One of Hollywood's most prominent strong, silent types, Kevin Costner was for several years the celluloid personification of the baseball industry, given his indelible mark with baseball-themed hits like Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, and For Love of the Game. His epic Western Dances with Wolves marked the first break from this trend and established Costner as a formidable directing talent to boot. Although several flops in the late '90s diminished his bankability, for many, Costner remained one of the industry's most enduring and endearing icons.
A native of California, Costner was born January 18, 1955, in Lynnwood. While a marketing student at California State University in Fullerton, he became involved with community theater. Upon graduation in 1978, Costner took a marketing job that lasted all of 30 days before deciding to take a crack at acting. After an inauspicious 1974 film debut in the ultra-cheapie Sizzle Beach USA, Costner decided to take a more serious approach to acting. Venturing down the usual theater-workshop, multiple-audition route, the actor impressed casting directors who weren't really certain of how to use him. That may be one reason why Costner's big-studio debut in Night Shift (1982) consisted of little more than background decoration, and the same year's Frances featured the hapless young actor as an off-stage voice.
Director Lawrence Kasdan liked Costner enough to cast him in the important role of the suicide victim who motivated the plot of The Big Chill (1983). Unfortunately, his flashback scenes were edited out of the movie, leaving all that was visible of the actor -- who had turned down Matthew Broderick's role in WarGames to take the part -- to be his dress suit, along with a fleeting glimpse of his hairline and hands as the undertaker prepared him for burial during the opening credits. Two years later, a guilt-ridden Kasdan chose Costner for a major part as a hell-raising gunfighter in the "retro" Western Silverado (1985), this time putting him in front of the camera for virtually the entire film. He also gained notice for the Diner-ish buddy road movie Fandango. The actor's big break came two years later as he burst onto the screen in two major films, No Way Out and The Untouchables; his growing popularity was further amplified with a brace of baseball films, released within months of one another. In Bull Durham (1988), the actor was taciturn minor-league ballplayer Crash Davis, and in the following year's Field of Dreams he was Ray Kinsella, a farmer who constructs a baseball diamond in his Iowa cornfield at the repeated urging of a voice that intones "if you build it, he will come."
Riding high on the combined box-office success of these films, Costner was able to make his directing debut. With a small budget of 18 million dollars, he went off to the Black Hills of South Dakota to film the first Western epic that Hollywood had seen in years, a revisionist look at American Indian-white relationships titled Dances With Wolves (1990). The supposedly doomed project, in addition to being one of '90s biggest moneymakers, also took home a slew of Academy Awards, including statues for Best Picture and Best Director (usurping Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas).
Costner's luck continued with the 1991 costume epic Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves; this, too, made money, though it seriously strained Costner's longtime friendship with the film's director, Kevin Reynolds. The same year, Costner had another hit -- and critical success -- on his hands with Oliver Stone's JFK. The next year's The Bodyguard, a film which teamed Costner with Whitney Houston, did so well at the box office that it seemed the actor could do no wrong. However, his next film, A Perfect World (1993), directed by Clint Eastwood and casting the actor against type as a half-psycho, half-benign prison escapee, was a major disappointment, even though Costner himself garnered some acclaim. Bad luck followed Perfect World in the form of another cast-against-type failure, the 1994 Western Wyatt Earp, which proved that Lawrence Kasdan could have his off days.
Adding insult to injury, Costner's 1995 epic sci-fi adventure Waterworld received a whopping amount of negative publicity prior to opening due to its ballooning budget and bloated schedule; ultimately, its decent box office total in no way offset its cost. The following year, Costner was able to rebound somewhat with the romantic comedy Tin Cup, which was well-received by the critics and the public alike. Unfortunately, he opted to follow up this success with another large-scaled directorial effort, an epic filmization of author David Brin's The Postman. The 1997 film featured Costner as a Shakespeare-spouting drifter in a post-nuclear holocaust America whose efforts to reunite the country give him messianic qualities. Like Waterworld, The Postman received a critical drubbing and did poorly with audiences. Costner's reputation, now at an all-time low, received some resuscitation with the 1998 romantic drama Message in a Bottle, and later the same year he returned to the genre that loved him best with Sam Raimi's baseball drama For Love of the Game. A thoughtful reflection on the Cuban missile crisis provided the groundwork for the mid-level success Thirteen Days (2000), though Costner's next turn -- as a member of a group of Elvis impersonating casino bandits in 3000 Miles to Graceland -- drew harsh criticism, relegating it to a quick death at the box office. Though Costner's next effort was a more sentimental supernatural drama lamenting lost love, Dragonfly (2002) was dismissed by many as a cheap clone of The Sixth Sense and met an almost equally hasty fate.
Costner fared better in 2003, and returned to directing, with Open Range, a Western co-starring himself and the iconic Robert Duvall -- while it was no Dances With Wolves in terms of mainstream popularity, it certainly received more positive feedback than The Postman or Waterworld. In 2004, Costner starred alongside Joan Allen in director Mike Binder's drama The Upside of Anger. That picture cast Allen as an unexpectedly single, upper-middle class woman who unexpectedly strikes up a romance with the boozy ex-baseball star who lives next door (Costner). Even if divided on the picture as a whole, critics unanimously praised the lead performances by Costner and Allen.
After the thoroughly dispiriting (and critically drubbed) quasi-sequel to The Graduate, Rumor Has It..., Costner teamed up with Fugitive director Andrew Davis for the moderately successful 2006 Coast Guard thriller The Guardian, co-starring Ashton Kutcher and Hollywood ingenue Melissa Sagemiller.
Costner then undertook another change-of-pace with one of his first psychological thrillers: 2007's Mr. Brooks, directed by Bruce A. Evans. Playing a psychotic criminal spurred on to macabre acts by his homicidal alter ego (William Hurt), Costner emerged from the critical- and box-office failure fairly unscathed. He came back swinging the following year with a starring role in the comedy Swing Vote, playing a small town slacker whose single vote is about to determine the outcome of a presidential election. Costner's usual everyman charm carried the movie, but soon he was back to his more somber side, starring in the recession-era drama The Company Men in 2010 alongside Chris Cooper and Tommy Lee Jones.
As the 2010's rolled on, Costner's name appeared often in conjunction with the Quentin Tarantino film Django Unchained prior to filming, but scheduling conflicts would eventually prevent the actor from participating in the project. He instead signed on for the latest Superman reboot, playing Clark Kent's adoptive dad on Planet Earth in Man of Steel. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi