- The Washington Times - Friday, September 17, 2004

Kevin Costner can pinpoint the first time the American Indian way of life struck a chord within him.

It was — where else? — at a movie house. He was watching 1962’s “How the West Was Won.” Jimmy Stewart rode into a picturesque American Indian town and made first contact with the authentically garbed natives.

“The freedom he had living by his own wits … coming into contact with a culture that received him based upon his character,” Mr. Costner says. “That really stuck with me, that the land was once like that and that kind of exchange took place.”

The actor’s curiosity about American Indian life bubbled through the years, culminating in his 1990 Oscar-winning epic “Dances With Wolves.”

“I didn’t feel like stopping after that,” he says of life post- “Wolves.”

The laconic actor’s subsequent labor of love, the 1995 CBS miniseries “500 Nations,” gets a face-lift this weekend as the Discovery Channel airs at 9 tonight an updated two-hour version of the series he narrated and executive-produced.

The series also debuts in full on DVD Tuesday for a retail price of $59.98, the same day the Smithsonian Institution’s new National Museum of the American Indian opens on the Mall. The eight-hour documentary also runs in its entirety over four nights starting Friday on the Discovery Times Channel.

The documentary explores the history of the indigenous peoples of North and Central America, from pre-Colombian times through European contact and colonization to the end of the 19th century.

Some of Mr. Costner’s tributes to the American Indian haven’t been quite so open to inspection. Several years ago, he installed a memorial consisting of 17 bronze statues to the South Plains Indians in South Dakota.

“I’m ashamed of how we treated our brothers and sisters, but I understand the world and how it goes,” he says, looking back at the nation’s history. “I’m not embarrassed to talk about it.”

Talking,in fact, can add context to history taking place today, he adds.

“Clearly, Saddam Hussein gassed the Kurds, but we … [committed] genocide on the people here before us,” he says. “It should be considered recent history.”

Mr. Costner says the American Indian way of life appeals to him on an aesthetic level.

“I’ve chosen to become a storyteller in my life,” he says. The American Indian culture packs “so much drama and beauty and so much that’s gone.”

The actor’s career involves enough melodrama for its own juicy saga.

His career got off to an ignominious start when his small role in “The Big Chill” got reduced to playing the body of the friend to whom the characters pay their final respects.

The actor appeared in a series of forgettable features, including the jigglefest “Sizzle Beach, U.S.A.” (1986).

Brian De Palma’s “The Untouchables” changed all that. His turn as decent-to-a-fault Eliot Ness sparked a string of major roles, capped by his “Wolves” Oscar triumph.

The handsome actor, sewn together from Gary Cooper’s no-nonsense cloth, could do no wrong.

Then came “Waterworld,” an overbudgeted mediocrity, followed later by “The Postman,” a directorial disaster.

The high-profile projects dried up.

Today, after a miniresurgence thanks to “Open Range,” the actor has a number of intriguing projects lined up, including Rob Reiner’s next picture, inspired by “The Graduate.”

Mr. Costner fares best as the noble Everyman, an identification he welcomes.

“If you go onstage, you can hide in a character,” he says. “On film, your soul is really exposed. You are who you really are. The roles I’m attracted to are the kind of men I’d like to be.”

Like one of the stand-up individualists he portrays, Mr. Costner confronts head-on talk about his professional travails.

“I don’t see myself and want to think about the highs and forget about the lows,” he says, referring to the critical drubbing endured by “Waterworld.”

“That movie was a high moment for me. … I stood by myself and didn’t back away from it.”

He isn’t ready to give up on the Western, either, even if the market for cowpoke yarns is iffy.

“That genre is not considered commercial, but I refuse to let go of it. Movies don’t have to be megahits to give people enjoyment,” he says. “I’m gonna make another cowboy.”

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