How Kevin Costner Became A Hollywood Star

Today, television audiences know Kevin Costner as John Dutton on the hit drama series Yellowstone, but back in the 1990s, the man was everywhere. After getting his start as an extra on low-budget films, he moved to bigger fare with blockbuster movies like No Way Out, Field of Dreams, and the Oscar-winning Dances with Wolves. And the man has had some serious staying power. After the double whammy of Waterworld and The Postman — massive flops that could’ve easily tanked his career for good — Costner picked himself up and dusted himself off, and today, he’s wowing audiences all over again with his impressive Yellowstone performance over on the Paramount Network.

But how did Costner go from working odd jobs in Los Angeles and auditioning for bit parts to winning Oscars and playing in all-time classics like The Untouchables, JFK, and Bull Durham? And what sparked his sustained interest in Western epics and baseball flicks? Well, as it turns out, his journey to Hollywood stardom is basically an example of the American dream in action. Here’s how Kevin Costner went from feeling like a teenage misfit to becoming one of the most bankable leading men in the entertainment industry.

Kevin Costner felt like an outcast as a child

Kevin Costner

Kevin Costner attended several different schools as a teenager, and as a result, he always felt like a bit of an outcast. Repeatedly forced to start over with a new set of teachers and peers, he struggled to find his social circle and identify his own strengths. “Along the way, I kind of lost what my own real identity was,” Costner told Rolling Stone. “Like, ‘Well, who am I? Just some guy who goes to a new school and, god, wants to just have a couple of friends?”

But growing up, he always had a strong interest in the arts. His parents were rather strict, so he did his best to stay out of trouble, and he excelled at a few different hobbies. Costner enjoyed writing poetry in his spare time. He also sang in a Baptist choir. While some actors knew that they wanted to be in front of the camera at a young age, Costner didn’t have that clear vision of his future just yet, but he definitely had a creative streak that was always evident.

He loved going to the movies

Kevin Costner

Growing up, Kevin Costner always did have a love for the movies. Granted, he had no idea that he would be starring in films of his own one day, but he often found himself getting lost in the great ones. There were a few movies that made a particularly profound impact on him.

Costner has stated that the classic film How the West Was Won “formed” his childhood. “The impression for me, hearing Spencer Tracy and watching CinemaScope and seeing Jimmy Stewart in that canoe was so strong that it got into my nostrils,” Costner said in an interview with Roger Ebert. “I actually went ahead and built three canoes in my life. I traveled the rivers of Lewis and Clark when I was out of high school.” Costner also sought out other Western films. He loved Red River and The Searchers, both of which are considered two of John Wayne’s best films. He always felt a connection to this time period in American history, and it influenced his choice of acting roles as his career got off the ground — as well as the types of projects he was inclined to select as his star rose in Hollywood and he acquired the type of clout it takes to make major movies happen through sheer force of will.

Kevin Costner wanted to spend his life telling great stories

Kevin Costner

After graduating from high school, Costner began studying business at California State University, Fullerton. But as the years went on, he still felt like he wasn’t connecting with the people around him, and he eventually realized that business wasn’t his true calling after all.

“As I approached my senior year, I had a real talk with myself about what I wanted to do and whether I just wanted to please other people,” Costner recalled while speaking with Rolling Stone. “And it was at that moment that I actually said to myself, ‘I’m interested in storytelling.'”

Looking back, Costner described the way the moment he realized he wanted to be an artist, regardless of what anyone else thought, was very liberating. “If you want to look at a high point in my life, it wasn’t a movie,” he said, continuing, “It was that internal talk I had with myself, where I said … ‘I am going to go where my heart wants to go.'”

Richard Burton encouraged him to pursue acting

Kevin Costner

Although Kevin Costner eventually decided what path he wanted to take, he still felt that he needed some encouragement. After all, pursuing an acting career is a major risk, and he worried about whether or not he really had what it took to succeed in Hollywood. But a chance encounter with Academy Award-winning actor Richard Burton (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Cleopatra) gave Costner the confidence he needed to go after his dreams.

Costner and his wife were catching a flight home on their way back from their honeymoon when the newlyweds noticed that Burton was also seated on their plane. Costner was nervous to approach the actor to ask for his advice, but he decided to go for it anyway … and he was relieved when Burton was supportive of Costner’s ambitions. “I desperately wanted to talk to him,” Costner told Yahoo! Entertainment. “The conversation never really expanded other than there was a gentleness and a kindness and looking at me saying, ‘I think you should try this.'” This was just what Costner needed to hear, and after receiving this bit of affirmation, he finally felt confident that he could make a living as an actor.

Kevin Costner’s early days in Hollywood

Kevin Costner

Like many aspiring actors, Kevin Costner wasn’t exactly rolling in dough during the early days of his career. When he had that pivotal conversation on the plane with Richard Burton, he was working in marketing, and as he invested more and more time into his acting career, he took on odd jobs to pay the bills while going on auditions. He had absolutely no connections in the entertainment industry, so he genuinely started from the bottom, and he had to learn how to navigate the business all on his own.

Costner was getting his career off the ground before everyone had a cell phone in their pocket, and he admitted that he had a very unusual living arrangement and a very unique way of learning whether or not he’d landed a gig. “When I decided that I was going to be an actor, no one gave me a chance. I certainly didn’t know how it worked,” Costner said in an interview with The Independent. “I used to drive my truck in every day to La Brea and Sunset and park by a phone booth and just go to sleep in my truck because I didn’t know what else to do.”

Landing his first roles

Kevin Costner

Eventually, Kevin Costner began landing some small roles in movies. He technically made his professional acting debut in the indie film Sizzle Beach, U.S.A. (alternatively titled as Malibu Hot Summer), playing the owner of a horse stable in Malibu who has a fling with a summer tourist, but the film wasn’t released until well after it was initially shot. Therefore, his bit part as a frat boy in Night Shift could probably count as his first on-screen appearance. Of course, his unnamed character doesn’t exactly play a huge role in the film, but at this stage of Costner’s career, he was grateful for any opportunity to get in front of the camera.

In 1982, Costner also made a brief, uncredited appearance in the film Frances. Sure, he wasn’t a household name just yet, but in the early 1980s, Costner was finally starting to get his foot in the door and make some connections. These minor roles weren’t especially impressive, but he was making some progress.

His scenes were cut from The Big Chill

The Big Chill

Eventually, Costner landed the role of Alex in the film The Big Chill. The events of the film are prompted by Alex’s suicide, and initially, director Lawrence Kasdan intended to include footage of Alex in the movie, despite the fact that the plot takes place after his ԁеаtһ. Although he wasn’t supposed to have too much screen time in comparison to the other actors, this was a meaningful role for the up-and-coming Costner.

Unfortunately, Costner’s scenes actually ended up on the cutting room floor, and his character didn’t end up making an appearance in the final cut of the film at all, other than a quick shot of his slashed wrists. However, Kasdan saw something in Costner, and he promised that he would make it up to the young actor. Costner didn’t know it, but he was about to get an opportunity that was much bigger than his part in The Big Chill. Kasdan was planning to direct another film, a Western titled Silverado, and he cast Costner in the starring role.

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Starring in Silverado

Kevin Costner in Silverado

In Silverado, Costner played Jake, an exuberant ɡսոѕւıոɡеr and one member of a group of misfit cowboys who end up chasing their fortunes to the town of Silverado, but if they want to strike it rich, they’ll have to settle their scores with a corrupt rancher and the local sheriff. Silverado is the kind of Western movie that Costner loved to watch as a child, and it earned positive reviews from critics and brought Costner more publicity. In a review for The Moving Picture Show, critic Joe Leydon wrote, “Costner, a relative newcomer, gives an ingratiating performance that should mark him for bigger and better things.”

Costner’s working relationship with Silverado’s director, Lawrence Kasdan (who also wrote The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark), opened up doors for him in Hollywood. In fact, 1985 turned out to be a big year for Costner. After the release of Silverado, he went on to appear in the film Fandango, and he was also on an episode of Steven Spielberg’s TV series Amazing Stories.

Kevin Costner impressed critics in The Untouchables

Kevin Costner and Sean Connery in The Untouchables

A couple of years after Silverado’s release, Costner took his career to new heights with a starring role as Eliot Ness in the gangster thriller The Untouchables. Costner agreed to take on the role of the real-life Prohibition agent because he was drawn to the strength of the screenplay, citing it as one of screenwriter David Mamet’s best scripts. He was also offered the biggest paycheck of his life, as he was able to negotiate with Paramount for a $1 million salary for the film.

Directed by the great Brian De Palma (Carrie, Scarface), The Untouchables co-starred the legendary Sean Connery and Robert De Niro, and Costner’s instincts about the adventurous crime drama proved correct. The film was nominated for four Academy Awards, and critics noted his skillful performance. “The Untouchables could be the breakthrough movie for Kevin Costner, a folksy, Gary Cooperish actor who holds center stage as Eliot Ness,” wrote critic Jay Boyar in a review for the Orlando Sentinel.

Working on The Untouchables was an invaluable learning experience for Costner. According to EW, Costner said that shooting The Untouchables “continued to refine my idea of ‘the script is the thing.'”

No Way Out was a career-defining role for Kevin Costner

Kevin Costner in No Way Out

In 1987, Costner starred as Navy lieutenant Tom Farrell in the crime drama No Way Out, which finally established him as a true leading man. In this neo-noir thriller, Farrell has an affair with a young woman named Susan Atwell (Sean Young) … who later turns up ԁеаԁ. Farrell knows that his superior, Defense Secretary David Brice (Gene Hackman), also had a fling with Susan, which complicates the mystery. Farrell is put in charge of figuring out who committed the crime, but as more clues are revealed, he worries that he might somehow be implicated.

Starring in No Way Out was a landmark moment for Costner’s career. He wasn’t just the big name of the moment — he’d proven that he could command the lead in a serious, gripping film, and he was well on his way to becoming one of Hollywood’s A-listers. Although The Untouchables was received well by critics, No Way Out earned even higher praise, particularly in regards to Costner’s role. In fact, Roger Ebert stated that Costner’s performance was “a lot more interesting and complex than his work in The Untouchables.” Of course, while we’ll definitely defend Costner’s performance in Brian De Palma’s gangster flick, there’s no denying the actor was improving with each film.

He’s starred in a lot of baseball movies

Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams

Early in his career, Kevin Costner had already appeared in the baseball movie Chasing Dreams, but in the late 1980s, his starring roles in the successful films Bull Durham and Field of Dreams created an enduring association between the actor and the sport of baseball. Later, he also took on roles as a baseball player in two other films, For the Love of the Game and The Upside of Anger.

As you’ve probably guessed, Costner does have a personal love for baseball, and he’s always been a huge fan of the sport. In fact, he owns a ranch in Aspen, where he enjoys bringing his friends and family together to play the national pastime. “I built a real baseball diamond there, and I have a lot of friends come out and play,” Costner told The Denver Post. “I have friends connected to NCAA baseball teams, so they come on out to the field.” Costner has shared that he enjoyed playing baseball with his dad growing up, and his father definitely influenced his passion for the sport.

The movie that won Kevin Costner an Oscar

Kevin Costner, Dances with Wolves

Kevin Costner saw the most important achievement of his career with Dances with Wolves, an epic Western that he directed and starred in. In this 1990 drama, Costner played Union Army lieutenant John J. Dunbar, who’s sent to a remote outpost of the American frontier and begins living with a Lakota tribe. He decides to leave his previous life behind to become a part of the tribe, but when other Union soldiers arrive with plans for their land, he finds himself in a dangerous position.

Critics lauded the film for revitalizing the Western genre without resorting to cliches. “While violating almost every Hollywood taboo, Costner has restored some of its most cherished traditions,” Brian D. Johnson wrote in a review for MacLean’s. “He has created an adventure with hot-blooded action, breathtaking scenery and a noble theme — a spectacle with the sort of wide-screen grandeur that has become almost extinct.”

Funnily enough, Costner said that he originally didn’t want to be in the director’s chair, but no one else seemed to understand the script the way he did. “I never had a burning desire to direct,” Costner told The New York Times. “But everyone I showed the script to knew what the film didn’t need, what should be cut. But I knew this was a three-hour film.” Dances with Wolves ended up solidifying Costner’s career and earning 12 Academy Award nominations and seven wins, with Costner being awarded Best Director over legends like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola.

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