Singer, songwriter, soldier, scholar, actor – it’s not easy to pin a simple tag on Kris Kristofferson, and as a native Texan, he probably prefers it that way.
The son of a military officer, Kristofferson was born in Brownsville in 1936. He was a Golden Gloves boxer and a Phi Beta Kappa at California’s Pomona College before earning a Rhodes scholarship and studying writing and literature at Oxford.
He joined the Army and was stationed in Germany, became a helicopter pilot, and taught briefly at West Point before resigning his commission (he achieved the rank of Captain) and opting for the life of a struggling songwriter. Heading to Nashville, Kristofferson eventually captured the attention of Johnny Cash (legend has it by landing a helicopter on his front lawn and handing him some songs) and within a few years has penned a host of number one country and crossover hits, including Cash’s “Sunday morning Coming Down” and Janice Joplin’s classic “Me and Bobby McGee.” His music led to friendships with Hollywood industry types, and in 1971 he composed the soundtrack and made his film debut in Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie.
Kristofferson’s reputation as a natural performer was aided by his work in films like Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), Blume in Love (1973), Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) and Martin Scorcese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974). In the much publicized remake of A Star is Born (1976) opposite Barbra Streisand, Kristofferson played fading alcoholic rock star, a role which reportedly spurred him to acknowledge his own battle with the bottle.
Success alongside Burt Reynolds in the football comedy Semi-Tough (1977) and Ali McGraw in Convoy (1978) led to Kristofferson being cast in what was, for decades, considered the biggest flop in Hollywood history, Heaven’s Gate (1980). With the exception of the film Rollover (1981), Kristofferson didn’t work for years, finally reemerging from the shadows alongside his friend and fellow country music star Willie Nelson in the well-received Songwriter (1984). Over time the public became used to seeing Kristofferson’s grizzled face in everything from ridiculous big screen comedies ala Big Pee Wee (1988) to TV westerns and family fare like “The Last Days of Frank and Jesse James” and “Christmas in Connecticut.”
In 1996 Kristofferson gave one of his finest performances as a murderous Texas sheriff in director John Sayles’ outstanding Lone Star. He followed that performance two years later in the little seen but beautifully made Merchant/Ivory film A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries (1998). Kristofferson continues to write and perform his original music and his film credits continue to stack up (he’s made well over 50 feature and TV films), most recently appearing alongside Dolly Parton in 2012 and The Joyful Life in 2013.