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People Top 5
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- January 10, 1977
- Vol. 7
- No. 1
Barbara Streisand's A Star Is Born Didn't Fix Kris Kristofferson's Wagon—It Put Him on It
Kris really did arrive on the set at 5 a.m. with a couple of six-packs to chase his daily quart-and-a-half ration of tequila. The part called for a zonked-out, self-destructing superstar, and Kristofferson seemed typecast. Early in the shooting Kris decided that he was patterning his performance "after Hank Williams, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, who were done in by the world they were trying to satisfy." But last fall, after screening a rough cut, he suddenly realized that it was himself. For two decades he found he had been drinking himself toward oblivion and perhaps divorce from his second wife, singer Rita Coolidge. Watching himself disintegrate onscreen "was like seein' myself through Rita's eyes—when I saw the corpse [he dies at film's end], I had a weird feeling of sadness, like a character in Twilight Zone who sees a coffin with his name on it. I feel so goddamn lucky to have found out in time—I'd been drinking heavily for 20 years. I'd forgotten what it was like to think without alcohol."
For four months he's gone cold turkey on iced coffee, cola and an occasional joint ("Thank God for laugh-in' tobacco"). He is 40, his head is the cleanest it's been in memory, and he's "eager to make music again." But not for the money. In a rush in his mid-30s, he wrote Help Me Make It Through the Night (made gold by Sammi Smith), followed quickly by Me and Bobby McGee (Roger Miller and Janis) and Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down (Johnny Cash). His composer's royalties still run into several hundred thou per year, and he discovered at 36 "that I never had to work again."
Yet he felt compelled to begin making records himself and performing live, and that led to his decline. "I never thought I was worth comin' to see," he confesses now. "I was hostile to my audiences and had to drink to get myself on the stage to face them. I got into an 'us against them' situation, which is ridiculous. I'm surprised I've got a fan left.' "
Not to mention a wife. Rita had been coping with Kris's drinking and his self-styled "dark depressions" partly because she had her own career. But then in 1975 he filmed The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, which included some scorching bedroom scenes with Sarah Miles. (Kris allows that "it would have been hard for me if Rita had been down on the set nude every day with Ryan O'Neal,"). Last year Kristofferson, who had a percentage of the picture, was talked by Miles into restaging their lust for Playboy. Kris showed up smashed—and they began to invent scenes harder-core than the R-rated movie. "It was a mistake," he says. Kris and Rita were together on a tour that was going badly when the photos were published; one night in Portland, Oreg., Kris says, "I went totally insane and started makin' faces at my wife onstage." Luckily for the Kristoffersons, the eye-opening early cut of Star was ready shortly thereafter.
Kris was born to an Air Force career officer in Brownsville, Texas. At Pomona (Calif.) College, he played football and rugby and boxed, wound up Phi Beta Kappa and won an Atlantic Monthly short story contest. That led to his Rhodes, but at Oxford, he says, "I never felt like a scholar or part of the academic world. I spent half my time living down a shitkicker image," he adds not entirely convincingly for a man who constantly quotes Blake and Yeats. In any case, he quit after two years, married high school honey Fran Beir and enlisted in the Army, where he toughed out Ranger jump school and became a chopper pilot. In 1965, before a transfer to West Point to teach English, Kris stopped to see a pal in Nashville. He never left.
After resigning from the Army he was a $58-a-week gofer at Columbia Records, and his parents, he recalls, "thought I was insane or a dope addict or a Communist." His wife wondered too, and his marriage broke up. (He still frequently sees daughter Tracy, now 15, and Kristoffer Jr., 9. "Tracy's seen me wasted and drunk, not the way I wanted her to see her father," he confesses, "but I wish my parents and I had had that kind of honesty and communication.") In 1971, during the time he was dating such women as Joplin, Carly Simon and even Streisand, he met Rita at L.A. Airport. Coolidge, seven years his junior, is a smoky-voiced, Nashville-born singer who had graduated from a childhood trio, the Flaming Coolidge Sisters, to back-up work in Memphis. She went on to a featured spot on the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour of 1970. Kris and Rita soon began to harmonize professionally, sharing concert stages and the same band, and in 1973 they were married by Rita's part-Indian dad, a Baptist minister. "Down South they think we're some kind of underground intellectual freaks," he laughs, "and in the rest of the country they think we're some kind of rednecks." This spring they copped their second Grammy for best vocal duo.
Today the Kristoffersons and daughter Casey, who'll be 3 in March, live with a nanny, a gardener named Fidel and three dogs in a house that overlooks the Pacific. Figures Kristofferson: "I knew I'd made it when I had a stranger training my dog for eight months. The days we're home," he adds, "we lock the doors and turn off the phones and store up energy for the road or the movies." They'll need it. Though Kris says, "I'm a little old in my career to be thinkin' about rocketing to stardom" in films, he established an amiable screen presence in the likes of Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, and none of Star's dubious notices have faulted him. Next comes Semi-Tough, a grid flick opposite Burt Reynolds, and then Convoy, a CB radio saga in which he's the star.
Now that he's off the sauce, Kris says, "I've lost my fear of not bein' able to be creative. Christ, I can't write down my ideas fast enough." He is composing for his next album which, he warns, may "be a little experimental—I've got to fight the temptation to turn out commercial trash. I might not even make another record that sells, but that doesn't matter in the big picture. There are some people who didn't like Hank Williams or Edith Piaf."
At the same time, he says, "Rita's and my relationship is starting all over. It's easier on her—I don't beat on her like a drum or stay out all night." Already Kristofferson and Coolidge are booking dual concerts every other weekend during his filming breaks. "How many people get to do something they really like?" he asks. It's rhetorical, but Rita adds, "And how many of them get to do it with someone they love?"
At one point in Star, the hero is asked where he'd like to go. His answer: "Back about 10 years." Kris has gone farther. "Since I haven't been drinking, I feel like I've lost 20 years," he exults. "I've lived more in the last few months than I had for a lot of years."
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