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Transcript: Kevin Costner speaks poignantly about his Oklahoma heritage, meeting Walt Disney and making Westerns at the Western Heritage Awards

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Kevin Costner acknowledges the crowd after being introduced as an inductee into the 2019 Hall of Great Western Performers during the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum's Western Heritage Awards in Oklahoma City, Saturday, April 13, 2019. Photo by Bryan Terry, The Oklahoman
Kevin Costner acknowledges the crowd after being introduced as an inductee into the 2019 Hall of Great Western Performers during the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum's Western Heritage Awards in Oklahoma City, Saturday, April 13, 2019. Photo by Bryan Terry, The Oklahoman

Kevin Costner spoke poignantly about his family's Oklahoma heritage, his childhood encounter with Walt Disney and his lifelong passion for Westerns Saturday night in Oklahoma City. 

As previously reported, the two-time Oscar winner was ushered into the Hall of Great Western Performers during the 59th Annual Western Heritage Awards at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. 

Along with serving as the show's emcee, actor Rex Linn, who was born in Spearman, Texas, and raised in Oklahoma City, did the induction honors for Coster, whom he called "an actor, director, producer, devoted father and devoted husband - and a damn fine human being." Linn co-starred with Costner in the 1990s films “Wyatt Earp,” “Tin Cup” and “The Postman,” three of the more than 50 movies the “Dances with Wolves” actor/director has appeared in during his almost four-decade show-business career.

Costner prefaced his comments with a touching "thank you" to Judy Keel, who spoke highly of him while accepting Western Heritage honors on behalf of her late husband, Howard Keel. Keel (1919-2004) – whose credits included the 1950s movie-musicals "Annie Get Your Gun,” “Calamity Jane" and "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers"; the 1967 John Wayne and Kirk Douglas film "The War Wagon"; and a decade-long run on the 1980s TV drama “Dallas – also was inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers on what would have been his 100th birthday.

"Mrs. Keel, sometimes you don’t know why you come to a place, and I kind of had an understanding of what we were gonna do here. You really filled my heart with what you said, and that happens and sometimes if you hang in there long enough you get to hear something like that," said Costner, who stars in the popular television series "Yellowstone," which was honored with a Wrangler Award in the film and television categories at Saturday’s ceremony.

The California native said word of his Hall of Great Western Performers "forced me to wanna look back," and the way he shared his memories had his rapt sold-out audience of more than 1,200 people alternately laughing, cheering and gasping. 

To see the almost 30-minute video of Costner's speech and Linn's introduction on the Wrangler Network website, click the photo below, or keep scrolling to read the transcript of Costner's moving comments: 

"I don’t really know how you get on this list. It’s something I think people may dream about, but you don’t dream about it out loud. Kind of like your best fishing hole, when you’re a fisherman, you never even talk about it in your sleep. This award is not something you can hint at, and it’s certainly not something that you could ask for and consider yourself any measure of the people who’ve received it already. It would take the honor out of it. and it would embarrass those who thought enough to put your name forward. I know where I’m at tonight, I know where I stand, and I know this is not done lightly. So, I was thinking how this could happen to a boy who was born in the city, where did this desire to see yourself living in another time and come from? If I launch you back through the breadcrumbs of my life, you might see the path that I’ve taken, and you might see whey this night is possible. You might even understand how much I have in common with this whole room. 

"It started with the bad black-and-white Westerns that I would watch on TV with my father, I was probably 4 at the time, and I have no memory of the people who were in them. But what I do remember, however, was waiting for my father to leave the room, because as soon as he did I would be back up on the back of that couch, edging my way down the thin ridge line, careful not to fall or to make any noise that would bring him or my mother back into the room. The stakes were high. It wouldn’t be too much to say that they were life and death. I was stalking my poor dog below me. He was unaware that he was the enemy and that I was about to pounce. He was a terrier, and his fierce growl, once it started, would bring my parents running. And we would roll back and forth like that bad Western, and I would continue to stab him. It was a mighty battle that I managed to never lose. And my parents warned me - my dad specifically - that he was going to bite me and they wouldn’t blame him if he did.

"My father was from the panhandle of Oklahoma So he was comfortable saying that kind of stuff to me. Guymon to be exact. My grandfather was Walter. He was one of 11 children, he was a farmer/rancher, he was married at 19, married my grandmother Tig, who was 14.

"My grandmother told the story of my grandfather selling his cattle in a bear year and putting every penny of it in the bank, that and 50,000 bushels of wheat harvest were going to take care of their life for at least the next four years. At 11 o’clock in the morning, he walked that money into the bank and looked at the teller, someone he knew, who had to have known, who’d been out to the ranch the day before. There wasn’t a wink or a nod. There wasn’t a whisper, ‘Don’t do it, Walter.’ At 12 o’clock, an hour later, that bank closed, and the doors never opened again. It was the biggest of betrayals, and my grandmother would never forget. It was the Great Depression, and our family would never recover: 50,000 bushels of wheat would spoil waiting for the price to go up and it never did. And the Dust Bowl that followed would roll over a generation. 

Kevin Costner speaks after being introduced as an inductee into the 2019 Hall of Great Western Performers during the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum's Western Heritage Awards in Oklahoma City, Saturday, April 13, 2019. Photo by Bryan Terry, The Oklahoman
Kevin Costner speaks after being introduced as an inductee into the 2019 Hall of Great Western Performers during the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum's Western Heritage Awards in Oklahoma City, Saturday, April 13, 2019. Photo by Bryan Terry, The Oklahoman

"My family, along with thousands of others, had left with whatever they could carry, to carve out a new life. California wasn’t always very welcoming back then. Making a go of it wasn’t easy if you were an Okie. I don’t remember us having any kind of real money growing up, but I would never know it.

"The truth is, I had more than money, I had the love and the attention of parents who met in the ninth grade and are still married today. Their commitment was to give me as much life experience with the resources they had. My father would only have one job in his life and he held on to it with a death grip. No doubt, giving up some of his own dreams to give us a security that he lost as a boy. It would be the love and generosity of friends and sometimes strangers that would pave the way for me. 

"Perfect example was a man that worked for McDonnell Douglas, an airplane manufacturer in southern California. He asked my father one day if he thought our family might like to go to a new park that had been built. He wasn’t going himself, and he’d been given tickets.

"The place was Disneyland, and while we think of it as a great success today it wasn’t always that way.  It was built in 1955, the year I was born.  It was still trying to catch on in the late 50s. It wasn’t uncommon for the entire park to be rented out by a single company during that time. It was magical, a feast for the eye and the imagination of a 4 -year-old. Our first stop after walking down Main Street came with a decision: It was either that big castle right in front of me or Frontier Land.

"For me, it wasn’t a choice at all.

"My older brother was 9 and after a pass through Frontier Land, he wanted to go off with my father and explore the rest of the park. I’m sure my mom wanted to go as well. But I didn’t feel the need to go a step further. I’d found what I was looking for: Grand Canyon ride. Where they still used donkeys, and you got to ride by yourself. My mother couldn’t get me off it … again … and again … I would take her back to the front of that line.  It had to be five times in a row before she finally said we couldn’t go again. It made no sense to me, because there was no one in line this time. It was empty except for this yellow ribbon that someone must have put up and placed across the entrance of that ride. I later heard they were called VIPs and they were coming through, whoever they were, and everyone was gonna have to wait.

"Everyone except us.

"If I could only get my poor mother to run again, I was certain we could beat them. They looked old, and they were just walking. My mother tried to stop me, but I ran ahead, determined to beat that large group of men, waving to my mom behind me. I flew under that ribbon, and ran right into the men leading the group. He never saw me, but I must have hit him hard, right in the knees, because he buckled. And the men in that party all stopped. Everything stopped. No one said a word. My mother’s hands were over her mouth. I couldn’t imagine what was wrong, but one thing was for sure: in my mind, we were in front of them. At least that’s the way I saw it. I waved her on, but she wouldn’t come. She couldn’t. She was paralyzed.

"The man looked down at me, and I remember him being huge. And he wasn’t angry. And he asked me if I liked this ride. I told him that I loved this ride. He simply smiled and pointed to the other side of the ribbon and said, ‘I think your mother’s over there.’ I walked back to my mom, who gathered me in with both of her arms as we watched those men take our place in the front of the line.

"She asked if I knew who he was. I shook my head. And then she told me - that was Walt Disney. 

"I know in my heart, I know this for sure, I know in my heart that Walt turned to those men, probably the same men who were congratulating him now, that were the same men probably here telling him years ago he was spending too much money on details that no one would see. I’m sure that Walt looked at those men and in a quick lecture reminded them, ‘That kid doesn’t just like this ride; he loves this ride.’ I didn’t know what detail, was but Walt did and he understood the power of little things being the things that could mean the most. Everything was real in my mind: the buzzards, the snakes, the cactus, how steep it all seemed.

"The attention to detail marked me in a way that I would only come to know years later.

"I was growing, and a year later I was 5. And on my first day of sharing in kindergarten I was sent home with a note on my shirt. I couldn’t read, so I guess that was the point. We were told to bring our favorite thing to share, the thing that we love the most.

"I brought my father’s .30-30.

"I walked it through the neighborhood, all the way into class. What I brought paled compared to what any of the other people had brought, but I was going to be watched closely from then on. At 6, my father got me out of the city and he moved me from Compton, California, to a place called San Paulo. I remember a boyhood friend having something so beautiful that I tried every day after school to go to his house and see it.

"He had a horse. Not a donkey, but a horse. A full-fledged horse. His fascination with it didn’t run as deep as mine, probably because he’d had it his whole life, and when he didn’t want to ride it anymore, I would keep going while he watched or went inside. I would ride inside the corral, the edge of it, and it would take me under an old tree where a limb had grown out. And with the right speed, standing up, at the right time, I could catch it. I’d hold onto that limb, and I’d swing myself up, letting bad guys that were chasing me underneath none the wiser. There were too many to plug. I would tangle with them another day of my own choosing. So, all I had to do was let ‘em pass, and then I would whistle, just whistle, knowing that my trained horse would come back and get me and we would make our getaway, just like the movies. 

"Of course, that horse would never come back when I whistled. He was a mean little s--t. He was a Shetland pony who did bite.  I was nearly deformed at 6, but my life was about to change forever at 7, when I was invited to a birthday party by the same kid who owned that horse.

Kevin Costner speaks after being introduced as an inductee into the 2019 Hall of Great Western Performers during the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum's Western Heritage Awards in Oklahoma City, Saturday, April 13, 2019. Photo by Bryan Terry, The Oklahoman
Kevin Costner speaks after being introduced as an inductee into the 2019 Hall of Great Western Performers during the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum's Western Heritage Awards in Oklahoma City, Saturday, April 13, 2019. Photo by Bryan Terry, The Oklahoman

"We would be driven to Hollywood to see a movie at the world famous Cinerama Dome. The movie was “How the West Was Won.”

"I don’t know how the other kids did but I never moved. I was too small for my seat, and my feet must have stuck straight out, because I know they never hit the floor. The music was playing before the curtain opened, and when it did, it was like God spoke to me and the scales came off my eyes. I never left my seat, refusing to leave even at intermission. Candy and Coke, they were just not important. I wasn’t gonna miss a thing - and if you think my own pictures run long, then you can blame it on that day. 

"Little did I know that I would meet some of our greatest Western stars on the screen that afternoon. But it was Spencer Tracy’s voice that I heard first, talking about the land with no roads or borders and the type of men who were unafraid to venture out into it. The first image of a birch bark canoe gliding across a mirrored lake towards a group of people standing on the shore dressed in feathers and furs, it took my breath away. The man showed no fear as he drove his canoe onto the land and an exchange took place. I didn’t even know what was being said to know that he was being accepted for who he was - and I wanted to be him. I wanted to be free to make up my own life, living by my own wits, answering to no man about where I went, in a land that was beautiful but gave no quarter.

"I think I fought my dog every day after that movie. Battle after battle, and he never did bite me. 

"I love making Westerns. I know who I am more than any other time in my life when I’m making ‘em. I understand their importance to our culture and the emotional impact, when done correctly, on men, on women and 7-year-olds. 

"I’ve never pretended that I’m one of you, but feel deeply committed to our collective story and the importance of bringing them to the screen.  Westerns are not simple, and the resourcefulness that it took for our ancestors to make it is not something to be taken for granted.

"The detail, the words, the random violence, the poetry of trying to live a decent life, the love that it took just to make it is all a part of our story.  The world of the Western is specific. It’s the reason this museum will stand the test of time and inspire others - because of its detail. I applaud the work and energy that goes into it when no one is looking.

"You know, I’ve heard it said that “Star Wars” is a Western in space. I don’t think that. I think that “Star Wars” is a movie about space. I believe that “Liberty Valance” is a Western. And that “The Searchers” and “Red River” are Westerns.

"I don’t go to museums but I drove over 40 years ago to the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa to stand with (Frederick) Remington and (Charles) Russell. I don’t recall anyone wanting to make that drive, but I went and stared at them the same way I guess people look at the “Mona Lisa.”

"My plan is a simple one: To continue to make westerns. And avoid Shetland ponies. And when I do, you have my personal invite to come along, with the rest of the world, to take that same ride and dream that same dream and measure ourselves against the odds of making it when the lights go out and the curtain opens up.

"I don’t know that my feet have ever hit the floor, and tonight, you’ve honored me, and in doing so you’ve honored my wife, my children, my parents and my grandparents who were forced to leave Oklahoma so long ago and make a new life for themselves. I wish they could be here now, feel what I feel, see my fancy tuxedo. The Costners thank you all for inviting me into this special, special place. Thank you."

To read more of my Western Heritage Awards coverage, including my interviews with Reba McEntire and Michael Martin Murphey and a full list of honorees, click here

-BAM




Related Photos
Kevin Costner acknowledges the crowd after being introduced as an inductee into the 2019 Hall of Great Western Performers during the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum's Western Heritage Awards in Oklahoma City, Saturday, April 13, 2019. Photo by Bryan Terry, The Oklahoman

Kevin Costner acknowledges the crowd after being introduced as an inductee into the 2019 Hall of Great Western Performers during the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum's Western Heritage Awards in Oklahoma City, Saturday, April 13, 2019. Photo by Bryan Terry, The Oklahoman

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Brandy McDonnell

Brandy McDonnell, also known by her initials BAM, writes stories and reviews on movies, music, the arts and other aspects of entertainment. She is NewsOK’s top blogger: Her 4-year-old entertainment news blog, BAM’s Blog, has notched more than 1... Read more ›

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