A Star Is Reborn

Kris Kristofferson’s powerful performance in last year’s Lone Star still has Hollywood buzzing. But after more than two decades of highs and lows, the Brownsville native knows better than to let success go to his head—again.

I LEFT THE AIRPORT PARKING LOT on the island of Maui an hour ago, and I’m still a hard two-hour drive away from the small, remote village where Kris Kristofferson lives with his third wife, Lisa, and their five children. The excruciatingly narrow road winds along the lava cliffs of the coast, through rain forests and deep ravines where waterfalls create permanent clouds of mist and vines large enough to swallow Houston choke the trunks of giant trees. I’m making this journey to talk to Kris about life in the wake of his role as the evil sheriff in Lone Star, which I thought was the best movie of 1996 and the best movie about Texas since Hud. There is a generation who barely recognizes Kristofferson’s name, and yet in the seventies Kris was arguably the best songwriter of the decade and a huge screen star as well. Incredibly, Lone Star, which rejuvenated his film career, was his forty-third movie.

I also want to ask Kris about all the recent talk that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences might allow an Oscar to slip into the hands of a rogue who has devoted the past quarter-century to ridiculing everything the academy holds dear. The odds against Kris’s even being nominated are enormous. But how can the academy ignore one of the most amazing entertainment careers of our times? Kristofferson has done and seen everything, been everywhere and met everyone. He has known Barbra Streisand and Janis Joplin, worked under the direction of Sam Peckinpah and Martin Scorsese, toured with Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan, smoked dope with Dennis Hopper and Willie Nelson, broken bread with Daniel Ortega, lectured Oxford dons on the poetry of William Blake, and written the best love songs of anyone since Cole Porter. Kris has walked the gangplank of contemporary history, and the damn sharks ain’t ate him yet.

A long driveway climbs through an orchard of macadamia nut trees to the ranch home that Kris and Lisa built five years ago when they decided to reside permanently on the island. I spot Kris out back, at age sixty still as lean as rawhide, attacking a jungle of tropical growth with a chain saw.

I’ve been clearing this crap for the last four weeks,” he tells me, pointing out a lemon tree, a star fruit tree, an avocado tree, and several papayas that he discovered in the process. “When Willie heard what I was doing, he said, ‘How domestic!’” I tell Kris that I bring greetings from a number of friends in Austin, his second home. He periodically visits the city to hang out with Willie, do Austin City Limits, or make a film. “Say hi right back to ’em,” Kris says, his famous lake-bottom rasp soft and direct.

In the family room we stretch out on a sectional sofa, Kris in his trademark faded jeans and dark T-shirt. The house sits partway up the green velvet slopes of Haleakala, the volcano that gave birth to this island. To the rear, on the uphill side, we can see the volcano’s crater through a wisp of clouds. Far below us, down a swatch of green hillside, the North Pacific stretches to the sky. “Yesterday we spotted a whale,” Kris informs me.

I ask Kristofferson if he ever gets island fever. “This is the best move of my life,” he tells me. “Before this, the happiest place I ever knew was Brownsville, Texas, where I grew up. This is the closest thing to Brownsville, a place where kids can go to school barefoot, where people know when you get sick and tell on you when you’re bad. People here accept us as though we’re part of an extended family. Kids here call me Uncle.”

Then I spring my proposition. It seems clear to me, I tell Kristofferson, that he deserves at last an Oscar nomination for his role in Lone Star, writer-director John Sayles’s magnificent strip-down of the cultures and history of a small town on the Texas-Mexico border. The movie opened to universally good reviews, but as an independent film by a notoriously maverick filmmaker, it was ignored by the Hollywood establishment and, hence, the general viewing public.

Kris thinks on this a while, his deep-set eyes invisible in the weathering of his face. Finally, the eyes flash and sweep across the room like the beam of a lighthouse, and he says, “I’d like to see John Sayles get the recognition he deserves; his message is on the side of the people. The fact that anyone is even talking about my being nominated is so good for my morale it almost doesn’t matter if it happens.”

Kris talks a lot about family and shows me an entire wall covered with photographs. I can see how far he has come. There are pictures of his father and of Lisa’s father, several of Kris as a child and of his eight children from three marriages. He points first to his in-house kids: thirteen-year-old Jesse, twelve-year-old Jody, nine-year-old Johnny (as in Cash), six-year-old Kelly, and two-year-old Blake (after the English poet). Blake isn’t much older than Kristofferson’s first grandchild, who was born last June to his daughter Casey—who was born in 1973 to Kris and his second wife, Rita Coolidge. Two other children, Tracy, who’s 34, and Kris, Jr., who’s 28, came from his first marriage, to his high school sweetheart in San Mateo, California.

Through the love of my children I’m learning to love adults too,” he tells me, laughing at himself as though he has stumbled across an unexpected truth. The notion of starting over after two failed marriages was daunting. Following his devastatingly bitter divorce from Coolidge in 1979, Kris told an interviewer, “When you get tossed out on the street, you think you don’t have the energy to go through all the unpeeling of layers again to find out who you’re dealing with. … The next one will have to be carrying notes from the pope.” Nevertheless he has been married

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