Dancing with history in missile drama

"I knew something was up," Kevin Costner recalled. "I was only seven, but I felt strange when I rode my bike past the school playground, and it was empty, and there were no kids around the neighborhood to play with.

"I got home and saw my mom and dad sitting at the kitchen table, talking quietly. Before I could ask questions, my mom called my brother, Dan, and me into the living room. President Kennedy was on TV telling about the Soviets installing long-range missiles in Cuba, they were pointed toward the US and would be operational in days."

Costner lived in Compton, a blue-collar southern California town. His father worked as a ditch digger and later as a lineman for Southern California Edison.

"I remember him looking around the living room, and then centering his gaze on my brother and me and saying, 'One missile could take out a lot of people.' "

"You mean our house?" Kevin asked. "A whole city," his dad replied.

With memories like that, it's understandable that Costner would want to produce "Thirteen Days," the story of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. "Most of the kids today don't know anything about it," he says. I" think it's a moment in history we should remember...."

It's not surprising that he bypassed playing the role of President Kennedy or his brother, Robert. "If I had played either of them, the audience would be busy comparing how much I sound or don't sound like ... JFK or RFK."

As producer of the film, he helped select two fine actors - Bruce Greenwood for the president and Steven Culp as Robert Kennedy, the attorney general.

Costner plays a special assistant to the president, Kenny O'Donnell, a real-life figure who was a close friend of the Kennedy family.

"The more I researched the late O'Donnell, the more I liked him," Costner continues. "He was really the president's gatekeeper, a trusted aide with direct access to the Oval Office. He was a plain-speaking Irishman who in those 13 days became a witness to history."

Once the project had the green light, the actor had to acquire a Boston accent and have his hair dyed dark brown and buzz cut, O'Donnell-style. "We re-created the White House, primarily the West Wing, on a Hollywood sound stage, and substituted the Philippine jungles for Cuba."

Talking with Costner, it's clear his interests expand beyond Hollywood.

"In the past six years, I have been the sole support of a think tank of engineers and scientists working on environmental problems," he says.

He pauses and smiles. "I'm not smart enough to know the answers, but I do know the problems," he says. Costner uses the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska as an example. He remembers the pictures of a bird trying to lift its oil-soaked wings or a worker with a straw broom attempting to skim off the oil. They made a lasting impression on him.

"Now six years later, I have two companies. One has developed a way to clean up oil spills in hours and return the oil to the tanker. Also, we have a small contract with NASA, so I have a little skunk-works operation there."

His companies are getting noticed. "The other day Jim Cameron [the director of "Titanic"] called and wanted to know more.... I explained how the think tank had expanded into two companies, Costner Industries Nevada Corp. (CINC) and US Flywheel Systems in California.

Hollywood publicity is not one of Costner's favorite things. He shrugs, "The only time you read about me is in connection with a movie. I like working in other areas, especially ecology and the environment.

"I've turned down many scripts ... [that] offer no challenge or don't have a point of view. 'Thirteen Days' does."

Costner also likes variety. In a forthcoming film, "Dragonfly," he plays a doctor who has lost his wife and must rebuild his life.

The Oscar-winning actor-director-producer is the first to admit, "My mom inspired me, and my dad gave me courage. When I was in high school, I was 5 ft., 4 in. My mother promised me I would grow. By the time I was in my second year at [California State University in] Fullerton, I was 6 ft. 1 in.

"My dad gave me the courage not to stand back."

When Costner graduated from college in 1978, he got a marketing job and married his childhood sweetheart. While on a plane coming back from their honeymoon in Mexico, he met a famous actor that changed his life.

"I heard Richard Burton was in first class, and wangled my way up there," Costner says. "I told him I wanted to be an actor, and asked his advice."

Burton told him if he was serious about acting, then he should give it his full effort. Costner gave up his job, moved his bride to Hollywood, and got work as a day laborer at a film studio. His first role wound up on the cutting-room floor. His second part was in "The Big Chill."

It was eliminated, except for the scene where he's a corpse. The director remembered the talented kid, and later gave him a part in "Silverado" as a wild cowboy. The dust hasn't settled since.

After two Oscars, Costner still admits, "I'm grateful for success, but I realize life is more than the movies."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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