From Child Star To Action Hero (The Star Ledger/Aug 09/1996/US) By Henry Cabot Beck


Who would have ever suspected, way back in those garish Technicolor Disney years, that the young Kurt Russell would grow into the fierce, one-eyed action figure Snake Plissken? Or that little tousle-haired Kurt would be firing from both hips, gravel-voiced and super-bad, with a tattoo running from his chest down to wherever?

Back then, Russell was the can-do kid, a serious, even solemn actor who could handle mature roles in television dramas like The Fugitive without tripping over his age. There was something pretty tough about him, and kids watched him a little warily because he didn't seem all that interested in pleasing or showing off for a kiddie audience; Russell was no Mousketeer, he was an adult in a kid's body.

It seems no more far-fetched to imagine that the pugnacious child star of some nine or 10 sub-par Buena Vista features with titles like The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes would someday become an action star, than it is to believe that New York City might someday become a walled prison as in John Carpenter's Escape From New York or that an earthquake-ravaged Los Angeles would be used to house exiled degenerates, as depicted in the director's new sequel, Escape From L.A. Yet in the last few years Russell's international popularity has put him within reach of the top few rungs of the superstar salary ladder. Stargate, Executive Decision, Tombstone and other recent films have exceeded most box-office expectations, and European and Japanese audiences have taken him to heart, helping push his films' revenues into the near-megabuck range. His last six films have grossed an average of $60 million each.

Russell began this ascendant phase of his career in 1981 with Escape From New York, his second of five collaborations with Carpenter. His first was the made-for-TV movie Elvis, which remains the finest impression of Elvis Presley ever rendered, The Flying Elvii notwithstanding.

"He's a born mimic," says Carpenter. "He could do you, he could do me. He does a great Steven Seagal. Kurt studied some footage on Elvis from The Ed Sullivan Show and he had it nailed, had every move nailed. You forget it's Kurt."

Russell, who at the age of 10 actually worked with the King in It Happened at the World's Fair, had this to say about Elvis: "I had a real strong impression of the guy and I did reams of research. There was a certain aura he wanted to capture; he wanted to be like Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, but he had this unbelievable genius talent for understanding instinctively and instantly where he was with an audience. Some days he would go over the top and you could hear that audience just starting to die down and then he'd come back (snap!) with something really strong. By the end of his life he knew he could just about throw the suit out there with strings and it would work. But he was a 9-year-old kid his whole life, and he imprisoned himself with his fame."

Carpenter has quite a bit to say about Russell, having worked with him more than any other feature director.

"His claim is he's not a cover guy, that he doesn't do well on the covers of magazines. In an interview, he never says the right things. He'll get with you and talk about politics, about almost anything. Kurt will go on and on about things."

Which is exactly what happened when we met in his hotel room in New York. Russell seemed completely uncomfortable at first, speaking so quietly that the microphone couldn't register his voice. He sat and played with a cigarette, tapping it, packing it, and twisting the extra paper at the tip into a spiral, before he would finally light it.

Russell declares himself a libertarian, invoking Thomas Jefferson as easily as he might do an impression of Jack Nicholson.

"Jefferson would have been sitting here with us saying, 'You have a situation here in this country, which I helped invent, where they take your salary, that YOU earn, and THEY say where that money goes? You don't say where it goes? Are you kiddin' me? George, guys, you gotta come in here and hear this! You gotta see what's goin' on here! It's unbelievable! Ben! Hey, Ben Franklin! Put that down, we got some s..t to talk over!'"

Russell has also shocked a fair number of his peers with his attitudes about guns, hunting, furs and other burly, hairy-chested activities. At one of his "Kurt Russell Celebrity Shoot-Outs," near the 72-acre Colorado ranch that he shares with Goldie Hawn and their children, guests killed some 13 deer and one elk, but a number of locals were not impressed.

"Maybe we should have an understanding in this country that some people like to wear fur coats cause they like it. OK. You want to wear a fur coat. Fine. You don't choose to wear a fur coat, fine. All the way down to, sorry, abortion. You don't believe in abortion? I understand. Don't have an abortion. But this person here doesn't have a problem with that. They don't consider it a life until it's born. You do. Guess what? That's where the line's drawn. Individually."

In truth, Russell's political stance seems to contain equal contempt for the left and the right. This might not seem particularly relevant for a profile of a movie star, but it happens to have great significance in the science-fiction world of Snake Plissken.

While New York City is still an operating prison for hardened criminals, Los Angeles is the dumping ground for the morally and politically incorrect.

"So (the movie) doesn't have a left wing or right wing point of view," says Russell. "It slams both sides heavily and has fun doing it. But it took people who watched the first movie a long time to realize that it's OK to laugh, but it's also OK to think about it. You don't have to feel bad coming out of the movie saying, 'Could this place get crazy enough to actually turn New York City into a prison?' How did the 'no smoking in restaurants' law pass in New York? It passed because of political correctness.

"I guess you can say, at what point does a resurgence of those men who came from England happen again? When do we take over New Guinea and call it New America? 'Cause certainly this place isn't America. It's sort-of America. This should be called 'Sort-Of America.' 'Kind of' what America was meant to be."

Finally, there's a sense of glee in Russell's understanding of the inevitable apocalyptic earthquake that sets the film in motion.

"L.A. is where all of us modern Pompeiians live. We know that volcano's goin' off, we're just not going to be there that afternoon, that's all.

"I visited Pompeii, and you could tell they had great homes and on the tops of the buildings were these pornographic drawings, and you realize, oh yeah, these guys were havin' a party! A BIG party! And they looked back at the volcano and said, 'It's OK, honey, when that thing goes off we're out of here, we can run away from that thing. WHOOPS! Here it comes now! S..t, I didn't know it was gonna come that fast!'

"And you see that guy frozen in ash in a running position, and all I could think of is myself when that earthquake finally goes off. And the point is, we live in denial out there. We live in denial of fires, of mudslides, of the earthquake, of drive-by shootings. And once you think you have this place figured out, which is what denial does for you, and it's really not so bad BLAM! Good night. It's sad and funny."

But whether it be Pompeii, New York or Los Angeles, it's certain that Snake Plissken would climb out of the wreckage, dust himself off, and head on down the road.