He was born a stone's throw from South Central Los Angeles, and admits sultry soul diva Diana Ross was the first big star to win his heart while growing up.
Still, Kevin Costner knows fans see him less as an urban cowboy than a Western film star and cements that reputation with his latest role: recreating the deadliest hillbilly feud in history for the History channel miniseries Hatfields & McCoys.
"I don't do sequels . . . so I think you ought to give me a break here that once in a while I go into our American psyche," said Costner, 57, whose list of big-screen Western credits includes Silverado, Dances With Wolves, Wyatt Earp and Open Range. "I think, hopefully, why I do a lot of Westerns is because people like 'em and they remember them."
In Hatfields & McCoys, Costner plays patriarch William Anderson "Devil Anse" Hatfield, a scowling authority figure grounding the four-hour-plus TV miniseries.
Over a half-hour conversation, Costner is amiable, shrugging off any idea that working with director Kevin Reynolds might have been difficult, though the two saw their friendship torn during disagreements over the controversial blockbuster Waterworld.
He also downplayed notions a film star producing and starring in a TV miniseries for the History channel might be a step down, noting that Wyatt Earp started as a TV miniseries proposal.
"A lot of times, epic stories are very small details set against giant backgrounds," he said, explaining the length of his Westerns. "American cinema is almost based on railroad tracks, where you don't get off the line, and I've never been that way. I like subplots."
History's sprawling miniseries is based on an epic family feud that has inspired everything from a classic TV game show to a character from Star Trek. (Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy was, reportedly, a descendant.)
In Hatfields & McCoys, Costner's Hatfield and McCoy patriarch Randle "Ole Ran'l" McCoy both fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, until Hatfield deserted. McCoy, played by Bill Paxton (Twister, Titanic), eventually is captured and housed in a horrific prisoner of war camp.
Once home, McCoy struggles to recover, feeling that every slight against his family by a Hatfield is an insult of Biblical proportions.
"These things become an obsession, and obsessions are dangerous," said Paxton. "It starts eating at you like a cancer. And pretty soon, it can just eat you out."
Paxton, 57, drawn in by working with Costner and Reynolds, hesitated over one detail: The piously religious man is a character he already played for five seasons on HBO's Big Love, starring as polygamous patriarch Bill Henrickson.
"Kevin said, 'Hey, but we're going to be wearing beards,' " Paxton said, laughing. "After being the guy on Big Love I want to be the guy just killing and a total psychopath . . . just get my Nicholson on."
Costner understood Paxton's hesitancy. "I did two baseball movies in a row — Bull Durham and Field of Dreams — and I know (Paxton) worried about this religious thing," he said. "So it was a very courageous choice."
As it turns out, Paxton and Costner are pitch-perfect. Costner plays Hatfield as a laconic family man who is ruthless in protecting his interests, while Paxton's McCoy believes God will advance his family's righteous cause — until a Hatfield attack on his home leaves two daughters dead and his wife beaten.
Paxton said some ideas came from reading letters by his own great-great-grandfather, Elisha Franklin Paxton, a brigadier general in the Confederacy whose missives from the battlefield were collected into a book published in the early 1900s.
The Texas native brought a copy of that book, held within his family, to the miniseries' set in Transylvania, where co-stars Costner, Powers Boothe and Tom Berenger looked it over. "He talked about how people at home are profiting off the misery of his men, and how much Christian duty and honor (means)," Paxton said. "They don't even have shoes . . . I think the war breaks this guy in half."
And yes, this sprawling American epic actually was filmed in the Carpathian Mountains of Transylvania, in Romania.
"When we're losing jobs in America, that's the question: Why are we here (in eastern Europe)?" said Costner, who notes tax breaks and incentives helped keep production costs down. "We could not have effectively shot this quintessential American story in America."
For those who know the Hatfields and McCoys only from offhand cultural references and cartoon parodies, History's miniseries should be an education.
With friction fed by early disagreements over land, Hatfield's desertion, the killing of a McCoy who fought for the Union army and ownership of a pig, the two families' hostility festers until Hatfield's brother is murdered during a fight and the clan executes the McCoys who killed him.
The miniseries shows how seemingly arbitrary lines of family and property can lead to horrific consequences, as the Hatfields lived on the West Virginia side of the Tug River Valley while the McCoys lived on the Kentucky side.
When the two families meet for one last grand gunfight in the Battle of Grapevine Creek, press coverage and court battles have turned the conflict into international news — evoking modern feuds from to the Bloods and Crips gangs in California to the Arab and Israeli wars in the Middle East.
"Sometimes violence spirals and nobody even remembers what the s--- is about," said Costner. "One of the most famous feuds in America . . . was it over a pig? Like so many wars, we almost don't even know."
These days, the Hatfield and McCoy rivalry mostly centers on tourism, turned into a footrace competition by the families' descendants. (Tagline: "No feudin', just runnin.' ")
Costner was moved enough to work up an album's worth of songs with his country band, Modern West, titled Famous for Killing Each Other (available through iTunes and Amazon.com). And he confesses plans for another 10-hour Western that he hopes to film in America for a cable channel.
But don't most in the industry see these epics as a challenge for attention-deficited TV audiences? "I don't believe in conventional wisdom," Costner answered. "Because what if everybody else is wrong?"