America’s second-favorite Rhodes scholar has some advice for Rhodes scholar No. 1: ”It’s okay to step on your d—, Mr. President, just don’t stand on it.”
Kris Kristofferson knows a thing or two about stepping and standing. After surviving the ’70s two-step of sex symbol and substance abuser, he’s settled into the most unexpected gig of his career: grandpa. At 62, the face that once drove groupies to distraction now resembles a satellite photograph of the Grand Canyon. ”I feel pretty good…,” he says, looking dapper in a black Italian suit, ”…for an old man.”
Kristofferson — perhaps the only living human to experience the three Gs of American greatness: Grammy, Golden Globe, and Golden Glove — is back on the proverbial roll. For the past few weeks, he’s been a grizzled vampire hunter in Blade, now biting its way toward $65 million; it’s the first time the words Kristofferson and big box office have been mentioned together in 20 years. Thanks to Blade, it’s also the first time you can buy a Kris Kristofferson action figure at your local toy store.”Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?” he sighs. ”Only it makes me tired right now.”
He’d better get some rest. This week, Kris Kristofferson version 2.0 kicks into gear. In his biggest leading role since 1980, when he nearly drowned on the sinking ship that was Heaven’s Gate, Kristofferson has top billing in A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries, the latest effort by the genteel filmmaking duo of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory. In coming months, he’ll team up with Mel Gibson in Payback, Martin Landau in The Joyriders, and Brenda Blethyn (Secrets & Lies) in Girls’ Night. Not to mention his new CD, The Austin Sessions, due soon. It’s hard to believe this orange-juice-sipping father of eight is the same man who in 1976 appeared nude in Playboy with actress Sarah Miles (his costar in The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea). ”My life has tidied itself so much,” he says, absently tugging on his mustache. ”I don’t have to worry about practicing what I preach. I don’t get drunk, I don’t smoke grass, I don’t do anything illegal anymore.”
Kris Kristofferson’s early life once resembled a drunken tug-of-war. Born to a strict military family in Brownsville, Texas, he made it to the Golden Gloves tournament as an undergrad at Pomona College in 1958, but junked boxing to study poetry at Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship. In a nod to his upbringing, he dropped out, joined the ROTC, learned to pilot helicopters, and requested a transfer to Vietnam. The Army counteroffered with a promotion, a ticket to West Point, and a job teaching English. ”It was the perfect assignment,” he remembers, ”if you wanted to be a career officer.” His heart, however, was in the Nashville songwriting scene. He headed south with his first wife, Fran, and their two kids.
To pay the rent (and later, the child support), Kristofferson flew oil helicopters and swept floors in a recording studio (he served as janitor during the recording of Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde). With a little help from Johnny Cash, his growing songwriting reputation led to a record deal, which led to a series of hits like ”Help Me Make It Through the Night” and ”Me and Bobby McGee.” His charismatic stage presence led to movie offers. By 1975, he’d worked with Martin Scorsese (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore) and Sam Peckinpah (Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia), shared a stage with Jimi Hendrix, and dated Barbra Streisand and Janis Joplin. He had four gold records, two Grammies, and so much booze in his veins that he was observed falling asleep on stage.