Kevin Costner on the Ledge
Ellen Stern May 1987
REMAKING THE UNTOUCHABLES IS DIRECTOR BRIAN DE PALMA'S GREATEST GAMBLE. BUT NO ONE HAS MORE TO GAIN.--OR LOSE-THAN THE MOVIE’S CHARISMATIC STAR, KEVIN COSTNER.
Brian De Palma, who makes strong movies and weak coffee, is sifting at his Fifth Avenue desk. He's talking about the role of gangbuster Eliot Ness in his new, $20-million production of The Untouchables. He's saying that he "considered" Harrison Ford, not saying that he also considered Mel Gibson, then saying that he cast an actor whom Steve Spielberg and Larry Kasdan recommended highly. "Right from the beginning," he is saying, "it was Kevin Costner, Kevin Costner, Kevin Costner.
Kevin Costner, who was one of the four caballeros in Silverado, one of the five groovers in Fandango, one of the frat boys in Night Shift, one of the neighbors in Testament, one of the brothers in American Flyers and, until he was deposited on the cutting-room floor, the suicide and centerpiece of The Big Chill.
"I have kind of a quiet career," says Kevin Costner. "It may be the quietest career in Hollywood."
In June, The Untouchables-written anew by David Mamet and not based on the TV series that was based on Ness's fluffy autobiography-opens with Costner's name above Robert De Niro's and Sean Connery's. No Way Out a political thriller made before The Untouchables but held back to ride on Costner's coattails-opens in August, with Costner's name above Gene Hackman's.
"I know that whatever I want, I get," Costner says, "but I think how my career has gone is a mystery to people."
Only to some people. Laura Ziskin, producer of No Way Out, says she'd had her eye on him for a long time when she hired him as the leading man (even before hiring the director), because "there was a time when there was Redford, McQueen and Eastwood, but now there's only Harrison Ford and Kevin Costner”. And Ford, at 44, isn't always what you're looking for.
Art Linson, producer of The Untouchables, says, "There was no doubt in my mind that Kevin was the best for it. I wanted him as soon as I saw Silverado. He looked like a great mid-western movie star to me-a very classic leading man with a Gary Cooper feel to him. I thought Eliot Ness had to be a true-blue American. Even if Mel Gibson fixed his accent, there'd be something missing. Paramount was nervous: Kevin wasn't famous. So what we did was surround him with people who were."
It's not a mystery at all. It's a fairy tale.
What else should it be for a fellow who, at 3, ran smack into Walt Disney's knees in Frontier land? Whose life turned around the day he read about auditions for Rumpelstiltskin? Who wooed and wed Snow White?
Union Station, Chicago. It's eight, then it's midnight, and the south staircase in the main waiting room is hot with the light of 20,000 fifty-watt bulbs. On the pocked marble steps, handsome, six-foot, 31-year-old Kevin Costner as handsome, six-foot, 26-year-old Eliot Ness is standing over four bullet-ridden bodies.
"Cut!" calls De Palma. The corpses resume breathing, and the Armani-suited G-man descends. Later, he'll conquer Capone, but right now he has to give up his pistol to a prop man; it will be locked away until needed next-standard practice since the day two years ago when TV actor Jon-Erik Hexum picked up a blank and played a losing game of Russian roulette.
"Ness is hard to get a handle on," Costner says as he strolls into a secluded corner. "I have a character that once in a while will be streetwise and other times doesn't know what's going on. People might laugh at him in the beginning. But he is what he is, what he stands for. He believes in the law. We think that's good, but boring. People back then did too.
"I'm not into giving him a lot of charm, because I can do that," he says-and it's true. "The hardest thing to do is stand and deliver, just deliver the line. It will be strong, it will mean something." He looks down at his blunt-toed wing-tips. He looks up at the neoclassic Goddess of Day and Goddess of Night standing eighty-five feet above the entrance to the concourse. "You can never figure out why you like an actor," he says. "It's accumulative ... why you believe in a character or not. It's trying to be as honorable to the character as you can. "
Costner plays ball, plays tricks, plays with his two little girls and plays fair. But when he plays a part, it's work. He scrutinizes, analyzes, agonizes, expounds on his craft, trusts his instincts, knows he should relax and can't. He is charged with principle, saturated with honesty. Which is, it seems, the best policy.
"Kevin doesn't have a phony bone in his body," says De Palma. "He has a lot of terribly unsophisticated lines to say about the law, and the right-'We've got to be pure,' he says at one point-and he makes this stuff work because of his innate purity, which is the essence of Eliot Ness. Kind of a white knight in a cesspool. Kevin grows in the movie. He goes from this simple candid character to one as close to Dirty Harry as you can get."
It took homework. Compulsive about accuracy, Kevin read books about Chicago in the Twenties and Thirties, Prohibition, breweries and bootleggers; toured the proper sites; pondered the photographs of buildings, taxis and bulletproof vests provided by the Chicago Historical Society; listened to reminiscences of the 83-year-old former wife of a Capone lieutenant. And while Ness and his agents got their gun training from the Coast Guard, Kevin Costner got his from Al Wolff, aged 88, one of the original Untouchables; Adolph Brown, who was a clerk in Ness's office; and Bob Fuesel, president of the Federal Criminal Investigators Association. He learned how the agents had held their .38s and .45s, how much kickback to expect and that, in fact, they had never pulled a gun unless they were going to use it which was rare.
Anyone who watched his ambidextrous razzle-dazzle in Silverado could see that he has always been comfortable with guns, ever since he got his first one-a big Winchester BB-when he was 5. Compton, California, his hometown, was "like Newark or Harlem," he says, and so close to Watts that when the riots erupted five years later he could see fire in the sky. In this black-and-white, blue-collar country, his father wore blue collars, blue jeans and boots to climb poles for the Edison Company-boots that Kevin and his older brother, Danny, would race to unlace every night.
Daddy's boy was a rascal. In kindergarten, and 5 years old, when he wasn't boxing with classmates and being transferred from the morning session to the afternoon session to the principal's office, he was hurling rocks at oilrigs. When he was 5 years old and coming home every noon to make his own lunch because his mother, who worked for the Department of Welfare, had less time than he did, he preferred his brother's friends to his own. He was cute and cocky and had a talent to amuse. One day he jumped off the school roof, making a big impression and breaking a big toe.
He still does his own stunts, or as many as he's allowed. Everyone knows he has the ability; most wish he wouldn't use it. "But the great thing about movies is action," he insists. "I'm not saying create jumps or swoops to get attention. Unless it's a real weird thing, you won't see me make a dumb move. "
In a chase across a Washington, D.C., bridge in No Way Out, Costner-as a Navy lieutenant commander involved in a triangle and a cover-up-is pursued by the bad guys, hit by their car, bounced off the hood and thrown to the road. When the producers saw this maneuver, they told director Roger Donaldson, "Don't you ever do that again," and absolved their fleet-footed star. The next day, Costner was driving through a scene on the expressway, and driving fast. Donaldson complimented him. "It was really pretty great," Donaldson remembers, "and I wanted him to know that. Suddenly, he says, 'Who's that standing over there'?' It was somebody he knew. And I realized, to my horror, Kevin should be wearing glasses!"
The terror Kevin experienced at 9 when he saw Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte-and the night-light he required for years afterward-made him almost indignant ... and certainly bold. He continues to flirt with roofs. In The Untouchables, he toes a particularly fine line. "It was a windy day in Chicago," De Palma recalls with a shudder, "and this was 120 feet off the ground, on top of a twelve-story building. We were all up there, and we got vertigo. Not Kevin. He had to walk about six inches from the edge. He's incredibly agile, which is very rare in a contemporary movie star. He moves like a dancer. "
Or like a cat. "I have high survival instincts," the movie star agrees. "I can see something coming, feel the temperature, see movements, shifts in people. Those feelers are always out. "
Patrizia von Brandenstein, production designer of The Untouchables, also feels the temperature. "When I saw Silverado, " she says, "I thought, God, what a rakehell he must be. He had such charm, a kind of flashy charm. I'd see him jumping in and out of saddles and I'd think, He's cute, but Jesus, he must be hard to handle. But I must tell you: That was acting, that was the character. "
That was also the daredevil. "You can end your show pretty quickly if something goes wrong," says Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote and directed Costner in Silverado and The Big Chill-and who also wrote Raiders of the Lost Ark. "He's fearless, not cautious ... just like a movie star." Ask Kasdan if Costner could have been Indiana Jones and he says, "Sure. But he really could have done McQueen in The Great Escape. " He's been practicing all his life. At 9, this prince of the inner city would escape to the hills with a bird dog and pellet gun and return home after dark with a rabbit or quail.
A short kid in high school, with a complex he says he's never gotten over, he found it tough to break into teams. But he got his kicks. When his brother was given a medal for heroism in the Marines and his parents went up to San Francisco for the ceremony, Kevin wasn't alone for long. He invited ten guys to the house and inaugurated a season of cutting classes (he would cut seventy-three that junior year). In one of their nightly revels, they broke Mother Costner's glass coffee table. Repairing it would have cost too much, so they went through the window of a mobile home and made a trade, then covered the crime by making merry and leaving the place a wreck.
Senior year "was a really confusing time for me," he says with lingering sadness. His brother was in Vietnam, and Kevin missed him. He started having vision problems, which he discovered after making his third error in a ball game. Then he started to grow, and his legs hurt.
But he still wasn't ready to grow up.
It's 1:15 A.M., lunchtime. Kevin Costner, looking mighty sexy in suspenders and shirt, is in his trailer on a frighteningly deserted street near Chicago's Union Station. Even at this hour he is chowing down a plateful of veal roast; he is drinking a pint of half-and half! Doesn't he worry about cholesterol? He doesn't worry about anything. Nor does he work out. All he does to keep that 170-pound body hard and lean is play baseball, basketball, golf and volleyball, ski, swim, fish, hunt and run. For Silverado he learned to ride a bare horse and for American Flyer, a mean bike.
The latter, in which he played a dying young doctor who wants to win one last race, was shot a few summers ago in Grand Junction, Colorado, to coincide with the Coors Classic so that director John Badham could incorporate helicopter footage from it. The cast worked out in Los Angeles for six weeks before shooting began, meeting every morning at dawn to ride between twelve and twenty-five grueling miles. And when his baby daughter Annie was in the vicinity, Kevin's bike was draped with a diaper bag.
Steve Tesich, who wrote the screenplay for Flyers (and for Breaking Away before it), remembers his first ride with Costner in Griffith Park-where, thirty years before, James Dean, Dennis Hopper and other rebels without a cause had played with knives and planned a chicken race. Speaking with an accent of Yugoslavia via Chicago, Tesich recalls approaching a hill. "Kevin really wanted to beat me. This was no small, inner desire, but really out front. I wanted to be on top. I had to beat him, and I did." Why? "It was my sport... and my script. "
The movie was not a success, for which Badham blames studio neglect and Costner blames Badham. "I was in love with Tesich's script and excited about Badham's directing, " he says, "but not about Badham's rewriting. I believe in the Western ethic. I believe your word is your bond. I'll do anything for a director who promises me he won’t make me look foolish. I'll risk looking foolish knowing he won't let me."
But Costner and Tesich remain friends. "Kevin is a nice guy, like a Sixties nice guy," Tesich says. "He's right out of that period to me-essentially comfortable with all the things that used to stand for 'being a man.'
"I saw him in a bar once, saw him leaning on the bar, and I've never seen anyone look better leaning on a bar. Men tend to be very guarded with other men. He's not, and I'm not, and that's why we get along so well. A guy knows where a guy is coming from. You know Kevin has worked with his hands. You know he's been in sports-the way he walks, the way his body moves, the way he can relax. You know there's a wonderful appreciation of women that's not small and lecherous and neurotic. "I know maximum four or five people I feel that way about. I'm positive that he thinks I'm a great guy-and I know he is."
"I'm not a prick, not a nice guy," Costner demurs. "I just am."
It was March 1975, Delta Chi was throwing a party, and the fairy tale was under way. "It was kind of an awkward night for me," Cindy Costner remembers, "because I was seeing another boy at the time and I went to the party with his sister. Then I saw Kevin. I kept glancing at him, but I had to be discreet. He asked me to dance and then he went away and then we danced again and he went away again. We danced five times. He was wearing penny Loafers, his hair was slicked back, he had a sweater over his shoulders, and he looked so sweet. Pretty soon it was like Cinderella. It was about ten-thirty, and I left." Cindy/Cinderella went home and woke Mom.
"I'd never dated very much," her prince remembers, "never did recreational dating, because Mother always said, 'it’ s very easy to fall in love, but never date a girl you wouldn't consider marrying.' Saturday night showed up and guys went into a panic if they didn't have a date and I never went through that. I just picked up girls. I was kind of used to sluts. I could talk to them.
"But when Cindy walked in ... she was so beautiful, so decent, there was such a glow about her. She had these big, dear eyes. "
Summers, Kevin would go off salmon fishing or house-framing and Cindy would put on her Snow White costume and head off to Disneyland, the dwarfs and the tourists. Autumns, they'd return to Cal State, Fullerton, and dance another dance.
In 1978, they were married, and while our hero had found love, he still hadn't found his way. "I said to myself, 'Boy, you're really skating by with charm and American ingenuity.' There I was in marketing. A white rat could have been doing what I was doing. I prayed for direction. I needed essence. Making money was never a problem. Working was never a problem. What I didn't have was focus, a love of life."
And then, one day in his senior year, he picked up The Daily Titan and saw an audition notice for Rumpelstiltskin. "I didn't know my fairy tales very well," he says, "but I figured, 'Fuck it. It must have a prince in it. Every fairy tale has a prince. "'
And every future has a past. To pay the bills, Costner did carpentry. To nourish the soul, he took acting classes. He also modeled, looking strong and uncomfortable. "I don't have a great sense of style," he says, “I was truly shocked at the pictures. They put all kinds of shit in my hair-rough, tough, I looked like an assassin in France." Photographer Barry McKinley shot him for the January 1982 cover of GQ and paid him $75, but he was preempted by Zubin Mehta.
Costner made a couple of exploitation films that "had to show a tit or ass every six minutes but weren't porn," he says. In one of them, he played a teenage stable owner who meets a Malibu chick and takes her for a ride. A nonunion film called Stacy's Knights netted him $500 a week. The Big Chill netted him the big time.
"He had never had a major part in a movie, " says Larry Kasdan, "and suddenly he's in a room with Bill Hurt and Kevin Kline. He knew what that could be, knew what he could gain from it. He totally used that period. He listened and experienced it in the fullest possible way. "
But the collaboration didn't buy him salvation. The role of Alex, his entire part-the flashback-was cut. "We shot it ' and it was well acted," says Kasdan, "but it worked in a different way from the rest of the movie. It was misconceived. When the time came and I had to tell him he wasn't in the movie, he reacted amazingly well. I think he was unhappy, but the experience was so valuable to him that it didn't destroy him. I said, 'It hurts me as much as it hurts you.' And I said we'd do something else, which turned out to be Silverado. I think I wrote it for him."
"Film acting is very challenging because it's so unsatisfying, " Costner is saying as he ambles past the Wrigley Building. His eyes are blue, and then they're green, just like the Chicago River flowing below, which is, curiously dyed every St. Patrick’s Day. "You take a play and throw the script down and say, 'This isn't funny.' With a movie script, it hasn't been done yet, and you have to be up to it. The challenge is to not play smaller, not play under it. That's why I love Peter O'Toole. Everybody wants to start mumbling, be very breathy, moody, instead of being out there. O'Toole is the only guy who can be as big onstage as onscreen. He's somehow found a believable balance. He's naked.
"I'm not even close to where I want to be," he goes on. "I'm just shit. I'm average. When I see someone do great work, I get terrified that I wouldn't do it that way. It drives me crazy. "
Although he tried and failed to get into Mask and The Killing Fields, Costner has in the past few years turned down such movies as The Ice Pirates, Grandview, U.S.A., Thief of Hearts and the notorious Shanghai Surprise. Talk about high survival instincts.
"I'd like to do more Westerns," he says. "I think I'm the kind of person who could bring them back. And epics, romantic epics, and pie movies-where you just can't go home fight away but have to go out and get some pie first. Carmen did that to me, and The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, and Cuckoo's Nest." He'd also like to direct. "I don't want to be jacking off. I want to be where the light is. I've had a couple of offers, but I'm not anxious to show that I can direct just to prove something. When I direct, I want to direct a home run. "
At his gang-busting best, the real Eliot Ness made $2,800 a year. For playing Eliot Ness, Costner was paid $800,000. For turning down Shanghai Surprise, he was not paid $1 million. This fellow who used to collect Coke bottles so he could buy lunch is "a millionaire two or three times a year," he says, "just from saying no." Saying no? Yes. The price goes up.
He enjoys money, as who does not, and is proud that his tastes haven't changed as much as his income. At home in the Valley or up in Mammoth, he drives a four-wheel Bronco (and gave his father a red Silverado pickup for Christmas). He, the wife and daughters go camping just as he used to when his parents couldn't afford any other kind of vacation. On the wall where others in his boots would hang a Matisse, Costner is planning to hang the canoe he built in college. He still prefers any beer on draft to a martini and cares not at all for "the formal dining process," as he puts it. "I like to mop up the gravy with bread. When I go out, my pits start to sweat when I can't figure out what's on the menu. I just order what the guy on the left has." He could, he says, have ended up in the Klondike mining for gold happily ever after. "I've always liked manual labor, physical things, always gone for the biggest adventure. I've always wanted a story."
About two ears ago, he was appearing at the Venice Film Festival; Fandango and Silverado were both being shown. At one in the morning, he was alone at the Excelsior bar, getting a little rocked, when he looked up and saw Mel Gibson at the bar, getting a little rocked. They moved closer and, since nothing was going on, decided to borrow a couple of bikes and take a ride.
"We went outside, and they were all locked. So Mel went off and found one, but not two. I said I'd ride; I'd just done this bike picture. And it was great. There we were, on Lido Island, and Mel's on the goddamned handlebars looking like E.T.! I even think there was a full moon."
He's quite a romantic-off screen. But for all the buckle and swash, all the sizzling beach scenes of his salad days, he's skittish before a leering lens. Alas, there was no way out in No Way Out, in which he and Sean Young go at it lustily in a limo. As she describes the moment, "He was overcome with shyness, very vulnerable, very embarrassed. He said, 'Now everybody's going to see how I kiss.' I felt I had to come in and say, 'Keep breathing, Kevin. It's okay.”
While rumors fly that De Niro is upstairs trying on Capone wigs and wardrobe, Costner is on the set chewing a wad of Big Red and chatting with a grip. The crew is crazy about him; for an Untouchable, he's exceedingly touchable. He is wearing the bomber jacket Spielberg sent him after directing him in one of his Amazing Stories. De Palma, in a safari jacket that Spielberg did not send him, is conducting a retake of a retake. And Mike Hancock, makeup man to the stars, is concocting a vile stew. This versatile artisan, who trumped up Burt Reynolds's smashed leg in Deliverance by taping a bloody lamb shank to it, is now ripping apart a Styrofoam cup. He is gluing clumps of wool crepe to the pieces, then bathing them in a coat of what he calls "reel blood" and knows is Karo syrup. The results will be affixed to the marble wall of the staircase, where they will portray portions of a gangster's scalp.
Since the day he threw down his carpenter's hammer and told Cindy, "I'm going to make movies, and he loves making them. He stands in on shots that don't require him and learns everyone else's lines because, he feels, "it's up to the leading actor to support everybody on that set. I think a leading actor should be a supporting actor... be tireless, relentless." he is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent. He is also a pain in the saddle.
Says American Flyers' Badham, "His mind is working all the time. 'What about if I did this?' 'How 'bout if I said such and such?' Ninety percent of the time it was an improvement, but it was almost a relief to get him on the bicycle."
Says Silverado's Kasdan, "In practically every scene he was opinionated about what he could do. He's like a well, always coming up with ideas, but I couldn't listen to ten ideas every time. My brother acted as a filter. "
Says Marilyn Vance, costume designer of The Untouchables, "He asks a million questions. He does not make it easy for anyone, including himself. "
There will, no doubt, be other awards. Handprints in the sidewalk, rumors in the mill. Kasdan says Costner is one of the hottest guys around and he hasn't even begun to show what he can do. Donaldson says he's going to go a long way because men aren't threatened by him and women find him enormously appealing. Vance says he's special, very special, and she sighs. Ziskin says he's like a coyote with a kind of nose for things and is going to be tremendous because of the unpredictability and danger in his persona. Linson says he's going to be tremendous because he belongs to a unique category of young, good-looking, very talented leading men that does not include the Brat Pack.
"I'm just lucky, I guess," says -Kevin Costner, once the face on the cutting-room floor. Once upon a time.
Ellen Stern is a senior writer at GQ.