On Jan. 7, 1993, director Tony Bill sat down in his Venice, Calif., office and addressed a letter to Edward Furlong's agent. Bill had recently returned from the Utah set of A Home of Our Own, a family drama starring Kathy Bates as an impoverished mother of six. He wrote: ''Eddie Furlong didn't choose the movies, the movies chose him and it has taken a heavy toll.''
Bill, whose experience directing young actors dates back to 1980's My Bodyguard, then described a child cut adrift. ''I found it astounding and dismaying,'' he wrote, ''that in over eight weeks of shooting, not once did his guardians ask me about his performance, his abilities, or his problems.''
''Who's taking care of this kid? At fifteen, he is certainly not,'' the director wrote. ''(H)is guardians do just that: guard him from criticism, from hard work, from self-awareness.''
Bill went on to urge ''a thorough regimen of physical exercise,'' coordination therapy, and acting classes. And then he wrote: ''Be assured that I'm not criticizing Eddie. The deck has been stacked against him and he is truly a victim.''
Warnings don't come any clearer. And 15 months later, his concern is still vivid. ''In 30 years,'' Bill says now, ''I've never worked with a kid who was so clearly on a path to disaster.''
Furlong's life has always had its private turmoil. When the casting director of Terminator 2 first spotted him standing on the steps of the Pasadena Boys Club in September 1990, Edward Walter Furlong was a guarded, slight 13-year-old boy whose mother, at a difficult point in her life, had recently let him live with relatives. One year later, the world knew him as the sweet-faced kid who taught Arnold Schwarzenegger how to act human, and Furlong had suddenly been launched into a Hollywood career for which he and his now-warring family had no preparation. His talents have continued to impress in Pet Sematary Two, American Heart, and A Home of Our Own. But behind the scenes, Furlong has been at the center of a bickering triangle of guardians whose charges and countercharges concerning abuses of money and power make a textbook study of the ways in which a child actor can find himself with nobody to protect him. Among those vying for the role:
*Eddie's mother, Eleanor Torres, 35, who in May 1990, a year after separating from his stepfather, Moises Torres (Eleanor won't say who Eddie's father is), let Eddie live with her siblings. She regained nominal guardianship of her son last Aug. 24.
*Eleanor's sister, Nancy Tafoya, 34, and her half brother, Sean Furlong, 25, who took in Eddie in May 1990, won guardianship of his person in September 1991, then lost it last Aug. 24.
*L.A. lawyer Bruce Ross, 47, who has served as the court-appointed guardian of Furlong's finances since September 1991.
*Jacqueline Louise Domac, 29, who was Furlong's stand-in on the set of Terminator 2, became his private tutor in September 1992, and now, to all appearances, is his live-in lover. Last September she brought him to her L.A. home to stay.
After much deliberation, Furlong opted not to talk about the issues raised here. His publicist states: ''Eddie does not want to be interviewed (for) an article involving so many misstatements about his personal life.'' Domac also declined to comment.
Shortly after signing Edward Furlong to star opposite Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2, director James Cameron called Sean Furlong, who recalls him asking, ''Do you guys know what you're getting into?'' Someone might well have posed the same question to Cameron, for as T2 began production, a fierce custody fight was brewing between Torres and her siblings, which raged for the duration of the T2 shoot, each side accusing the other of being more interested in money than in Eddie. ''It was extremely upsetting to Edward,'' says B.J. Rack, one of T2's producers. ''Here was this kid who had never been on a movie set, subjected to five months of the most high-profile experience one could imagine, then not knowing who his legal guardians were. But he was okay. I was amazed at his ability to put it behind him and perform.''
In September 1991, nearly three months after T2 was released, that battle ended and another began: Sean Furlong and Tafoya retained custody of Eddie, but the court gave Bruce Ross control of his estate, an arrangement that would generate constant friction. A little more than a month into the joint guardianship, Sean and Nancy, who had quit full-time jobs as counselors for social-service agencies to devote themselves to Eddie's career, had attorney Marc Berry outline their complaints in a letter to Ross. ''As you know,'' Berry wrote, ''Sean and Nancy are not wealthy, and cannot provide Eddie with a home equivalent to his status in the entertainment community, causing much embarrassment and humiliation which must be avoided hereafter.''
There were other humiliations bounced checks, no medical insurance the product, Sean Furlong and Tafoya claim, of a tug-of-war with Ross over escalating expenses that the pair said couldn't be covered by production-company per diems and the daily payout of $75 to $240 that Eddie's estate gave them to accompany their ward to film sets. The estate also covered more than half the rent on a new house, an expense that Sean Furlong and Tafoya say was needed to get Eddie out of the gang-infested neighborhood where they had lived.
''It gets incredibly expensive to keep things looking like Eddie was becoming a star, like having nicer furniture, taking people out to dinner,'' says Sean Furlong, who sports an ankle tattoo with Eddie's nickname, Pook, and claims that his family is now $36,000 in debt from legal, medical, and living expenses related to his nephew's career. ''We did an unbelievable amount of business in the house. Our phone bills were huge because I had to speak to Japan (where Eddie became a pop star after T2). Eddie really wanted us to travel with him. In 1992 we traveled 34 weeks out of the year.''
Ross maintains that Eddie's career demanded only one full-time person and suggested the other find another job. He says he chastised Tafoya and Sean Furlong for converting first-class tickets to coach and using the difference to fly friends and family to events, and for clearing such decisions only with Eddie and not Ross, the estate's guardian. ''Their standard of living increased so dramatically,'' says Ross, ''that for them to suggest now that it was a financial hardship is outrageously false.''
Ross was also worried about Eddie's desire that his uncle and aunt become his managers. ''It was our view from the beginning that neither was competent to be Edward's manager, and I told them that,'' says Ross. ''Edward wanted them, so we discussed that possibility.'' With entertainment lawyers from both sides, Ross reluctantly began to hash out a management contract for Sean Furlong and Tafoya in April 1992.
Meanwhile, Edward Furlong's star had been rising. Terminator 2's $200 million in ticket sales had made him attractive to Hollywood: In the wake of T2, he starred in the horror film Pet Sematary Two and opposite Jeff Bridges in the grim street-life drama American Heart, completing his work without incident. But things didn't go as smoothly when Furlong signed to play Kathy Bates' oldest son in A Home of Our Own. When shooting began in October 1992, Jackie Domac, Furlong's onetime stand-in who had since become accredited as an on-set teacher, arrived in Utah to tutor all six of the film's underage actors. Tony Bill suspected that she had romantic intentions toward Furlong, who was then 15. After she was discovered wrestling playfully with Furlong and another child on the floor of her classroom, the film's producers fired her. At the time, Tafoya and Sean Furlong did not suspect Domac of any wrongdoing, and they chose to keep her on as Eddie's tutor.
After Bill's letter to Furlong's agent (Scott Harris and Scott Landis, of Innovative Artists, did not return calls for this story) reached Bruce Ross, a frank meeting took place that included Eddie, Tafoya and her lawyer, Ross and his lawyer, and the two other lawyers who had become involved in the attempt to carve out a management contract. Eddie, says Tafoya, persisted in his desire to have his aunt and uncle as managers. Ross noted that even Eddie's mother found the decision objectionable. Eddie, according to Tafoya, got upset that Bruce had informed his mother of issues in his life. ''Bruce said, 'She's your mother and she has a right to know,''' Tafoya recalls. ''Eddie said, 'But I'm the one you work for.''' Ross denies hearing such a comment from Eddie. ''For another thing,'' he says, ''he's pretty nice and he wouldn't say that.''
Then, last summer, on the Montreal set of Brainscan, everything fell apart for Tafoya and Sean Furlong, and Tafoya thinks she knows why. ''Before Brainscan, I pretty much had it out with Jackie and said that there was something very wrong and sick about their relationship.'' According to Tafoya, Domac replied, '''I know how much power I have over Eddie. I know I can make him do anything I want.'''
When Eddie, Sean Furlong, and Tafoya arrived on the Brainscan set, a pitched battle began between the guardians and their charge, who, according to a draft of his contract, earned $350,000 to star in the sci-fi thriller, which opens nationwide on April 22. Tafoya said she and Eddie had three fights on the set and numerous fights off the set involving discipline and Domac. '''No, you can't go visit Jackie now, you have to give your dog a bath,''' she recalls saying. ''That's when Eddie punched a hole in the ceiling of the trailer over that. 'Eddie, you just worked 12 hours. You can't go visit Jackie; you have to go to sleep.' 'Get off the phone with Jackie it's 3 a.m.''' Tafoya also claims she found Domac asleep in Eddie's bed.
Midway through the seven-week shoot, the moviemakers moved to resolve what they saw as a crisis. ''Sean and Nancy disrupted filmmaking,'' says producer Michel Roy. ''Edward was in constant conflict with them. As a result, he had more difficulty performing his work. At one point, the group behind Brainscan, including me, decided the disruption was creating a major problem. I called Bruce Ross and said if they continued to disturb my days, you guys are going to have to pay for it.''
Within 48 hours, a court hearing, attended by counsel only, tried to devise a solution. Ross' first suggestion that Domac and Roy serve as Eddie's temporary guardians for the rest of the shoot was nixed by the court. Sean and Nancy contend it was Roy and Ross' way of squeezing more work out of Eddie, while Ross counters, ''That was made at Edward's specific request, because he was under so much pressure from Sean and Nancy that he did not want to tell them. Once this happened, I said, 'Edward, it's your call. Unless you tell the court what you want, it's not going to happen.' He said, 'This is what I want.'''
On Aug. 24, Sean and Nancy were banished from the set and Torres was reinstated as guardian of Eddie's person. But while the disputes raged, Furlong was making some decisions of his own. According to family members, upon returning to Los Angeles in mid-September, he moved in with Domac and has since been supporting her with the $2,500 monthly allowance that Ross and the court approved for him last November.
''Denying Edward an allowance would not result in Edward's returning to live with his mother,'' says Ross resignedly. ''He may end up working at McDonald's and living in a hovel, but he's not going to go back to his mother because of what is or is not done with his money. If you're asking, do I approve of the situation as a parent of children myself? The answer is no. Edward knows that. I'm not in a position to stop it.''
Sean Furlong and Nancy Tafoya don't see it that way. On Jan. 5, Sean took advantage of a change in California's law governing statutory rape, which now permits prosecution of adult women who have sex with minors, and filed a complaint. The police interviewed Eddie, according to Ross, who says, ''Unless the minor complains, my understanding is they will not prosecute.'' L.A. police detective Aubrey Ginsberg says only that the matter ''has been adjudicated.'' In addition, Sean and Nancy say they plan to challenge Domac's teaching certificate in California and have written the state bar of California to have Ross investigated.
In the middle of this chaos, Eddie and Domac surprised everyone by taking off to film the family tragedy Little Odessa. On Jan. 7, he called his mother from Los Angeles International Airport to tell her he'd taken the job and was headed for New York without her. Only then did Ross learn of his departure. ''Our anticipation was that either Edward and his mother would go to New York and work on the movie, or Edward would not do the movie,'' says Ross. ''We found out, after the fact, that Eleanor and Edward didn't work things out and Edward left. Without telling me in advance or anyone else.''
This time, Edward was on a movie set without family members, and a funny thing happened: Nothing.
''It was a delight to work with him. He was always emotionally present. I think he's a very accomplished actor. And, in many ways, he was the most cooperative actor in the picture. Other than the fact that I got a Coke with Edward after shooting, I would never have known about his family,'' says Odessa director James Gray, who watched the young actor hold his own with Vanessa Redgrave and Maximilian Schell. ''His role was that of someone from a troubled, broken family, and in many ways he used his background to his advantage and funneled his personal tumult into the role. At 16, he's been forced into adulthood, and he's handling it better than I would have.''
And others on the set seemed to accept Domac, who no longer works as Eddie's tutor. (His new teacher, Cheryl Steets, found him up to speed academically when she took over last October.) Reports from the set spoke of a strong affection between Furlong and the petite 29-year-old he introduced to everyone as ''my girlfriend Jackie.'' Between takes and drags on a Camel cigarette, the shy high school sophomore kissed Domac, held her hand, and ran his fingers through her hair. ''I had my doubts at first, but I think she's good for him,'' says Gray. ''She's a stabilizing force and she cares for the guy. After a while, who can quibble with that?''
''I help Eddie with managerial things,'' said Domac at the time. ''I want to be clear: I don't work for him. There's no money involved. I just help out. That gets messed up in the press sometimes.''
Meanwhile, Torres is trying to reestablish a relationship with her son, to whom she says she speaks every week or two. Sean Furlong and Tafoya, forced to return to their former three-bedroom house, have resumed their old lines of work Sean is assisting the executive director of Caltech's student center; Tafoya is counseling children at the Children of the Night shelter and are still engaged in property squabbles with Ross. And Eddie, who is said to be unnerved that his family has talked about him to the press, hopes to further distance himself from his bizarre childhood by filing for emancipation, which gives him the legal powers of an adult before his 18th birthday Aug. 2, 1995.
''Ultimately, Edward will come through all right in this,'' says Gray. ''In a weird way, things like this have a way of making you tougher. Yes, it can destroy you, but I think Edward is too 'with it' to let that happen. He should not be underestimated, and people have a tendency to do that.''
''He'd rather run away from it as long as he gets what he wants, which is Jackie, his car, and to live like an adult,'' dissents Tafoya. ''He doesn't even know he's a victim.''
''Look at his position,'' says Paul Petersen, a former child star (The Donna Reed Show) who now heads A Minor Consideration, a Los Angeles watchdog group for underage actors that Torres called for support after her son's January departure. ''He has a whole bunch of people grown-ups, professionals telling him he can live like this, instead of remembering he's a child and saying, 'Guess what, you can't do this, and we have a professional obligation to tell you that you can't do this.' But this is business as usual in Hollywood.'' Is anyone taking care of Eddie Furlong? Lots of people have had their chance, and now it seems to be down to a lone individual. One day soon in a California court, a judge could make no one responsible for Eddie Furlong but Eddie Furlong. (Additional reporting by Bronwen Hruska)