Kurt Russell: Lean, Mean In
A New Thriller (Chicago Tribune/Jul 26/1981/US) By Larry Kart
If Kurt Russell's life were
going according to plan, he wouldn't be basking in the critical and popular
acclaim he was won for his work in John Carpenter's science-fiction thriller
Escape From New York (currently playing in the Chicago area), and before
that for his portrayal of Elvis Presley in the made-for-TV movie Elvis.
Instead, he'd be out on strike... like every other major league baseball player.
Playing ball in the majors was Russell's childhood dream - one that came very
close to adult reality. A "good hit-medium field" second baseman, he rose to the
Triple A level in the San Diego Padre and California Angels organizations and
was about to be called up to the Angels from their El Paso, Tex., farm club when
in 1974, he tore a muscle in his throwing arm.
"I had to quit." Russell says. "And knowing that I was going to have to make my
living at something other than baseball, I decided for the first time to
diversify myself as an actor, to be a little more serious about the whole thing.
Not a whole lot more serious, but a little."
But how did acting, serious or not, get to be an option for a 23-year-old
infielder with a dead arm? Well, baseball and the movies had always been
intertwined in Russell's life. And if it weren't for his interest in one
national pastime, he might never have become involved in the other.
"I was about 10," Russell recalls, "when my father (Hollywood character actor
Bing Russell) came home with a script that was going to be done with Mickey
Mantle and Roger Maris. I thought, 'Boy, I'd like to meet those guys,' so I
wangled an interview through my dad's agent. I had a good time at the interview,
so I decided that acting could be a fun way to make some money. And that's how
it turned out."
Starting off with a bit part in Elvis Presley's It Happened at the World's
Fair (in which he was called upon to kick Presley in the shins), Russell
soon became a regular at the Disney studios, playing mildly rascalish roles in
nine Disney pictures from 1964 to 1974 (including such gems as Superdad,
The Horse in the Grey Flannel Suit, and Now You See Him, Now You Don't)
But even though the Disney connection lingers on (Russell's is the voice of the
hound in the current cartoon feature The Fox and the Hound), today he is
quite far away from his former screen image as a towheaded, puffy-faced scamp.
In Elvis Russell convincingly projected Presley's smoldering macho power.
In the little-known but intriguing comedy Used Cars, he was just right in
the role of a scruffily amoral hustler. And in Escape From New York, as
Snake Plissken, a war hero-turned-criminal who is sent into 1997 Manhattan (by
this time a walled, maximum-security prison) to rescue the President (whose
plane has gone down behind the walls), Russell is a lean and mean as could be -
the heir apparent to Clint Eastwood.
In fact, the Eastwood parallel is so omnipresent in the film that one wonders
whether Russell and director John Carpenter had a good-natured parody in mind.
Cynical, self-contained, and totally confident of his ability to handle any sort
of trouble that the crooks and crazies of 1997 Manhattan might throw at him,
Plissken is from the first a character of mythic dimensions. He's a comic-book
Dirty Harry raised to the highest power, for we soon learn that the
success or failure of Plissken's warrior skills will not only determine the fate
of the President but also the fate of the entire world.
"I don't really think of the film as a takeoff on Dirt Harry," Russell
says. "But there was a conscious effort, because of the character Lee Van Cleef
plays (Bob Hauk, Plissken's former comrade-in-arms who has become commissioner
of the United States Police Force), to make a little play on the roles Van Cleef
and Eastwood portrayed in the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns.
"John and I are fans of those films, and we wanted to see that kind of conflict
on the screen again. To me that was great stuff, when they'd be staring back and
forth at each other for what seemed like 10 minutes at a time. So this was an
opportunity to do some of that, knowing that for people who got the reference it
would be fun, while people who didn't would still feel that it fit the
"I think there's a love-hate relationship between Plissken and Hauk, a respect
on Plissken's part for a man whom he had appreciated as a fellow warrior but has
now sold out, or at least not stayed true to himself. And Plissken does stay
true to himself. That's his character; regardless of anything, he will stay true
to his beliefs. He will not betray his code of honor."
Like Eastwood, Steve McQueen, and a few other "true" movie actors, Russell
doesn't so much interpret a role as physically inhabit it. His line readings are
right on target, but Snake Plissken lives - in all his half-serous, half-comic
glory - because Russell looks and moves the way Plissken ought to look and move,
with the wary confidence of a man for whom thought and action have always been
one thing. And upon his face, one eye covered by a black patch, he wears the
warrior's badge - a scowl of distaste for everything in the world that is softer
"That scowl is like a continuous moral pain that Plissken drags around with him,"
Russell explains. "It doesn't make any difference to him whether he's inside New
York City or outside. The lifestyles are completely different, but for him it's
basically all the same.
"He's a man living out of his time. He would like to have lived when there was
sort of a code of honor, when there were values he could have understood. But
now, knowing that the values of the rest of the world are not at all his, he
just says 'forget it.'
"Plissken is a warrior, and I think when you take a warrior out of a warrior
situation, you have a shell until you put him back into one. Even though I don't
think Plissken likes the fact that he's a born-warrior, he knows he's saddled
with it and fully accepts it.
"Like when he's coming into New York in the Gull Fire (an all-black, jet-powered
glider that Plissken, in his war-hero phase, had flown in a raid on Leningrad)
and says, 'It's been a long time.' That's his way of saying, 'I feel the blood
in my veins... I'm alive again.'
"It's like baseball, I suppose. There's that element of true competition, of
trying to win a game at the highest level. And when you no longer have that kind
of specific competition, there's a void there that's impossible to fill unless
you're in that kind of situation again. Then when you are, you suddenly feel
very much at home."
Based on the not entirely implausible notion that urban violence could force the
government to turn Manhattan into a huge jail ("Look at what has been happening
in England this week," Russell says), Escape From New York is, however,
far from gloom-and-doom picture.
"I think it's a lot lighter than people expect it's going to be," Russell says.
"John and I felt that there was a good element of comedy there. For instance,
the idea that Plissken is known to everyone inside New York, which is introduced
in the scene where I run into Season (Russell's real-life wife, actress Season
Hubley, who plays a bizarre street character).
"She told John that her character should be a crime groupie, that in this place
and time, it would be real hip for some people to be attracted to criminals the
way they are now to rock musicians. So when I walk into this deserted restaurant
and sees who I am, it's like someone today running into Mick Jagger."
As you may have guessed by now, what with the several references to "John and
I," Russell and director Carpenter are virtual collaborators on the film as well
as good friends. It's a relationship that began at a crucial point in Russell's
career, when the news that he had been cast in Elvis had aroused a minor
furor, with some media pundits professing horror at the thought that Presley
would be played by an ex-Disney type.
"There was this one TV columnist," Russell recalls, "who just went insane. He
thought it was the most grotesque casting move ever. But that reaction didn't
surprise me; I thought it was real funny. So when John came in on the project, I
showed him the article and we joked about it.
"Then, after it was over, John told me, 'When I first met you and you were
already on the show, I thought, "Man if this guy thinks he can do Elvis,
then I think I can direct it." I really like John, as a man and as a director,
and I'd like to work with him always."
Elvis was also responsible for another Russell relationship, his marriage
to Hubley, who played Pricilla Presley in the film.
"Season," he says, "is a totally fearless performer. She's an actress who thinks
about what she's going to do very strongly, and then what comes out comes right
out of her nerves and bones. When it's right, it's more than right, and when
it's wrong, it's completely off. She just has a strange mind. A plain 'yes'
doesn't always mean 'yes' to her; it can be very much a question mark. We're
very different, both as actors and as people.
"How does my acting style differ from hers? Well, usually what I see in my mind
is what I can get out there. But Season will see it one way, and then, as she's
doing it, she might see it another way and, bang, just change it. That makes her
work very affecting and exciting.
"I'm planning to direct her in a film that will start shooting next April. It's
a people story, a very dramatic piece about intimate relationships."
To step up directing at age 30, just as his acting career is taking off, might
seem either arrogant or foolish. But Russell, who has been on movie sets for
more than half his life, sees it as a natural move.
"I grew up with movies," he explains, "and learned by doing in front of the
camera. Now I can't walk into a room without knowing how to shoot it.
"On the stage I'd probably have gigantic problems because I don't understand
that medium at all. But the medium of the camera, that one eye looking at you,
that's in my blood."