Singer, songwriter and actor Kris Kristofferson made it big with country songs like “Me and Bobby McGee” before starting his film career.
Born in Texas in 1936, Kris Kristofferson excelled in academics and began a successful career in the U.S. Army before pursuing his passion as a songwriter. After a slow start, he began to make progress when artists such as Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis began to record his songs. His big breakthrough came in 1971, when Janis Joplin’s version of his song “Me and Bobby McGee” reached the top of the charts. Around the same time, Kristofferson launched a successful career as an television and film actor as well, with memorable roles in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, A Star Is Born, Lone Star and the Blade films. Simultaneously maintaining his legendary career as a songwriter and performer, he has won several Grammy Awards, been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and Country Music Hall of Fame and has seen his songs at the top of the charts throughout much of his life.
Kris Kristofferson was born in Brownsville, Texas, on June 22, 1936 as the first of three children in a conservative military family. When Kristofferson was a boy, the family moved around often but eventually settled in San Mateo, California, when he was in junior high. After graduating from high school in 1954, Kristofferson attended Pomona College in Southern California, where he focused on creative writing and the poetry of William Blake. Demonstrating the talent that would serve him well later in his life, Kristofferson won several awards for his work, including first prize in a short-story contest held by The Atlantic Monthly. He also played football for the school and was a Golden Gloves boxer.
When Kristofferson graduated from college in 1958, he had earned his bachelor’s degree with honors and also won a Rhodes scholarship to study at Oxford University. He moved to England later that year to pursue his master’s degree in literature. He also started writing songs, and was soon performing at local clubs as Kris Carson. Though he eventually recorded a few songs for a small label, they failed to gain him recognition, and he returned home after completing his studies. He then resumed a relationship with his high school girlfriend, Frances Beer, and they soon got married.
Now standing at a crossroads in his life, Kristofferson chose to change direction, eschewing further academic pursuits to follow in his father’s footsteps and join the military. He enlisted in the U.S. Army, where he was trained as a Ranger and helicopter pilot before being stationed in West Germany. During his service, however, he held on to his love of writing and music and eventually organized a soldiers’ band that performed at various functions.
By 1965, Kristofferson had achieved the rank of captain and was offered a position as an English instructor at the West Point military academy. However, after taking a trip to the musical mecca of Nashville that June, he decided to change the course of his life once more, rejecting his job offer, resigning from the military and setting off to become a country music songwriter.
It’s Never Gonna Be the Same Again
But Kristofferson’s chosen path was not an easy one. His parents were so distressed by his decision that their relationship with him became severely strained; he did not speak to his mother for more than 20 years. And though Kristofferson signed with the publisher Bighorn Music shortly after moving his wife and young daughter (Tracy, born in 1962) to Nashville, the meager income it brought necessitated that he work a range of odd jobs over the next several years.
During this period, Kristofferson did make some progress, as other artists recorded his songs such as “Viet Nam Blues” and “Jody and the Kid” and made it onto the country charts. However, his debut single as a performer, 1967's “Golden Idol,” fared less well; it failed to chart. Kristofferson’s struggles intensified in 1968, when his second child, Kris, was born with health problems that led to soaring medical bills.
But through it all, Kristofferson’s talents as a songwriter only grew stronger, and in 1969, his fortune begin to change when Roger Miller’s cover of his song “Me and Bobby McGee” reached the country Top 20. His songs also drew the attention of Johnny Cash, to whom Kristofferson personally delivered one by landing a helicopter in Cash’s yard. Kristofferson’s bravado would lead to Cash having him as a guest on his television show and also introducing him at the Newport Folk Festival, giving Kristofferson’s career a much-needed lift and bringing him to the brink of one of his most successful eras.
Coming Down, Going Up
In 1970, Kristofferson release his debut self-titled album, supporting it with major shows at the Troubadour in Los Angeles, the Isle of Wight Festival in England and the Bitter End in New York City. Though it proved a critical and commercial failure, cover versions of his songs began to fill the country charts, including Waylon Jennings’s version of “The Taker”—one of several songs co-written by Kristofferson and author Shel Silverstein—Jerry Lee Lewis’s recording of “Once More with Feeling” and Sammi Smith’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” By the end of the year, Ray Price’s version of his “For the Good Times” and Johnny Cash’s rendition of “Sunday Morning Coming Down” had both reached No. 1, crossed over into the pop Top 20 and received Song of the Year awards from the Academy of Country Music and the Country Music Association.
But Kristofferson’s true breakthrough would come the following year, when Janis Joplin’s posthumously released album, Pearl, featured her cover of “Me and Bobby McGee.” The song reached No. 1 on the pop charts that March and gave both Joplin and Kristofferson—who had been romantically involved for a time—their biggest hits ever. The song has since been recorded by many other artists over the years, including Kenny Rogers, Chet Atkins, Olivia Newton-John and Dolly Parton. The smash success of “Me and Bobby McGee” helped boost sales of Kristofferson’s next album, The Silver Tongued Devil and I—which eventually went gold—and also prompted his label to rerelease his first album, this time with much greater results.
By the end of 1971, Kristofferson had gone from virtual obscurity to songwriting stardom, with three of his titles up for multiple Grammy Awards. Kristofferson won Best Country Song for “Help Me Make It Through the Night.”
A Star Is Born
At the same time Kristofferson was making his name as a songwriter, he also began what would prove to be a successful career as an actor. Beginning with the Dennis Hopper–directed drama The Last Movie (1971), Kristofferson would appear on the big screen as often as he released albums, at times even eclipsing his musical offerings with his films, to which he often contributed songs to as well. His credits during the early 1970s include a starring role opposite Gene Hackman in Cisco Pike (1972), his portrayal of Billy the Kid in Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garret and Billy the Kid (1973) and a co-starring role opposite Ellen Burstyn in Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974). He also released the albums Border Lord and Spooky Lady’s Sideshow, but neither performed especially well. He did, however, have a No. 1 country single with “Why Me” (1973).
This also proved to be a period of change in Kristofferson’s personal life. The same year “Why Me” topped the country charts, he and Frances Beer divorced, and soon thereafter he married singer Rita Coolidge. Kristofferson and Coolidge had one daughter together (Casey, born in 1974) and also recorded a successful string of duo albums. Their 1973 album, Full Moon, produced the gold record “A Song I’d Like to Sing” and the Grammy Award–winning “From the Bottle to the Bottom,” and 1974’s Breakaway contained the Grammy-winning “Lover Please.”
Kristofferson ushered in the latter half of the decade by releasing the albums Who’s to Bless and Who’s to Blame and Surreal Thing, both of which made the country charts but did not cross over to pop. He also appeared in the films Vigilante and The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea. However, his best-known work from this era—though perhaps not his best—was his performance as an aging rock star opposite Barbra Streisand in the 1976 remake of A Star Is Born. Panned by critics, A Star Is Born was nonetheless a box-office smash, and the soundtrack, which featured songs by Kristofferson, topped the pop charts and went on to sell several million copies. Kristofferson also won the Golden Globe for Best Actor for his role in the film.
In the wake of this success, Kristofferson closed out the decade with the albums Easter Island and Shake Hands with the Devil, as well as Natural Act, the last he would record with Coolidge; they divorced in late 1979. During this time, he also appeared in Peckinpah’s Convoy and the ill-fated Michael Cimino picture, Heaven’s Gate (1980). However, cover versions of his songs continued to find success, including those sung by fellow country singer Willie Nelson, who went on to collaborate with Kristofferson on some of his most memorable work in the coming decade.
As had been the case during much of his career, the 1980s and 1990s would be a mix of highs, lows and significant changes in Kristofferson's personal life. His albums To the Bone (1981), Third World Warrior (1990) and the Don Was–produced A Moment of Forever (1995) all failed to make the charts. His film acting work suffered significantly as well, with Kristofferson appearing primarily in (often-forgettable) made-for-TV movies.
But at the same time, Kristofferson was beginning new, more fruitful projects and continued to receive recognition for his work. His 1983 collaboration with Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Brenda Lee and others, The Winning Hand, reached the top of the country charts, and the 1984 Nashville film Songwriter—for which Kristofferson contributed songs and starred in alongside Nelson—earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Music (Original Song Score) in 1985. That same year, Kristofferson was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and he ventured out with country supergroup the Highwaymen, which also featured Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings. Titled Highwayman, the debut album was released to great acclaim, topping the country charts, going gold and producing several hit singles. Their subsequent albums, Highwayman 2 (1990) and The Road Goes on Forever (1995) would prove moderately successful as well.
In 1983, Kristofferson married attorney Lisa Meyers. The couple has five children (Jesse, Jody, Johnny, Kelly and Blake) who were born between 1984 to 1994. They eventually moved to a large estate on the Hawaiian island of Maui.
In 1996, Kristofferson experienced yet another revival in his career when he was cast as the sheriff Charlie Wade in the acclaimed John Sayles film Lone Star, which also featured Matthew McConaughey. Roles in more prominent films were soon to follow, with Kristofferson appearing in the Blade vampire movies, the family drama A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries, the Mel Gibson vehicle Payback and Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes (2001). Among many other film and television roles, his recent credits include the 2012 indie drama The Motel Life and the 2016 western Traded.
Kristofferson’s more recent musical endeavors have fared better as well, with the albums This Old Road (2006), Closer to the Bone (2009) and Feeling Mortal (2013)—his 28th album—all making the country Top 40. In 2004, he was honored with induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame and in 2014, he received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award.
Around this same time, Kristofferson publicly revealed that he was suffering from a form of dementia akin to Alzheimer’s—known as pugilistica—which doctors attributed to the his time as a football player and boxer earlier in his life. However, a test for Lyme disease earlier this year came back positive, so he traded his Alzheimer's and depression medication for three weeks of Lyme-disease treatment. Though he still has some memory issues, the change has been dramatically positive. Kristofferson continues to tour extensively and a box set of his first 11 albums, The Complete Monument & Columbia Album Collection, was released on June 10.
Waylon Jennings – Fighting the Nashville Establishment(TV-PG; 1:50)
Johnny Cash – Guitar in Toronto(TV-PG; 1:52)