’t really have a sweet tooth), hanging out with my friend Solomon, skateboarding (downhill’s my favorite), summer, watching wrestling (Ultimate Warrior is my favorite wrestler), and basketball (Michael Jordan is the best).”

After filming on Home Alone wrapped, Culkin did not waste any time idling: He put in an acting stint at Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute (a Utah retreat where actors, writers, and directors try out new movie ideas), filmed an ad for Nynex and, along with Kieran, worked on Columbus’ next movie, Only the Lonely, starring Candy. Now he’s back in the relative quiet of fifth grade at his Catholic school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where he will no doubt entertain his classmates with his acquired movie jargon. Culkin sits back and gives his rendition of the ”five favorite words” — phrases actually — he picked up on the set: ”’Hour lunch’; ‘It’s a wrap’; ‘See you tomor — no, see you next Monday’; ‘See you at the screening’; and, ummm, ‘It was nice working with you.”’ He should have plenty of opportunity to streamline the delivery.

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