Kevin Costner has been one of Hollywood’s most reliable leading men for over four decades. Simultaneously hunky and approachable, Costner has an old-school charisma, exemplified by his frequent roles in Westerns and baseball films — two of the quintessential American genres. And, in the wake of his recent role on the hit Paramount + series Yellowstone as high-powered rancher John Dutton, we were inspired to take a walk down memory lane and rewatch some of the most beloved Kevin Costner movies.
How Costner got his start in acting
Fascinatingly enough, Costner’s acting career was sparked by a chance encounter with the screen legend Richard Burton, who Costner just happened to be seated near on a plane as was returning from his honeymoon. Costner was just 22 years old!
Costner had an interest in becoming an actor, but hadn’t yet pursued it in earnest, and he took the sight of Burton as a sign, recounting, “I was really unsure what I wanted to do with my life, and I saw him there, and I intruded…I had done some community theater, but I was really thinking I could make this a living and I desperately wanted to talk to him.” He added that while they didn’t talk for long, Burton had “a gentleness and a kindness, and [was] looking at me saying, ‘I think you should try this.’”
Following this fateful encounter, Costner began taking acting lessons and made his debut in the raunchy comedy Malibu Hot Summer in 1981. More memorable roles followed later in the decade, and following his 1985 breakout in Silverado he was poised for stardom.
Over the years Costner became more than just a movie star — he’s also an accomplished director, having directed and starred in Dances With Wolves, The Postman and Open Range.
Here, Costner’s most appealing and memorable roles in chronological order:
1. Silverado (1985)
You can always count on Costner to wear the heck out of a cowboy hat. As a misfit cowboy in the Western Silverado, he had a breakout performance, and from there he soon went on to be an A-lister.
While he’d had small parts in earlier films, it was Silverado that put him on the map. “Being awarded that part was just a total gift,” he’s said. “It was a career-making role, a scene-stealing role.”
2. The Untouchables (1987)
1987 was the year Costner became a true movie star, thanks to his leading role as Bureau of Prohibition agent Eliot Ness in The Untouchables. The movie tells the story of how Ness and his team brought down the notorious gangster Al Capone (played by none other than Robert De Niro). While this was a defining role for Costner, he almost didn’t get it: Variety originally reported his part was going to be played by Jack Nicholson.
3. No Way Out (1987)
This sexy thriller combines political intrigue with classic, Old Hollywood-inspired style. As Lieutenant Commander Tom Farrell, Costner navigates a world of devious double crosses and has a steamy affair with Sean Young (including an unforgettable liaison in a limo). And Costner wasn’t the only heartthrob in No Way Out — a pre-fame Brad Pitt made a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance as an extra!
4. Bull Durham (1988)
Costner is the undisputed king of baseball movies, and as the veteran Minor League player Crash Davis in Bull Durham, he gives a home-run performance. Caught in a tricky love triangle involving Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon), a seductive “baseball groupie” and Nuke Laloosh (Tim Robbins), a rookie player he’s mentoring, Costner finds the sexy side of America’s Pastime. Bull Durham‘s writer/director, Ron Shelton, based it in part on his own experiences as a minor league baseball player, and in 2003, Sports Illustrated rated it the greatest sports movie of all time.
5. Field of Dreams (1989)
Costner followed up Bull Durham with another iconic baseball movie, Field of Dreams. He plays Ray Kinsella, a man who hears a mystical voice telling him to build a baseball field on his Iowa farm. With the iconic line, “If you build it, he will come,” Field of Dreams is an inspiring sports story with fantastical fairy tale elements. In an interview with Conan O’Brien, Costner called it “Our generation’s It’s a Wonderful Life” because of its enduring ability to pull at viewers’ heartstrings.
6. Dances With Wolves (1990)
Dances With Wolves proved that Costner could do more than just act. He not only starred in this Western epic as John Dunbar, a Lieutenant who engages with a Native American settlement during the Civil War, he also directed it. Costner won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director — a particularly impressive feat considering this was his directorial debut. The film was a major success, and is widely credited with helping to bring back the Western genre.
7. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)
Costner got his swashbuckling heroism on in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and while the movie was a massive hit, it’s not exactly his most acclaimed performance. As the legendary folk hero who steals from the rich and gives to the poor, Costner was criticized for his refusal to commit to a British accent.
As a representative Entertainment Weekly article reported, “Even before it was finished, Costner was the subject of embarrassing rumors that his performance was too laid-back and his accent more LA than UK.”
8. JFK (1991)
This controversial political epic from writer/director Oliver Stone starred Costner as Jim Garrison, a district attorney investigating John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The film throws Costner into a world of conspiracies, and was described in Time as “Part history book, part comic book,” for the many liberties it took in recounting a pivotal moment in American history. No matter what audiences thought of the political conspiracies, the intensity of Costner’s performance was undeniable.
9. The Bodyguard (1992)
In this blockbuster romance, Costner starred as a former Secret Service agent turned bodyguard for an actress/singer, played by none other than Whitney Houston. The movie made Houston’s cover of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” virtually inescapable, and had audiences swooning, even if some of the reviews were less than stellar. While the pairing of Costner and Houston is oh-so-’90s, The Bodyguard had actually been in development since the ’70s — it was originally meant to star Steve McQueen and Diana Ross.
10. Waterworld (1995)
This post-apocalyptic action movie was known for its extravagant budget (at the time, it was the most expensive film ever made) and over-the-top plot. Starring Costner as a man/fish hybrid known as “The Mariner” in the year 2500, the story took inspiration from the classic dystopian movie Mad Max, and portrayed the star as an antihero. While the futuristic plot may have been a little out there, Costner was swaggering as always.
11. Tin Cup (1996)
Think Costner only plays baseball? Think again! In Tin Cup, a sporty rom-com in which he starred alongside the lovely Rene Russo, he played Roy “Tin Cup” McAvoy, a washed-up golfer who gets back in the game. The movie was Costner’s second collaboration with Bull Durham director Ron Shelton, and both stories feature the actor as experienced athletes navigating romantic relationships.
12. Open Range (2003)
After the success of Dances With Wolves, the next movie Costner directed and starred in, The Postman (1997), was a disappointment, but he got back on track with Open Range, a (you guessed it) Western set in 19th-century Montana and featuring the actor/director as a former gunslinger. Costner was modest in describing his style as a director, telling film critic Roger Ebert, “I don’t consider myself a cutting-edge kind of filmmaker. I think my choices are right down the middle, but hopefully there’s a true character there, and a thread of film literacy.”
13. Man of Steel (2013)
Who else but Kevin Costner could play Jonathan Kent, the adoptive father of Superman? Paired with Diane Lane, he’s a grounding familial force for an iconic superhero leading a double life. Director Zack Snyder said he cast Costner and Lane as Superman’s parents because they’re “serious actors,” who help to ground the comic book movie in reality. Costner first played this role in Man of Steel and reprised it in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Zack Snyder’s Justice League (in which he made a quick cameo in voiceover).
14. Hidden Figures (2016)
Hidden Figures recounts a fascinating true story based on the lives of three Black women mathematicians (played by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe) who worked at NASA in the ’60s during the dramatic days of the Space Race. Costner plays Al Harrison, the director of the Space Task Group, who includes one of these inspiring women on his team. While most of the characters in the film were based on real-life people, Harrison was not. He was actually a composite character based on three different NASA directors of the era.
Whether you’re watching him in a gritty Western or a sweet romance, or binging the last episodes of Yellowstone, Kevin Costner always delivers. The swagger he’s brought to the screen for decades is downright legendary, and all the movies listed above truly show it off.