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Profile in Courage

In the political thriller Thirteen Days, Kevin Costner explores the Cuban Missile Crisis and how John and Robert Kennedy saved the world.
| By David Giammarco | From Kevin Costner, Nov/Dec 00

A weary-looking Kenneth O'Donnell slips quietly through a side door into the Oval Office, looking for the two men who just saved the world from nuclear annihilation. But the room is deserted. In a moment of reflection, he pauses to gaze at the distinctive features of the world's most powerful office: the presidential seal emblazoned across the deep blue plush carpeting, the Carolina oak rocking chair at the end of the couch, the walls adorned with etchings of old naval clippers, and the large mahogany desk.   But what catches his eye is a small wooden plaque on the desk: it's the Breton's Fisherman's Prayer: "Oh Lord, Thy Sea is Great, My Boat So Small." He stares at the plaque, realizing the profundity of such a humble plea. Suddenly, the stillness is broken by, "We're out here."

O'Donnell looks through the open French door leading to the Rose Garden. Stepping through the billowing curtains onto the portico, he joins Jack and Bobby Kennedy, who gaze quietly across the South Lawn towards the Washington Monument. The three men try to verbalize their overwhelming emotions, try to make sense of the last 13 days--the most harrowing of their lives--but mere words can't express their feelings.

Instead, the highly charged silence among these old friends speaks volumes. After a long pause, O'Donnell quietly picks up Jack's football. Without missing a beat, JFK strides across the lawn, leaps up in the air, and catches a perfect pass.   In October 1962, fumbling was not an option.

Dressed in worn-in gray suit and wing tips, Kevin Costner begins loosening his narrow tie as he steps from October 1962 into December 1999 outside the soundstage at Barwick Studios in Los Angeles. For the past two months, the actor has been time-traveling as O'Donnell to the most frightening episode in Cold War history for the $80 million political thriller Thirteen Days. During the nearly two-week-long Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the future of the human race teetered precariously on the edge of extinction.

With his hair shorn short and darkened, and a collection of pens protruding from his shirt pocket protector, Costner's somewhat frumpy, working-class look is in sharp contrast to the polished gleam of JFK (played by Bruce Greenwood) and RFK (played by Steven Culp). That's because Costner is not the hero of the piece, but rather the window into the story, a sort of everyman narrative device.

Kenneth O'Donnell was one of Jack's and Bobby's most trusted confidants. He had been classmates with Robert Kennedy at Harvard and later served with him on the Senate Rackets Committee investigating the Mob-corrupted Teamsters Union. O'Donnell, who died in 1977, was a tough-as-nails Boston Irish political operator who was a key aide in both JFK's Senate and presidential campaigns and was a charter member of what the press had dubbed Kennedy's "Irish Mafia." Although officially known as special assistant to the president and presidential appointments secretary, O'Donnell was, in actuality, JFK's chief political adviser.

"Kenny was a very strong guy, a very loyal guy," says Costner, who read a number of books, listened to taped interviews of O'Donnell, and spoke extensively with Kevin O'Donnell--cofounder of the Internet service provider EarthLink--about his father. "Kenny even carried a gun at the White House because he considered himself the last line of defense. This was a decorated hero, with over 30 missions during WWII. He was a very courageous man."

Costner is walking off the set towards his trailer. In his hands, he carries the Kennedy football; in his voice, tinges of the O'Donnell Boston Irish brogue. Costner's trailer has just been adorned with sparkling Christmas lights and decorations--courtesy of his second-oldest daughter, 13-year-old Lily--and he congratulates her on a job well done. Costner's 11-year-old son Joe soon shows up on his bicycle and the three begin discussing their plans for Christmas, now only a couple weeks away. The warm afternoon sun is beating down and Costner removes his jacket and tosses it inside the trailer. He rolls up his sleeves and begins throwing the football with Joe.

"You know, the Kennedys have endured such a large amount of tabloidism over the last 20 years," Costner says as he continues tossing the vintage pigskin. "But my feeling is that no matter what anybody thinks about the Kennedys, in those 13 days they were absolutely golden. And if other individuals had been in that position, I think the legacy we would have been sharing in the year 2000--instead of all the bright lights and parties when we hit the millennium--would be 150 million people dead. It would make the Vietnam War pale in comparison. And if other men had been in power, they would have swallowed hook, line and sinker the recommendations of the military."

Indeed, because from the moment the Central Intelligence Agency and McGeorge Bundy showed Kennedy the U-2 reconnaissance photos on the morning of October 15, 1962, air strikes and an invasion of Cuba were the only solutions being recommended--demanded--by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Their assessment was that the Soviets and the Cubans were creating a missile launch capability in the San Cristobal area of Cuba, and the medium-range ballistic missiles being installed would be operational in less then two weeks. If fired, they would have been able to reach as far north as Washington, D.C. within a matter of minutes.   "The military's only position on solving the crisis was to go in and bomb," recounts Kennedy press secretary Pierre Salinger, now 75, at his home in Washington, D.C. "But Kennedy's view was that if that was done, a war would erupt with the Soviet Union, resulting in a nuclear exchange. Eventually, it was Bobby who came up with the final solution of bringing in the naval blockade around Cuba to make sure the Soviets couldn't get any ships in there with more information and more missiles."

On the evening of October 22, 1962, President Kennedy addressed the American people from the Oval Office:   Within the past week, unmistakable evidence has established the fact that a series of offensive missile sites is now in preparation on that imprisoned island. The purpose of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere.... It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union...   While the Pentagon went to "Defcon 2" (Defcon 5 is peace; Defcon 1 is war) and the world anxiously held its breath, Salinger remembers walking with Kennedy one morning through the Rose Garden and the president confiding in him: "'You know, if this [blockade] doesn't work, if we don't succeed in bringing this crisis to an end,' Kennedy said, 'hundreds of millions of people are going to get killed.'"

To assure that didn't happen, Kennedy took a further step by initiating secret "back-channel" communications with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, using Robert Kennedy, Pierre Salinger, American journalists and two KGB officials in Washington, thereby being able to bypass both the Joint Chiefs and the Politburo.   Finally, on Sunday, October 28, the Soviet government blinked and agreed to remove the missiles from Cuba, and in return Kennedy agreed to withdraw Jupiter ballistic missiles from Turkey. But according to Salinger, Kennedy had already planned to withdraw those missiles four months before the crisis, as they were considered obsolete and were scheduled to be replaced by submarine-launched Polaris missiles. "But this way, Kennedy allowed Khrushchev to save face with his country," says Salinger.

Negotiating a peaceful settlement that Sunday, however, left the Joint Chiefs irate. They believed a U.S. attack on Cuba was still justified. "We've been had!" fumed Adm. George Anderson. And Gen. Curtis Le May angrily insisted, "Why don't we just go in and make a strike anyway!" The morning after the resolution to the crisis, Kennedy told Salinger that "the military have gone mad!"

JFK's diplomacy had left the military and intelligence officers more insistent than ever that he was "soft on communism," says Salinger, adding that shortly before he was assassinated, Kennedy had planned on dropping the embargo on Cuba and normalizing relations with that nation. Otherwise, Kennedy told Salinger, "The Soviet Union is going to completely run that place and we don't want them dominating that area." Salinger also reveals that Kennedy planned on opening relations with China, but couldn't do so until his second term, "because people would label him a Communist," says Salinger.

Costner, who was seven years old during the crisis and living with his family in Compton, California, remembers those tense days as "stirrings of things." He sits on the steps outside his movie-set trailer and talks of hearing about bomb shelters and a hoarding of food. "But my parents were very careful to not let on that there was imminent danger. I just remember there was definitely something in the air. And I remember getting under the desk in school and doing the drills. It was great for me," he says with a laugh, "because it wasn't math! I mean, my theory on it was just as good as anybody else's, because you knew bomb shelters weren't going to work, so for me it was extended recess."

As the crew busily prepares for the next scene, Thirteen Days director Roger Donaldson--who previously worked with Costner on the hit 1987 spy thriller No Way Out--confers briefly with Costner and Bruce Greenwood on the last shot of the day. Greenwood, who researched voluminously for his portrayal of JFK, admits he watched "hundreds of hours of tapes," read a stack of books "that literally comes up to my belt," and also had a breakfast meeting with Salinger to help prepare for the role.

"To be able to sit in the same room and talk with someone who had actually been there made it very personal for me," Greenwood says. "All I knew about what happened was through history books, but it was a profound jump to be placed in this room with a guy who was in the middle of it all--it really helped place me there."   Greenwood feels that what will surprise audiences most about Thirteen Days, due out December 22, is how close the world actually came to annihilation. "They'll be simply astounded that it was only through the efforts of a few good men that Armageddon was sidestepped," says Greenwood, who starred as the villainous husband opposite Ashley Judd and Tommy Lee Jones in last year's surprise hit Double Jeopardy. "The pressure that was on [John] Kennedy to respond militarily and politically was incalculable. And that strength of character and courage to avoid making a decision that would have changed the world forever is something people maybe don't quite realize."

Costner figures that the resolve the Kennedy brothers showed in refusing to bow to military pressure stemmed directly from the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, which had been initiated by President Eisenhower a year before JFK took office. "When the Kennedys came into office, they were really being pushed around by [long-time CIA director] Allen Dulles and these military guys saying, 'Hey, this plan has been in the works for two years, whereas you just won the election, so don't fuck this up for us!' And Kennedy, being new and inexperienced and giving a certain amount of respect to them thought, 'Oh, OK.' Yet none of those guys were standing around to accept the blame. And there were the Kennedys, like on a beach with a giant tsunami coming to sweep them up. But to their credit, I think the Bay of Pigs is what saved us all in the end because they didn't repeat the weakness, or maybe what people perceived as weakness."

Costner, Greenwood and Culp are summoned back on set for what will be one of the final shots of the film--a walk back from the Rose Garden along the portico. The setting sun of a gorgeous autumn afternoon is duplicated on the soundstage and it illuminates the enormous White House set with a brilliant orange hue. As the three actors pass the white neoclassical pillars of the cloister and walk out of the frame, Donaldson keeps the camera stationary on the long shadows being cast by these men on the outside wall of the Oval Office. It's a truly poignant moment, one that will have enormous visual impact in the finished film. After some minor adjustments in the blocking, a second take is filmed and deemed the better of the two.

Filming is wrapped for the weekend, but Costner stays to view the scene on a playback monitor. A contented smile spreads across his face. "You know, the Kennedys really were golden during this and the world definitely needed them," says an obviously wistful Costner, watching the flickering video images of the last scene. "I think if you believe in God at all, you believe God had his hand on this country and on them. This is our tipping of the hat to some true heroism that occurred through sheer intellect and the power of these young men's character."

It's now late August and Costner is enjoying the last few days of summer at his 35-acre mountain retreat in Aspen, which faces the continental divide and is something he describes as his own piece of heaven. "It's a magical place for me," he says, enthusiastically. "I'm most at home literally on the tractor out back, moving dirt around. I only share this place with people whom I'm close with. It's my personal refuge."

Costner spent most of the summer here, having turned down numerous high-profile projects, including Jerry Bruckheimer's historical epic Pearl Harbor, to spend a leisurely summer vacation with his children. "Either I was chopping wood, building decks, and when I wasn't doing that, I was playing baseball with my kids or out flyfishing on the lake," he says with a smile.   Most of the filming for Thirteen Days, including Costner's scenes, was wrapped up in January, with the rest of the photography, including some location shooting in the Philippines (which doubles for Cuba in the film), finished by May. In February, Costner donned a pair of blue suede shoes as a thief masquerading as an Elvis impersonator to pull off a Las Vegas casino heist in the midst of an Elvis Presley convention. The action thriller, titled 3000 Miles to Graceland, also stars Kurt Russell as Costner's cunning cohort in the plan. It's a unique film choice for Costner, one that he says "will surprise a lot of people--it's a really edgy and wild rock and roll ride." If everything goes according to plan, Costner will reunite with director Oliver Stone in January for their first project together since JFK. No details are forthcoming about the film, but Costner describes it as "a very emotional love story set on an international level."

With these solid projects, it looks as if Costner is finally breaking free of a career dry spell that saw him go from Hollywood's '80s golden boy to the media's '90s whipping boy. But Costner has never been one to wallow in self-pity, although he has been provided ample opportunity as the press snickered with glee at the bloated budget and troubled shoot of Waterworld (1995), lambasted the actor for epic self-indulgence in Wyatt Earp (1994) and The Postman (1998), and chastised family-man Costner when his 16-year marriage to college sweetheart Cindy Silva ended amid reports of philandering. Yet despite the private and public setbacks, Costner has continually picked himself up, dusted himself off, and saddled up again with the same dogged determination and stoicism of the Western screen heroes he idolized as a child.

This afternoon, Costner has been finishing a road he's been digging through his property the past couple of days. Costner's matinee idol good looks have been weathered by time in the sun; a few more lines and creases crisscross around his blue-gray eyes, and his surfer's sandy hair lies long against his tanned features. Charismatic and always blunt as a bullet, Costner earnestly defends the career choices that made him a media punching bag the past few years.   "Everyone feels like they could have done things differently in life," he muses, with a discernible Oklahoma drawl in his voice. "But I'm happy about the things I've done. Not always happy about the results, but happy about the decisions, because I made them myself. And I think that's an important way to go through life."

Costner knows what he espouses probably sounds corny and antiquated to some, but he clings mightily to the traditional values of his youth and the frontier virtue of self-reliance, forged by his parents and grandparents during the great Dust Bowl disaster of the 1930s in the southwestern Great Plains. His father's family lost the farm and moved to California in a Model-A Ford. "All they took with them was what they could carry," he says.   "I have to say, Kevin has a real integrity and a quality that's very Western, very all-American," says Oliver Stone, in the middle of polishing off the final draft of the script for their possible project together. "Kevin also has a real cuteness, a boyishness which I've always liked--that comes across very well on screen. He stands firm in his beliefs, which not many people do."

Costner certainly isn't one to back down from a battle, whether personally or professionally. "There's just no reason to be timid in life," he says. "We walk this world once and only once. Our legacy will be our children, and so they walk how you walk and they see either your bravery or timidity. There are plenty of people that will write embarrassing things if you try and fail. And that's too bad. It's the way the world works.

"But, I don't ever want my children to look at me and think I wilted like a daisy over stuff. When you risk, you aren't always going to succeed. But to me, real heroes are men who fall and fail and are flawed, but win out in the end because they've stayed true to their ideals and beliefs and commitments."

Armyan Bernstein, who produced Thirteen Days and Costner's 1999 romantic drama, For Love of the Game, admits that with Costner, what you see is what you get. "There isn't a disingenuous bone in his body," Bernstein says. "Kevin is truer to himself than almost anyone that I've ever met in my life. He's willing to go at it alone and take a beating and make an unpopular choice and sort of stand lonely in it. It's just the way he is. I don't know where that came from. But I wish people knew more about him--they sometimes have a tabloid sense of him, and it's really not who he is."

Costner certainly became the poster boy for the tabloid press when his marriage broke up during the production of Waterworld. Although he handled the media assault with grace, he says it certainly didn't help matters, either. "The press were looking for 'the other woman' in all of it, and there was no 'other woman.' So, they began to create their own scenarios and their own stories, and that was a problem for everyone. There wasn't another woman and that was their frustration. And so they unfortunately picked certain people and pinpointed them and they got a lion's share of attention--it was unfortunate and unfair.

"I mean, look," he continues, "relationships are hard, even when they're at their best. It takes a lot of energy to make a relationship work. And there are a lot of things that can threaten a relationship. And when you put the outside forces that come with celebrity and fame, you almost have an unbelievable..." Costner's voice trails off and then he says softly, "You have to almost walk between raindrops in your relationship to avoid the pressure of the media and the kind of attention you get. It's really unhealthy."

By all accounts, it seems Costner has always marched to the beat of his own drum. When he was a struggling actor in the early '80s, he refused to utter his only line of dialogue, opposite Jessica Lange in 1982's Frances, because it didn't ring true for his character, even though it would have earned him a Screen Actors Guild card--a prerequisite for the union auditions that had eluded him for some five years. And after attaining stardom as noble--albeit slightly flawed--heroes in films such as The Untouchables, Bull Durham and Field of Dreams, Costner bucked conventional wisdom by directing, producing and starring in the three-hour-plus Western Dances with Wolves--with a third of the dialogue in the Lakota Sioux language.

"One guy told me to buy a gun and shoot myself--it was a cheaper way to commit suicide," he recalls with a grin.   But the 1990 film ended up grossing more than $500 million worldwide and earned Costner his stripes as a Hollywood heavyweight, bagging seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director for the first-timer. He followed that triumph with the controversial role of beleaguered New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, who was determined to expose the conspiracy behind the assassination of President Kennedy in Stone's politically dangerous epic JFK. Costner was cautioned not to take the role, but he knew it was too important a story to shun.

"Kevin anchored that movie for me enormously," Stone says. "JFK needed an adhesive glue, someone to keep it together over a three-hour running time, and that's exactly what he did. It was a long movie, with a lot of dialogue and a lot of different and unique characters. His is a very understated performance, because other people come in and have flashier roles--like Kevin Bacon or Tommy Lee Jones or Joe Pesci--but you needed that glue for a film of that scope and size."

"I felt that this country can accept the truth, just like we can accept our past, and we stand to learn more from [knowing] it then burying it," explains Costner. The 1991 film not only ignited a firestorm of controversy, but also was single-handedly responsible for helping pass the JFK Records Act, which opened up millions of pages of classified documents concerning the assassination. "You know, we want to get our children to understand that example, yet as adults, we just don't want to live it ourselves."

Costner's next hit was the 1992 film The Bodyguard, which costarred Whitney Houston. But then came Waterworld in 1995, and when it started running into financial and production turmoil, Costner again stepped to the plate and deferred his salary to keep the film afloat. "I felt like there was a responsibility to the studio that had put a lot of money into the movie, and I didn't want to abandon it," Costner says. "A lot of people ducked out, but I stayed with the film. For me, if I was going to retrace the history of my life, while that was a painful point for me, it was a highlight in that I rode it through to the end." And in the end, Waterworld grossed more than $400 million worldwide--certainly one of Universal's highest-grossing films in recent history. "And that movie would have failed if I'd walked away," adds Costner. "I was literally the last man standing."  

Although Wyatt Earp and his second directorial effort, The Postman, failed commercially and critically, Costner makes no apologies. "I loved Wyatt Earp and I really loved The Postman, and no one can take those movies away from me," Costner says emphatically. "I would stack those films up, not in the world we live in today, but five years from now, where people can just watch them untainted. I would stack my movies up with anybody's movies. All their sequels included.

"And quite honestly," adds Costner, "I am haunted by the decisions that are commercially based. Absolutely haunted. In the rest of my life I'm a pretty tough character, but in that one aspect, I crumble. I mean, I don't do it in public, but I go back and I'm by myself. I just hate that you don't see every moment that I really wanted you to see, as a man. Because I make my films for men, from a man's point of view. And I always try to have great women characters in them as well."

But the alternative, Costner says, is that "I could make every decision that could cater to the biggest demographic and try to make as many friends as I could. All my decisions would be really flat and really safe. And I would go, 'God, I still didn't manage to make them like me.' Then I would hate myself. I would kill myself if I reduced myself to the lowest common denominator and then failed. I'd think, 'Shame on you, you miserable baby. You have successfully done nothing!'"  

Costner is the first to admit that Thirteen Days is an anomaly in an era when teenage comedies and cost-cutting measures are de rigueur in Hollywood, and goes so far as to liken Thirteen Days to an art film by comparison. "Our demographic for this movie is shrinking, but I still had to make it," says Costner, who also serves as a coproducer on the film. "I mean, it's not a star turn for me, but it's important. It's important that we don't shy away from the subject matter. I wanted whoever sees this movie to know about our history. We're losing our legacy of greatness and our legacy of failure because we're just putting it behind us. But I'm in love with our history. So for me, it came down to 'What is your filmography going to look like in your life?'   "I never try to anticipate the mood swings of what's commercial and what's not," he adds. "I've just always gone towards what I thought was a really good story."  

Costner knows that there are still plenty of good stories left to tell. But whether he directs again remains to be seen. "Yeah, I'll direct again," he says with a mischievous smile, "when it's time for another beating." But what remains is his love for filmmaking. "Maybe it's an arrogance that I have, but I know the way I feel about movies is absolutely pure. And that's not to say I'm infallible and I'm the one who knows best, but somebody has to have a point of view about the movie and somebody has to pull it through. I don't tolerate anyone tinkering with them for commercial reasons. I just can't allow it--maybe that's the trouble with me.   "But you know, I'm always so pleased at the letters I get from around the world about the movies I've done. And always when I get a great letter, it reminds me that most of everything you fight for is the reason you do it. I don't fight to fight, 'cause that's not my nature. I fight cowardice and I fight fear."  

Based in Toronto and Los Angeles, David Giammarco is one of Canada's leading entertainment journalists.

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