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From the top of the ridge, 3,500 head of buffalo gallop furiously across the Dakota plain. The horseman spurs his mount and charges into the stampede. Faster, faster. Suddenly, out of nowhere, an animal missteps. Two horses collide. And Kevin Costner pitches forward into the mass of pounding hooves. Collectively, cast and crew shout their concern. In seconds his stunt double streaks into the herd, on his way to the rescue. But the star is undaunted. Refusing to lose face, he grabs the stuntman's horse and tears back into the fray. Kevin Costner simply will not become unhinged.

Determination, cool, the ability to bounce back—this is the stuff that hides behind that boyishly sensual movie-star face. Onscreen he may radiate the charisma of Gary Cooper, the charm of Robert Redford, but behind the scenes Costner displays the absolute focus that would make a CEO like Iacocca take note. It's the reason he got Dances with Wolves—the three-hour Western epic that opened last week—made on his terms and his terms alone. As a director, says Costner, "You find out what kind of man you are. And you're not always pleased. In a tough situation, you wonder, 'Could I have handled that better?' " But set dresser Dwain Wilson, who worked with him on Dances and Bull Durham (1988), points out, "It's debatable whether he's right or wrong. But Kevin always gets what he wants."

The gorgeous guy who made steam rise from the back seat of a limo in No Way Out (1987), who elevated red toenail polish to the status of a sexual toy in Bull Durham, and who in Field of Dreams (1989) nudged every father's son to recall his own batting days with Dad, wanted—and got—Dances with Wolves for his directing debut. The big news is that the film, a sweeping saga of a cavalryman who befriends a tribe of Sioux, has been warmly received not only by critics but by Native Americans. In fact, on Oct. 19, the Sioux nation, rarely pleased with its portrayal onscreen, adopted Costner as a member of its tribal family. As well they should have. Dances, rewriting Hollywood's notion of the Old West, depicts them as heroes and the white man as swine.

What is so miraculous about Dances with Wolves, though, is that it got made at all. After all, cowboy movies are scarcely box-office gold these days, and Hollywood isn't quick to hand over $18.5 million to any first-time director. Yet Costner not only gained financing from foreign investors, he had the chutzpah to stick with both the extended, three-hour running time and the use of subtitles.

For Costner, the victory had a price. In order to star in, direct and co-produce Dances with Wolves, Costner took himself out of the running for some of the juiciest roles of the past two years: leads in Presumed Innocent (Harrison Ford got the part), The Hunt for Red October (Alec Baldwin), the forthcoming Bonfire of the Vanities (Tom Hanks) and Prince of Tides (Nick Nolte). "They're great books, but you cannot wave money in front of me and think that I'll do something," he says pridefully. Still, "Sometimes you say, 'Jeez! What am I doing? They're offering me so much money.' But these are my wonder years, and you just can't get everything you want in your life."

Costner's own 18-month commitment to Dances included a five-month location shoot on the prairies of South Dakota overseeing 130 crew members, 500 extras, 3,500 head of buffalo, 300 horses, 42 period wagons and several warehouses full of props. It meant learning, and teaching the cast, how to ride bareback and how to speak the Lakota (Sioux) language. It meant 16-hour days in summer heat of 115 degrees and in fall chill of 20 degrees. "He has nuclear energy—I don't know where he gets it!" says his co-star Mary McDonnell, who plays his love interest, Stands with a Fist.

Costner's co-workers are not alone in singing his praise. Hollywood, a town that often reserves nice words only for dead stars and fitness gurus, can scarcely think of a mean thing to say about him. Larry Kasdan, his director in Silverado (1985) and The Big Chill in 1983 (Costner's role—the suicide, Alex—was cut out of the final picture), believes the star's secret is his levelheaded approach. "There's usually enormous desperation among actors," Kasdan says. "Even before he was successful, Kevin had self-confidence. He's always known what's right for him, what's really important—rather than what others think is important."

Is this guy for real? Mr. Principles in an unprincipled world? Good looks paired with good values? "I don't say something I can't back up. I don't make a promise I can't keep," Costner insists loftily. "But that's probably no different from the way most people in the world would operate. I don't have the moral high ground on how to act or be a person. You like to think that you do the right thing."

In fact, the guy behaves decently—even to strangers. When he was making this winter's Revenge (an uncharacteristic dud) in Cuernavaca, Mexico, last year, says Luciana Cabarga, consul for movies, "He was so considerate and generous to the staff, they still talk about him. He paid them well and was thoughtful about the hours they worked." Costner's Delta Chi frat brothers at California State University at Fullerton were also impressed when their star alumnus agreed to host a benefit. For $50 a head, members, alumni and friends saw No Way Out before it premiered, had dinner, talked to the star—and raised $12,000 to boot.

But perhaps the real measure of a principled man is the way he regards his family. During the filming of Dances with Wolves, Costner ensured a down-home feeling by bringing his whole brood—wife Cindy, their three children, Annie, 6, Lily, 4, and Joe, 2, and his parents—on location. He even gave them roles as pioneers in the movie's opening scene. "Mom and Dad got their travel trailer up here," says brother Danny, 39, Kevin's personal financial adviser, "and parked it permanently. They put a phone in—the whole nine yards."

Yet having his family there turned out to be a distraction as well as a comfort. "It's weird," says Costner. "You sometimes find yourself thinking, 'I could do this better if I was by myself.' Then you think, 'Yet I'd miss two months with my son—two months with my family.' So the price you pay for not being alone is there. But there's this other thing, experiencing your family, that you can never put a price on."

If the star has been able to keep his feet on the ground during this heady time, it's largely because of his upbringing. "All the Costners are good men," his father, Bill, a former lineman for Southern California Edison, would constantly tell his boys, and, "Keep in mind what's fluff and what's real." Costner spent his early years in Compton, Calif., a rough, working class neighborhood, but the family of four moved to tame Ventura when he was 10. Kevin attended four different high schools and finally graduated from Villa Park High in Orange County. There he was remembered as an average student but an avid sportsman who managed to make the varsity baseball and basketball squads even though he was only 5'2" and wouldn't sprout to his full 6'1" until college. "That has a lot to do with why I didn't date back then," he has said. "I was a late bloomer."

It's striking that until Danny was drafted and sent to Vietnam in 1968, Kevin showed no inkling of a creative bent. But Danny's letters and tapes detailing his experiences affected Kevin so deeply that as a teenager he started taking notes. "He told me he wanted to write about the white working-class experience there," Danny recalls. "I was really surprised." It was an early sign of his brother's empathy for other lives, other worlds.

Even at Fullerton, from which he graduated in 1978 with a degree in business administration, Costner showed little interest in the arts. But then in his senior year, on a lark, he auditioned for a college production of Rumpelstiltskin. He didn't get the role, but suddenly, "I knew that what was going on in that room was where I wanted to be," says Kevin. "I began to go to local acting classes four or five nights a week. I just couldn't get enough."

Nor could he get enough of Cindy Silva, a fresh-faced young biology student he met at a frat party who had a steady job during summer vacations playing Snow White at Disneyland. "Cindy was Snow White literally," Kevin later recalled. "Snow White would never look at a guy like me—a little rat from Compton." Although she was seeing someone at the time, true to form Kevin persisted and persisted—and eventually triumphed. In 1978 they wed. He was 23. Of course, when the honeymoon was over, Cindy, who had wed a marketing major, found that she had wound up with a superstar and all the unpleasant baggage that entails. While Costner fights to protect their privacy and to keep his home life intact, J.J. Harris, his former agent, recently pointed out, "Finding a balance between personal and professional is a painful conflict for Kevin. He just doesn't have enough time for his family. He's a movie star now...and that's a harsh mistress."

Nobody understands the struggle better than Costner, who has to deal with the twin temptations of round-the-clock work and round-the-clock women throwing themselves at him. What's more, he's a naturally flirtatious guy who has in fact noted that beautiful women and the possibility of dangerous liaisons "is the thing that makes us go, man. Are you kidding? To undress somebody? It's the coolest thing. To be undressed. To be touched. To be physically, somehow, just taken." That's pretty hot stuff coming from an old married man.

Not surprisingly, there have been rumors along the way, too—rumors of marital separations, as well as whispers linking him romantically with Michelle Pfeiffer, who was not his leading lady, and with Sean Young, who was (No Way Out). But for all the difficulties, Costner gives every evidence of trying to make his marriage work. "Our lives are certainly full of stuff that we never ever bargained for," he says candidly. "It's not perfect. We're just like anybody. We have those long drives home, like everybody does, where there are silences that are uncomfortable. And then there are other days when we think how lucky we are."

The actor also realizes that it's no picnic being married to him. "If things were reversed, it would be impossible," he says, smiling. "That's how strong Cindy is. I don't think I could do what she does." On the Dances with Wolves location she not only took care of their three children but designed 42 period wagons—her first stab at set design—and threw a number of morale-boosting parties, including a Hawaiian luau and a '50s prom-style bash. Traditionally, she stays out of the limelight herself, preferring not to talk about her husband or her marriage.

However, Cindy's brother, David Silva, an assistant director on Dances, observes of their relationship, "It's got its problems. But she can tell me with her eyes how things are. I know that it wasn't easy at the beginning. But I think she's grown with it real well. She's an amazing person. She's kind of a wedge. She fits into any situation."

"She's been a good wife to Kevin," says Danny. "It's got to be tough on the spouse. This business is such an emotional roller coaster. It's bigger than life, and the stakes are high."

Kevin himself knows how difficult it is. "Life is trying to eat all of us," he recently observed in what might seem like a moment of uncharacteristic darkness. "And you either eat life. Or you're eaten." Despite the boyish grin and the charming veneer, this is a driven man who means business.

Currently, however, he's in merrie olde England doing, oddly enough, his second bow-and-arrow picture in a row—Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (due out next summer), shooting on location outside London. Cindy and the children plan to visit for Thanksgiving, when the kids will be out of school. Meanwhile, he seems happy as a clam not directing. "The truth is, there's more to life than movies," says Kevin, full of surprises. "I'd like to get more of a handle on who I am. I know I'm changing. Maybe I've got to go someplace else. I'm not searching for a way out, but I keep thinking I'd like to coach a Little League team for Joe or something, you know?"

If he does, put your money on it. Because with his determined daddy at the helm, Joe's team will have the World Series sewn up.

—Marjorie Rosen, Tina Johnson in Los Angeles and Rapid City, S.Dak.