Kris Kristofferson was born into a military family in Brownsville, Texas. He was a star football player at Pomona High School and was considered a "straight arrow" by his friends. He told Charlie Rose in 1998 that "football was more important to me than music" and he wanted to be a football player and a writer. He also was an avid boxer, but a series of concussions derailed his plans to be an athlete.
Kristofferson was awarded the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship in 1958 shortly after winning an Atlantic magazine short story contest. He admired the poet William Blake, who he described as a "life ring," and went on to graduate summa cum laude from Oxford University in London with a Bachelor of Philosophy in English literature. While at Oxford, he performed country and folk music under the name Kris Carson.
His mother was terribly disappointed when he left the military to take up a career as a country singer, and according to Kristofferson, she never got over it, telling him that she'd rather have a gold star in the window than a son on his career path. The gold star was something households of soldiers who were killed in battle would put in their windows.
Kristofferson was a captain in the Army and wanted to go to Vietnam, but that request was denied because he had been assigned a teaching position at the United States Military Academy in West Point. He never got to West Point because he fell in love with Nashville after spending time with writers such as Mel Tillis and Tom T. Hall. After shaking Johnny Cash's hand – while in uniform – Kristofferson said he was "mesmerized."
He became known as a singer and songwriter with a "country outlaw" reputation. Some of his best known hits include "Sunday Morning Coming Down
," recorded by Johnny Cash, "Me And Bobby McGee
," featured on Janis Joplin's Pearl
album, and "Help Me Make it Through the Night," which earned Sammi Smith a Grammy for Best Country Music Female Performance and Kristofferson a Grammy for Best Country Song in 1972.
He didn't get along with his mother and his father wasn't home much, so a nanny named Juanita took care of him when he was young. Kristofferson stayed in touch with her throughout his life, and said she "probably saved my life."
Barbra Streisand selected Kristofferson for the role of John Norman Howard in the movie A Star is Born, for which he won a Golden Globe award for Best Actor. Streisand wanted Elvis Presley to play the role of Howard, but Colonel Tom Parker was angry that Streisand did not approach him first. He also insisted that Presley receive top billing over Streisand. Kristofferson appeared in several films after A Star is Born, including the critically acclaimed Lone Star and the colossal box office flop, Heaven's Gate.
Kristofferson is known for his left-of-center political views, which he attributes to his mother. He recalls his hometown as being discriminatory against Mexicans and when a Mexican World War II hero returned home from Europe, a parade was held in his honor. Kristofferson and his family were the only Anglos in attendance. He claims his political leanings contributed to a decline in his film and music career, claiming that he did things that made him "unmarketable," like "hanging around the Sandinistas," the left-wing Nicaraguan political party. Kristofferson's career also suffered because of his battles with drugs and alcohol.
Fellow country singer Rita Coolidge married Kristofferson in 1973. They collaborated on three albums in the 1970s, winning Grammy awards in 1974 for the single, "From the Bottle to the Bottom," and in 1976 for the song, "Lover Please." The couple went through a much-publicized divorce in 1980.
In 2009, at the age of 73, Kristofferson released Closer to the Bone, a two-disc set featuring acoustic versions of previously unrecorded and new songs written by Kristofferson. The raw, stripped-down work showed what many critics described as a new vulnerability to Kristofferson's music.
Kris Kristofferson was misdiagnosed with Alzheimer's in his late 70s. He experienced a complete reversal of symptoms when he was treated in 2016 for the tick-borne illness Lyme Disease.
Kristofferson grew his famous beard while spending a week in hospital with pneumonia. After he was discharged, a magazine printed a photo of him under the headline "the new face of country music," so he kept it.