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As one of the biggest nights of his budding career approached, Kevin Costner was worried. The question for him was not so much how the critics would judge his new movie, No Way Out—but how his wife, Cindy, would. "Cindy doesn't like these sexy roles, and she's given me an ultimatum," Costner confided to his architect friend John McInnes a few days before the May 1987 benefit screening. "I've either got to quit doing them or quit the movie business." McInnes thought about the conversation later as he sat next to the couple at the black-tie event in Orange County, Calif., and watched his friend steam up the screen with costar Sean Young. "As one of those scenes came up [the Costners] were holding hands," McInnes recalls. "[Cindy] sat quietly. But afterward, Kevin showed me his hand and said she squeezed it so hard all the blood ran out of it."

For seven more years, Cindy hung on as hard as she could to the marriage. She stuck it out, friends say, through the relentless work schedule that the ambitious Costner imposed on himself, through the increasingly public rumors of his womanizing and through the disappointing failure of his most recent projects. But last week, as reports linked Costner with a stunning—and married—hula dancer on the Hawaiian location where his troubled sci-fi epic, Water-world, is shooting, she finally conceded that there would be a way out.

"After 16 years together, we are ending our marriage," Cindy, 38, and Kevin, 39, announced in a statement. "We have amicably resolved all issues regarding our children and financial affairs and a full marital settlement has been reached."

News of the split surprised and saddened people who had been impressed by Costner's image as a straight shooter, a regular guy who worked hard and tried to do right by his family despite the temptations of superstardom. After all, he named the racehorse he bought in 1993 Proudtobetogether. "He seemed to be a loving, caring husband," says Doris Leader Charge, who got to know the couple while doing subtitles for 1990's Dances with Wolves. Still, close friends knew that divorce had been a subject of serious discussion between the Costners for the past year. "I don't know anyone who doesn't know about him [and other women]," says a studio source. And even a casual reader of Costner interviews could glean that the bonds of matrimony had been chafing for a while.

"I have a big thirst. A big taste for things.... I hate the fact that I've lived by somebody else's rules and I've somehow missed out on something," Costner said back in '87. Just before the announcement of the split, he was sounding a similar note. "The temptations are pretty strong—and there's a hungry world out there waiting for you to fall. So you can't even dabble without paying a huge price," he told New York City's Daily News. "I try to conduct my life with a certain amount of dignity and discretion—but marriage is a hard, hard gig."

Long ago and not so far away—only about 35 miles from the Costners' imposing Italian-style villa in the Los Angeles suburb of La Canada—it was once a different story. Back in 1975, Cindy Silva, a biological-science major and nominee for homecoming queen at California State University at Fuller-ton, was a raven-haired beauty with more than a passing resemblance to Snow White—whom she played at Disneyland during summer vacations.

Costner, a business administration major, didn't think he had a chance to be her Prince Charming. "I always thought it was remarkable that she would like me," he said. Though a lean and handsome 6'1", Costner, in his own mind, was still "the little rat from Compton," a kid made insecure by his family's frequent moves due to his father's job as a power-company lineman and by his own late growth spurt. (Costner was only 5'2" in high school, when he claims he had just one date.) But Silva, the daughter of a water-company manager and a secretary from Fresno, was enthusiastic about Costner from the moment she met him in 1975, at a party at the Delta Chi fraternity house. "Once those two met, they only had eyes for each other," says Costner's college friend Craig Cessna.

"[Cindy] has a presence," Costner told PEOPLE in 1989. "She was beautiful, she was sweet, she was smarter than me...she represented everything about women that I like." On their first real date, Costner took Cindy to see Funny Girl and then home to meet his folks. "I was just really proud that this girl would go out with me," he said. "I wanted to show my parents."

Two and a half years later, he and Cindy were married. "She was so beautiful, and he was so enthralled with her," remembers John McInnes, for whom Costner was doing construction work while looking for acting jobs. "They were always holding hands. Whenever they were together, it just seemed they connected." McInnes spotted the financially strapped newlyweds $150 for their honeymoon in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Even so, he says, they ran out of money and skipped out on their hotel bill. Several years later, around the time he was filming Silverado, McInnes says, "Kevin returned to the hotel and paid the bill, plus interest."

In their early married days, while Cindy worked in marketing for Delta Airlines and Costner toiled as a stage manager, she seemed excited about her husband's celluloid dreams. "I remember once before Kevin had even had a speaking role, which you need in order to get your [Screen Actors Guild] card," McInnes says, "I was sitting talking to Cindy when Kevin came home from a shoot where he was a walk-on. She leapt up and ran to the door shouting, 'How did you do today? Did they let you talk?' " And she never doubted that Costner would make it big. "Even while they were still struggling financially," McInnes says, "Cindy took my wife aside once and said, 'You know, Kevin and I are part of the 1 percent that is going to make it.' "

Things got tougher for Cindy when Costner's career started to heat up in the late '80s with the success of No Way Out and Bull Durham. Cindy then was more or less homebound with their two little girls, Annie, now 10, and Lily, 8. (Son Joe arrived in 1988.) While her husband was setting off sparks with Susan Sarandon in Bull Durham, making love on a kitchen table, Cindy was engaging in less exotic activities in a real kitchen.

From the beginning, Costner sounded crazy about his kids. "Being a dad is the most important thing in my life," he said. It was also an important part of his image. In The Untouchables (1987) he played Eliot Ness as a devoted family man, not unlike the sensitive father in his 1989 hit Field of Dreams. (In his new movie The War, opening Nov. 4, Costner takes second billing to Elijah Wood, 13, who plays his son.)

But if Costner's heart was in the right place as husband and father, the rest of him sometimes wasn't. When he embarked on Dances with Wolves, the blockbuster that would win six Oscars and consume 16 months of his life, Cindy set out to make the project a family affair. In the first of several efforts she would make over the next few years to be more directly involved in her husband's world, Cindy took a stab at set design, rounding up 42 covered wagons. She also threw several morale-boosting parties during the difficult four-month-long South Dakota and Wyoming shoot, including a '50s-style prom, always while taking care of her kids.

"I think Cindy worked as hard as Kevin did," said Costner's older brother, Dan, his financial adviser. Cindy "was always around adding a human touch," remembers Chris Hippie, a Pierre, S.Dak., insurance salesman who served as a location scout for the film. "She made everyone feel special."

To those who got to know the Costners on the Wolves shoot, the couple seemed very much a team. "They created a real family atmosphere on the set," says Floyd Red Crow Westerman, who played a tribal leader in the film. "It didn't seem that she was on the sideline or that she was putting up with his career. They seemed to have a real togetherness."

But that togetherness didn't continue on Costner's next shoot. When Costner went to England for four months to film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves in 1990, Cindy stayed home with the kids, who were in school. Soon, British tabloids were trumpeting stories about an alleged affair between Costner and Sheri Stewart, 27, then a receptionist at the London nightclub Stringfellow's. Costner branded the tales "off the wall" but did say, "I worry about the effect of fame on my family and losing what I've got..."

The British imbroglio was the first public smudge on Costner's family-man image. But behind the scenes the actor had a reputation as "a total hound," in the words of one source. He was known as a man who would almost reflexively come on to any woman who caught his eye—whether a journalist assigned to interview him or an extra on location. To people who saw that side of him, Costner was every bit the "true rogue, who likes all women"—a description he had once applied to himself. "The package isn't important," Costner told PEOPLE in 1989. "I think maybe that comes across. I have a real appreciation for women."

Some of the women he appreciated over the years interpreted his behavior as innocently flirtatious and found it flattering. "He paid attention to me, but I took it as him being a nice man," says Tommi Saenz-Craddock, 30, an aspiring actress who worked as a production assistant last year on Wyatt Earp. "I am married and I flirt too. But it is harmless."

Others felt differently, like the woman who met him several years ago on a press junket. After she had agreed to go to lunch with Costner and some other people, she says he arranged for her to ride to the restaurant with him alone. "We're in the limo in broad daylight, for no more than five minutes, when he turns to me and starts unbuttoning my jacket. I totally lost it," she recalls. "What he could have been thinking is beyond me.... But he wasn't embarrassed at all. It's almost like he thought, 'Hey, I'm getting to be a big star, let's see what I can do.' "

As Costner's career and its demands snowballed, Cindy lobbied her husband to spend more time at home. He promised to take off a year after Robin Hood. But then came the role of Jim Garrison in Oliver Stone's JFK, a part he said Cindy felt was too important to refuse. The Bodyguard followed, and when that picture ran into trouble during postproduction, he forfeited another three months of free time to help reedit the film. Costner worried about seeing his family fall through the cracks, yet when the time came for him to just say no, the lure of the next great project, and the $10 million or so he commanded for each movie role in recent years, often won out.

Since The Bodyguard, Costner has pretty much gone from one location to the next, while Cindy threw herself into projects on the homefront. By most accounts, her efforts—the imaginative 6,500-square-foot house she helped McInnes design and the Costners' bustling Pasadena restaurant she oversaw—seem to have been more successful than her husband's recent movies. In 1993's A Perfect World, Costner won critical raves for his performance as an escaped-convict killer, but neither he nor costar Clint Eastwood could generate much heat at the box office. Response was less kind to last summer's Wyatt Earp; an over-three-hour, $60 million misfire that Costner starred in and produced. Rapa Nui, a $20 million South Seas epic that Costner also produced, died a quick death this fall. Buzz about The War has not been encouraging.

There is, of course, no verdict yet on Waterworld, the futuristic aqua-epic that Costner is currently producing and starring in on Hawaii's Big Island. But the picture's budget is so bloated—$135 million and soaring, with an estimated $26 million already spent on food and lodging, including $1,800 a day for Costner's oceanfront villa with private pool and butler at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel—that wags have begun wondering whether Waterworld will be Costner's Waterloo.

Such speculation was rife even before the reports of Costner's alleged dalliance with 35-year-old Michelle Amaral, a married mother of three who performs at the hotel. Amaral's husband, Albert, denies any affair took place, and the hula dancer shimmied around questions concerning the star before disconnecting her phone last Tuesday. Costner, whose son Joe is with him, had no comment. "It's very tough for him on a personal level, but he's a very focused individual," says a source on the set.

Those close to the Costners say divorce negotiations had been going on for the past several months. "You could see their relationship wasn't working out," says a Waterworld production member who saw the Costners together last month. "They didn't act like a family: she was doing her thing, he was doing his. They didn't act close to one another, but they still talked. There wasn't any mudslinging."

With a settlement already negotiated, there probably won't be. Cindy will reportedly receive $80 million, and the pair will share custody of the kids. "I think their relationship as individuals will be okay," says their longtime friend McInnes. "They have a common love, their kids, who are the most important thing to both of them. I don't think they'll have one of those cutthroat relationships. It's just sad, because they were the perfect couple."

PAM LAMBERT
TOM CUNNEFF in Hawaii, ANNE-MARIE OTEY and KURT PITZER in Los Angeles, MICHAEL HAEDERLE in Santa Fe, BRYAN ALEXANDER in Deadwood, S.Dak. and CANDY HAMILTON in Oglala, S.Dak.

  • Contributors:
  • Tom Cunneff,
  • Anne-Marie Otey,
  • Kurt Pitzer,
  • Michael Haederle,
  • Bryan Alexander,
  • Candy Hamilton.