At a time when no-one believed modern audiences would pay to see a “cowboys and Indians” movie, Kevin Costner’s epic Dances With Wolves looked like a disaster in the making. Except the actor-director has Cherokee blood and a message to convey about the massacre of the Native American people and the loss of their land. The film went on to win a raft of awards and established Costner as one of Hollywood’s greatest stars.
In the old days, life in the West was tough. There were no tarmacked roads, no fenced-off fields, just a landscape as wild as Africa where tens of thousands of bison and wild horses roamed free. I guess I’ve always loved old-fashioned values, idealists, people who were prepared to give up everything they had and make a new life for themselves. Dances With Wolves talks about loyalty, courage, friendship and respect. I wanted audiences to see these qualities and maybe take example from them. Of course, I’m no idiot. The West I love is disappearing fast.
Dances With Wolves was a love letter to Native Americans whose culture and homes we have destroyed so we could take their land. My grandparents were Okies, poor farmers from Oklahoma who lived through the Dust Bowl. One year my grandfather sold his cattle and put all the money in the bank. That same day the bank closed down and never opened its doors again. It was the Great Depression. They never got a penny back. Growing up, I remember how poor we were. We almost never ate in restaurants and when we did we weren’t allowed to order extras. One of the rare times we did eat out, I remember asking the waitress for a side of bacon. Out of the corner of my eye I could see my father glaring at me. I never forgot that day. I promised myself that, once I was grown-up and independent, I’d behave differently. Now, whenever I take friends or family out for dinner, they can order as much as they like. Yeah, I missed out on a lot as a kid. I’d dream about one day living in a beautiful house and driving a fancy car.
That’s one of the first things I bought for myself. I was doing odd jobs at the time, and on this particular day I’d been asked to fit a wood door. The owner of the house wore a watch that must have cost as much as his car. He could see how mesmerised I was by it, and asked did I want to take a closer look. You bet your life I did! I’d never seen anything so beautiful in my entire life. The guy told me that if I worked hard enough, some day I’d be able to buy one for myself. Which I did. A Rolex which I cherish to this day. For me, it symbolises the end of hard times and a new beginning. There are plenty of actors in Hollywood who wouldn’t think twice about spending a few hundred thousand dollars on an exceptional watch. Not me. My family’s past and my own childhood are always fresh in my mind. Of course I like to treat myself but I always think twice before handing over my credit card. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s being taken for an arriviste!
Not exactly. I was already taking acting classes in the evening. What actually happened is I was at Puerto Vallarta airport in Mexico with my ex-wife when we spotted Richard Burton at the boarding gate. He and his girlfriend were ushered straight to the front of the queue, then inside the plane he’d bought the four other seats in his row so that no-one would bother him during the flight. He clearly didn’t want anyone invading his privacy. I remember he wore a gold watch, the kind you can’t help but notice. You could say the same about the girl sitting next to him, with her plunging neckline and the couple of carats of diamond she wore on her finger!
On the watch or on the girl? [laughs]
Well I desperately wanted to talk to him, except he had his head in a book about Lincoln. I told myself, as soon as he puts his book down, I’m going over there. And I did. You can imagine the look on the other passengers’ faces when they saw me get up and head over to his seat. I asked him, “I’m sorry to bother you, Mr Burton, but once you’ve finished reading, do you think I could speak with you?” To be honest, I was afraid he was going to tell me the reason he’d bought the other seats was so he wouldn’t be disturbed by idiots like me! [laughs]
He told me to come back when he’d finished his book. When I got back to my seat, my ex-wife whispered to me that I was totally crazy. I spent the rest of the flight watching Mr Burton like a hawk. As soon as I saw him close his book, I jumped up, only to see he was settling down for a nap. I sat back down and waited until he finally woke up and signalled to me to go over. We spoke for maybe ten minutes. I won’t tell you what he said. That’s my secret. But you can bet I didn’t ask him about his watch…
Once we landed in Los Angeles, we were supposed to meet my parents at Disneyland. We didn’t have the money to hire a car or take a taxi, so we were sitting on our suitcases waiting for a bus when this black limo pulled up in front of us. The tinted window rolled down and Richard Burton leaned out, wished me “good luck” and gave a little wave. That’s when I got a clear view of his watch. I think it was the gold Omega Liz Taylor gave him, although I can’t say for sure. Then he rolled up his window and the car accelerated away. We never saw each other again!
I keep my “old” watches in a safe. Whenever I take them out, they remind me of certain moments in life. The physical contact takes me back in time. I remember exactly when and where I bought each one as though it were yesterday. If I see a scratch on the dial or on the crystal, if the metal is showing signs of age or the strap is worn, I tell myself they’re like me. They’ve come through the decades and taken a few knocks along the way! There’s something very moving about a watch. When you buy it, you know it’s going to be part of life’s journey…