Kevin Costner's news conference was ambling along at a respectable rate--about what you'd expect, considering the project, an eight-hour miniseries on the history of Native Americans called "500 Nations."
It's a kind of "Dances With Wolves" meets "The Civil War." Scheduled for broadcast this spring on CBS, "500 Nations" features Costner as host, Gregory Harrison as narrator and actors Graham Greene, Edward James Olmos, Erick K. Schweig, Wes Studi and Floyd Red Crow Westerman, among others, giving voice to figures and stories from the past.
Although the TV critics who recently converged in Pasadena for the press tour apparently had deemed this conference worthy, the assembled room wasn't exactly electrified.
Not until, that is, Costner let it slip (much to the surprise of network publicists) that he was going to a CBS promotion party that evening at Virtual World, a futuristic arcade in Los Angeles.
Apparently, he was planning to take his kids to the movies that evening but decided on the spot to go to Virtual World.
It's one thing to talk to a star.
"You know what would be really cool ..." said one reporter.
But he didn't have to finish the sentence.
Everybody was thinking the same thing.
That's why, when I heard a call for "eight brave warriors" to sign on to a game of BattleTech, I marched right over and hoped for the best.
By the time I worked my way through the crowd to the game-door entrance, I saw several people, including Costner and his three young children, already on their way in.
I thought I'd blown it.
But at the last minute I was ushered into the "pod" with the others.
"Now what?" I thought, as I found myself side by side with Costner trying to take in a torrent of information about our "mission"--a jousting, free-for-all on an arid planet in the 31st Century.
Costner seemed shy, maybe a little protective, because his children were with him and, after all, he's going through a very public divorce.
I felt some sympathy, though, when I noticed he was almost as confused as I was about the rules of the game, how to operate our robot-like killing machines (known as Loki), etc., while his kids--Annie, Joe and Lily--seemed to be getting most of it.
Suddenly, it was time to take off. But there was still one thing left to do. We had to pick a call sign.
A couple I hadn't noticed earlier because I had been watching Costner so closely played it straight. They just used their names, Gail and Joe. The Costner kids came up with Iggy, Butch and Wilma.
And what about the man who played Wyatt Earp?
Costner smiled. He almost seemed bashful about it. "Smoke," he said.
Me? I decided on Dust.
Ushered into our virtual world, where we were ensconced in what might best be described as flight simulators, I found Costner facing me across the aisle. He was fumbling with the clutch, asking me for some last-minute pointers.
To tell you the truth, I don't remember much of what happened in those 10 minutes. All I can tell you is I went to a place I hope never to visit and one where I most certainly would not survive.
I emerged watery-eyed from the galactic shooting gallery and found myself immediately confronted by Lily--otherwise known as Iggy.
"I killed you, DUST!" she said gleefully.
I checked the printout to see how Smoke and I had fared because, let's face it, Costner was the measure of success.
He'd done better overall, finishing third to my sixth. No surprise, Joe and Gail were the victors. But much to my surprise, neither Costner nor I had taken a single shot at each other.
On one level, I thought that was kind of nice, a sort of silent truce.
On another level, I was kind of disappointed. What guy wouldn't want to get the better of a macho movie idol?
As a matter of fact, it was apparently Joe's secret to success. "I was going after Costner the whole time," he said.