Arriving at his press conference for his new TV series Yellowstone, Kevin Costner doesn’t look much different than he did 25 years ago except now he’s paunchy and doesn’t mind showing it.
Costner was once the world’s most popular actor. Dances With Wolves, Robin Hood, JFK, and The Bodyguard were box office triumphs from Tokyo to Helsinki. And even though A Perfect World may have been a disappointment in the United States, it did spectacularly well in foreign markets.
What was his great appeal? I once asked him.
“It’s the words. I think we all rally around beautiful words. I love the poetry of language. My movies haven’t depended upon action, which we were taught, if you want to be an international success, you have to be an actor in an action movie.
“I’m really happy with my following overseas. I seem to have a relationship with them as people who go to the movies. They love the movies, the ideas, the stories, not necessarily me,” the 63-year-old said.
It was the late Richard Burton who gave Costner the advice that convinced him he should become an actor.
In 1978, newly married to a former Disneyland Snow White – he had met Cindy when he played Prince Charming in the Electric Parade – Costner was on a plane returning from their honeymoon in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, when he noticed the famous actor “who had bought all the seats around him so that no one would disturb him.”
After two hours, he summoned up the courage and asked Burton, should he become an actor?
“The most important thing Burton chose to say is that this is a difficult business. If you don’t know that, you are ill prepared to become an actor.”
Costner grew up in Whittier, California, the town made famous by a former US president, Richard Nixon. Costner was 20 when he decided to become an actor.
Instead of acquiring an agent, he got to know casting directors, one of whom, Wally Nicita, was duly impressed.
She recommended him to Lawrence Kasdan, fresh from having written and directed Body Heat, who immediately cast him in The Big Chill.
Even though his role ended up on the cutting room floor, he and Kasdan became life-long friends.
Kasdan then recommended the actor to Steven Spielberg, who used him in Fandango, and then to John Badham, who cast him in American Flyers.
Eventually Costner returned to working with Kasdan on Silverado which led to The Untouchables and finally No Way Out which made him a bonafide star.
That red hot scene in that film, in which he seduced Sean Young in a taxi, established him as the sexiest man in movies.
Instead of following up with another blockbuster, Costner preferred to work in off-beat movies. He chose to do two baseball movies in a row, knowing fully well that baseball movies are never successful, not even in the US.
He proved naysayers wrong with both Bull Durham and Field Of Dreams, which ended up winning numerous awards and a loyal following.
In 1990 he joined with a number of friends to make Dances With Wolves. On that gamble, he poured his money, his life, and his reputation. Again he came out a winner when the film went on to win seven Academy Awards (including Best Picture) and earn over US$200mil at the box office. Costner himself took home the Best Director award but lost the Best Actor gong to Jeremy Irons (Reversal Of Fortune).
He followed that with Oliver Stone’s controversial JFK, that too earned award recognition and public acceptance.
Again he confounded the experts by producing and starring in another Kasdan script which had been gathering dust for 10 years; The Bodyguard (co-starring the late Whitney Houston) earned the wrath of critics but won the hearts of moviegoers the world over.
But then in 1995, he gambled on Waterworld; and ever since, his career has floundered. In fact, he hasn’t had a hit movie in over 20 years – and that was not for lack of trying.
His storybook marriage to Cindy, whom he met in 1974, produced three children but became another casualty of the film. And after a much publicised extra marital affair, he and Cindy were divorced in 1994. He remarried in 2014, and he and second wife Christine Baumgarten have three children.
Were there times when you felt you were unfairly judged?
There has been a little misinformation about who I am. I’ve sometimes felt that journalism that goes beyond the professional relationship into your personal life is a lot like that.
Were you uncomfortable being compared to Gary Cooper?
If you’re going to be compared to someone, that’s a good guy to be compared to. But how much do we know about Gary Cooper? None of us is going to be able to live up the image people have of us.
The really important thing is to live up to my expectations. Being called a good guy, I don’t need that monkey on my back.
I prefer to be called fair, it’s fair to be wrong, fair to be troubled, and fair to be imperfect.
Do your children agree with that assessment?
Children need to know one thing, and that is that their parents have feet of clay. My children always knew that I was capable of screwing up.
They knew we didn’t have all the answers in the world. This way they weren’t terribly surprised.
Your wife is from Germany. Her roots are different from yours. Where do you find common ground?
Despite those differences, we kinda run pretty hard together. We like the same things. She’s an outdoors person too, she’s a horse person.
Are you a strict father? Do you worry about how your children grow up?
I have hopes and dreams like everyone else. My dream is that they find their way. The important thing that I have to watch is how big a shadow I’ve cast over them. The luxuries they enjoy, will it have a negative effect on them? They’ve had the best of everything. I didn’t ride in a limousine until I was 28. They rode in one in diapers!
It’s important that they listen to teachers. If a teacher asks me to go to school to discuss their behaviour, they better be worried about that because I know I was worried when my mum and dad came to school to discuss my behaviour.
They need to respect authority. When they’re on a set, they don’t run crazy.
On the other hand, I make a point of including them in my life. When I have company in my living room, they’re welcome to sit in with adults and listen.
If they don’t behave like adults, they have to leave. Meaning, if they don’t listen or they start talking too much, then they have to leave the room. But I encourage them to be with me most of the time.