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
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
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