Macaulay Culkin was once the biggest child star since Shirley Temple. After a string of box office flops his career is in tatters, at the age of 15. The only show he is likely to star in resumes today: his parents' acrimonious custody battle. Daniel Jeffreys reports
"It's been quiet around here the last week. We had a crowd here for a week, just camping out. The cameras left last Thursday." Steve works in the lobby of an apartment building on Manhattan's West 60th Street. High above lives Macaulay Culkin, troubled teen star. That was after Culkin's reputation took another swan dive. The star of the Home Alone movies which grossed more than $875m in world box office, the 15-year-old Macaulay has his own apartment in the luxury high-rise. On one Saturday last month he threw a beer party even though he's too young to drink legally. Some neighbours complained and suddenly the New York press had Macaulay pegged as a delinquent teenager.

Culkin made his film career from playing the youngest child in a blissfully happy, all-American family. The press is delighting in the contrast with his real life.

His mother, Patricia Brentrup, still lives in the West 60th Street building where the family has five apartments. She is separated from Kit Culkin, Macaulay's father. They are fighting a vicious battle for the custody of their seven children.

Kit, 51, was a child actor himself. He played with Laurence Olivier on Broadway when he was 17, which turned out to be the peak of his theatrical achievements. Kit is often blamed for alienating Hollywood's most powerful agents and producers and bringing Macaulay's career close to collapse. Once the hottest kid since Shirley Temple, Macaulay has no projects on his calendar and industry insiders say he no longer has an asking price. The days when he could be paid $8m for starring in a bomb like Richie Rich are in the past.

In court papers, Patricia Brentrup charges that Kit Culkin has deliberately destroyed the movie careers of Macaulay and Kieran, Macaulay's 12-year- old brother. She also alleges that Kit Culkin is guilty of infidelity, alchololism and physical abuse. Macaulay's father denies the charges.

At stake in the court battle, which enters another stage today with an interim custody hearing, is the $40m fortune, the sum the Home Alone star is said to have in the bank. It won't be settled until a full custody case begins on 4 December, but, based on past form, Kit Culkin faces the prospect of having his access to his child star son strictly controlled by the court.

Until this summer, Macaulay Culkin was lumped in with his father, taking some of the criticisms for unreasonable behaviour. Now there's growing concern for what might happen to his mental health as the cute kid becomes an adult. It is, after all, a path that America has trodden before with child stars doomed to at best a distorted adult life, from Shirley Temple to Carrie Fisher and Michael Jackson.

Daniel Stern played one of the burglars in the Home Alone movies. He says Macaulay Culkin's box-office failures may be destroying his confidence. "If a kid star is in a movie and it fails, the kid feels like it's his fault. On the other hand, if the movie is a hit, kids like Mac lose in another way because there's too much attention focused on them."

Macaulay has had it both ways. The Home Alone films made him king of cuteness, the impish scamp who cannot be bested - at least not by two dim-witted thugs. Then came the movies that got bashed by critics and died at the box office: 1993 saw a trio of duds, The Nutcracker, Getting Even with Dad and The Good Son, in which Mac shoots family pets and tries to drown his sister. By the tender age of 14, Macaulay was in need of a comeback film. What he got was Richie Rich and The Pagemaster, both of which were disappointments.

"I think Macaulay Culkin must be in a fragile state of mind," says the Los Angeles psychiatrist Dr Michael Schwartzman. "In one sense I'm relieved about the beer parties, at least that's normal adolescent behaviour." Dr Schwartzman has treated several child actors and athletes and he says the children with broken families always cope badly when a career slump comes along. "They get depressed when their careers are no longer glittering, they feel a real sense of loss. It's as though they have to start their lives again. Clearly, for somebody of that age, you need a lot of parental support."

This summer that was not much in evidence when the family was in Montana, where Kieran Culkin was acting in the movie Amanda. Kit Culkin had taken his children on a rafting trip and they then returned to their father's hotel where he took a nap. When he woke up the children had been taken away by Patricia Brentrup to the house she was renting close to the set. Kit called to say he was coming over to get them. The children's nanny took them to a neighbour's house and called the police. Kit Culkin arrived and hammered on the doors. The police dispatcher said she could hear screaming in the background.

Carrie Fisher knows what it's like to be a child star who then suffers a meteoric burn out. Princess Leia of Star Wars is now a successful author and screenwriter. She lives in Beverly Hills with her young daughter, Billie. "I want to get her out of here before she comes home and asks me for a nose job," says Fisher, who can sympathise with Macaulay Culkin's plight. Her parents split when she was young and trying to cope with a public life. "Macaulay Culkin is a great example of all the dangers in child stardom," says Fisher. "Kids are people pleasers and stardom turns you into a freak. As a child you want to fit in, but your profession tells you to stick out."

The Beverly Hills psychiatrist Dr Stan Ziegler, who specialises in the treatment of child actors, says the prospect facing Macaulay Culkin now is that at the age of 15, when most kids are worrying about spots, he is anxious that a multi-million-dollar career is in tatters. Dr Ziegler says that many of his clients have their development arrested when their television series or movie career ends. "These kids are treated like royalty," says Dr Ziegler. "At first, kids love the feeling, then many say they feel degraded."

Despite the risks, the stream of future Macaulay Culkins still flows fast and deep. At Coast to Coast Talent Group in Los Angeles they are preparing for the next batch of hopefuls. January to April is the television industry's pilot season, the time when producers hunt for kids to appear in the new autumn line-ups.

"There's an apartment complex in Oakwood that lives for this season," says Meredith Fine at Coast to Coast. "This last year Oakwood Park housed the families of 350 wannabes. Parents spend $6,000 for their three-month stay."

"Parents think they will do better than the Culkins and they always think their kids have more of the right stuff," Fine says. "Every time there is a new child star the stream of new hopefuls increases."

The money helps. "I have a five-year-old client who has made $150,000 annually for the past three years," says Fine, who keeps 10 per cent of each kid actor's total earnings. Patricia Brentrup and Kit Culkin have been splitting a 15 per cent agent's fee for Macaulay Culkin and his younger brother Keiran.

If Macaulay Culkin gets really desperate or the beer dries up, he could call Paul Petersen, a former child star on television who now runs a support group called A Minor Consideration. Petersen wants the Screen Actors Guild to provide independent business managers for children under the age of 18. "That would protect kids from rip-offs and their parents. It's the worst thing for a parent to be agent and father or mother. It undermines the child's sense of trust."

With $40m in his trust fund Mac might just have a life plan right there. Jodie Foster and Elizabeth Taylor are two rare examples of child stars who survived into adult careers. But things do not look good.

"What could destroy the kid from here is the custody battle," says Stan Ziegler. "Kit Culkin was the mastermind behind his career and Patricia Brentrup was the supportive mom. Now those roles have been turned upside down just when his career is in the toilet.

"If this doesn't work out for him soon, he will have awful resentments towards his parents," Dr Ziegler says. "In my book, that's a near guarantee of severe maladjustment."

Not to mention a dismal life trudging around talk shows to talk about his life, especially as Macaulay is now too old to play at Home Alone and has yet to establish a reputation as a young adult. And then there is the prospect of the next Macaulay Culkin to look forward to, replacing him in the business, so that at 15 he can be washed up, his working life to all intents and purposes over.