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KRIS KRISTOFFERSON: FROM COOL DUDE TO HOT PAPA

By DIANE BARONI
Executive Editor, Moviecrazed


I'd always been intrigued by the man and his music, but when I interviewed Kris Kristofferson for Indie Magazine in 1998, I became even more so. Complex doesn't even begin to describe him. He's brilliant, funny, sweet, stunningly honest--one of the most fascinating people I've ever interviewed.--D.B.

He has, at various times in a hard-living, hard-loving, complex life, been a janitor, bartender, novelist, Army helicopter pilot, Rhodes Scholar, songwriter, movie star, singer. He’s been married three times, slept with Barbra Streisand on screen and off, spent a boozy, sex-drenched month with Janis Joplin. He’s had his problems with liquor, dope and women, but the man who wrote and sang such country classics as Help Me Make It Through the Night, Loving Her Was Easier, Me and Bobby McGee, and Sunday Morning Coming Down keeps coming up for more.

Now, at 62, Kris Kristofferson is coming up as a serious actor. Just last year, he won critical acclaim playing the evil sheriff in John Sayles’ "Lone Star." And he’s currently attracting major attention in the role of a writer and World War II veteran in the Merchant-Ivory movie, "A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries," the new October Films release.

When we talk, he’s in L.A., just back from Nashville, where he performed at a tribute to country legends and long-time pals Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings. With his beat-up satyr’s face and long, wiry body, he still has a bad-boy edge, but the boozing, sleep-around days are over. When he’s not touring with his band or making movies—besides "Soldier’s Daughter," his recent and upcoming films include "Blade," "Dance With Me," "Payback," "Girls’ Night," "Father Damien," and "Joy Riders"—he lives on a remote village on Maui with his third wife, Lisa, and their five kids, ages 14 to three. Kristofferson has three other children—one from his second marriage, to singer Rita Coolidge, and two from his first, to his high school sweetheart, Fran Beer.

His relationship with all eight kids is tight—one reason he identified so strongly with his role in "Soldier’s Daughter." Based on the partly autobiographical novel by Kaylie Jones, daughter of writer James Jones ("From Here to Eternity," "The Thin Red Line"), it’s the story of an American family living in Paris in the Sixties and Seventies. Kristofferson plays the James Jones character—a successful expatriate writer who’s haunted by his memories of combat in the Pacific. When he suddenly discovers a congenital heart problem is getting worse, he moves his family back to the States so that he can be under the care of American doctors. Although preoccupied with trying to finish his final novel, about his war experiences, he still loves a good party and a good poker game. But he loves his wife and kids a whole lot more.

"The more I found out about James Jones, the more I respected him," Kristofferson says, leaning back in his chair in the Santa Monica hotel where he’s staying with his wife, his five youngest kids, his 25-year-old daughter, Casey, and her two-year-old daughter. "I think, in some ways, his life was the best piece of work he did. He was a serious novelist, but I’m not sure that, as a writer, he ever measured up to Hemingway. In his life, though, he left him way behind.

"I don’t know if I’ve always been as good a father as James Jones was in the movie, but I tried to be. I have a much more open relationship with my kids than most kids did with their parents when I was growing up. It’s like the way I get along with dogs, you know? Little kids and dogs lock in on your eyes, and you either get along with them or you don’t, and it seems like I do.

"Recently, my oldest son, Kris, and I were coming out of an airport, and I saw this little kid I’d seen back at the gate with his mother, and I said, ‘Look—that’s the kid who was coming out of the gate with us.’ And Kris said, ‘Dad, you’re getting old. You noticed the little kid and I was looking at his mother.’

"But listen, in my relationship with kids, I’ve experienced just about everything you could. I’ve been through everything. All the rehabs in Southern California. And so have my kids. I quit drinking right after "A Star Is Born" [with Barbra Streisand, at left] but I was still smoking a lot of loco weed. Now I don’t do anything.

The son of an Air Force Major General, Kristofferson spent most of his boyhood in the small town of Brownsville, Texas, just over the border from Mexico. When he was 11, the family, which included a younger brother and sister, started moving around the country. They wound up in San Mateo, California, where Kristofferson finished high school before going on to Pomona College and then Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. His father, he says, was nothing like the stereotypical taskmaster, military man.

"He could light up a room. Everybody loved him. Before he died, he told me that although he’d never understand what I did or what I do, he could understand my need to do it. He said he was sorry that he’d gone along with any…" Kristofferson pauses, lost in painful recollection. "My mother was furious when I decided that I was going to go my own way, go to Nashville and be a janitor and be a songwriter. I guess my background and being a Rhodes Scholar had led to expectations that I’d go in a different direction. Do something responsible—be Secretary of State."

Which he might well have done had it not been for Vietnam. "Life was so different before Vietnam, and the assassinations of all the visionaries," Kristofferson says. "The scary thing about it was that everybody J. Edgar Hoover hated, it looks like, died. The experience had to change you. I was a totally different person before Vietnam than I was after. My nickname in college was Straight Arrow.

"Early on, when the anti-war movement first got going, I wasn’t part of it at all, because my friends were over in Vietnam. But now I respect what those people did--Joan Baez and the rest--because they were right. We didn’t belong there. And they weren’t protesting against the soldiers, they were protesting against the sons-of-bitches that sent them there."

When Kristofferson, who was serving a five-year Army hitch, did still believe our soldiers belonged there, he asked to be transferred from Germany to Vietnam. Instead, he was assigned to teach English literature at West Point. That’s when he resigned his commissions, traveled to Nashville to pursue a career as a songwriter, and began to listen to—and believe passionately in—what Baez and other protesters, including disillusioned Vietnam vets, were saying.

Years later, when he was on the road during the Gulf War, Kristofferson did some protesting of his own. "I may have been the only entertainer out there who was talking against it, and I was getting picketed for it. The whole country was waving flags and we’re bombing the people of Baghdad around the clock. And the suits like Kissinger are saying, ‘We can’t pull our troops now; we’d lose face.’"

There’s a knock at the door, and Kristofferson lights up as Casey and his granddaughter burst into the room, then gently explains that he’s doing an interview. "I think I’m a much better father as an older man than I was with my first kids," he says, when they’ve left. "Occasionally, I have to yell at the little guys, but they don’t take me seriously. ‘Listen to the old guy,’ they say. ‘Isn’t he great? He’s mad.'"

Someone who does take him seriously is John Sayles, his "Lone Star" director, who has just assigned him to play a bush pilot in "Limbo," a love story set in the rugged Alaskan wilderness. "I feel a great debt of gratitude to John, mainly because he revived my whole career," Kristofferson says. "I was trying to express that to him one time after 'Lone Star.' I told him, ‘You know, any time I can work with you, I’d be glad to work for scale.’ And he says, ‘Any time you work with me, you will be working for scale.'"

Also high on the list of directors he’s worked with are Martin Scorsese ("Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore"), the late Sam Peckinpah ("Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid") and, of course, James Ivory. "James Ivory is quite a gent. It was nice working with a bunch of people who were emotionally involved in the project, who believed in it. It’s depressing to see so many stupid movies get a lot of money."

There’s a line in "A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries" where the James Jones character says he’s afraid of leaving important things unsaid and undone. Has Kristofferson ever felt that way?

"Lately, I’ve been gravitating back toward writing," he says. "When I started performing my own music back around ’70, and doing movies at the same time, I got onto the performing roller coaster, and expended so much creative energy doing that, I didn’t get around to writing the longer stuff I thought I’d be doing. And I’m thinking it may be time to do that. my house is a great place to write.

"Where I live in Maui (where his neighbor is long-time pal Willie Nelson, shown with him at left) is the closest thing to the way it was growing up in Brownsville. It’s like a big extended family. The local kids call me Uncle. Like, ‘Uncle, tie my shoe.’ They don’t treat you like a stranger. I feel like I’m in a pretty honest relationship with the people in my life now. I’ve been married for 15 years, and I’ve got five little kids and a house.

"It’s nice when it all comes together."

Click here for more interviews by Diane Baroni and Guy Flatley.