Kurt Russell Makes His Escape From Walt Disney Movies (Detroit Free Press/Jul 16/1981/US)
By Jack Mathews


By the standards of almost any 12-year-old American boy, 1963 was a great year for actor and Little League second baseman Kurt Russell.

First, he appeared in a movie with Elvis Presley, then he was flown to San Francisco, where he met his baseball idol, Willie McCovey.

Since then, he has portrayed Elvis in a movie, and, as a professional ballplayer, he was McCovey's teammate during one spring training season. But he doesn't hesitate when answering which event was most momentous.

"Oh, meeting McCovey, by far," says Russell, now 30 and starring in John Carpenter's futuristic prison drama, Escape From New York.

"I knew who Elvis was and everything, but to me, it's like choosing between Joe Dimaggio and Marlon Brando. I mean, I'd like to meet Marlon Brando. I'd like to work with him. He's one of those really unusual people. But Joe Dimaggio: He's something else. I could sit and talk to him for days."

If Russell, whose face is most familiar as the star of numerous Walt Disney pictures (The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, The Strongest Man in the World), still sounds a little like kid, that's OK with him. He says his imagination, curiosity and intellectual outlook are stunted at about the nine-year-old level, and that's where he wants to keep them.

"Kids have a very uncluttered way of looking at things, and I think that's the way I am," he says. "I don't live in a fantasy world. I know what's going on. But when you start letting things get in the way of what you want to have happen, they don't happen. I choose to look a things like a kid who believes everything out there is his if he wants it. That's why I loved playing Snake Plissken in Escape. He's pure fun. It's like when you're a nine-year-old kid, and you see someone doing something in a movie, and you say, 'I'd really like to do that.' Well, I really get to do it."

Snake is the ultimate screen anti-hero, a sort of punk Captain Hook who is forced to rescue a captive U.S. president from feral inmates inside the walled prison of 1997 Manhattan.

"He is a total invention," Russell says. "He could only exist in 1997 in a movie."

Russell didn't spend a lot of time dreaming about playing screen meanies when he was a child. Acting then was a means to a summer end, a way to make some money while looking ahead to baseball season.

"I never intended to make acting a career. I was going to take the money as long as they would give it to me. But when I got hurt playing baseball, I said, 'OK, I'm going to have to start taking this thing seriously.'"

Russell tore a shoulder muscle while playing for El Paso in the Texas League in 1975. He was the league's leading hitter at the time and was to have reported the next week to the California Angels' farm club in Salt Lake City. He says he'd still be playing ball if that collision at second base had not occurred.

"I don't know where or at level," he says, "but I would have played as long as I was able."

Russell started his acting career by kicking Elvis Presley in the shins in Meet Me At World's Fair. Fifteen years, 10 Disney and dozens of TV appearances later, it would be his critically praised portrayal of Presley in the TV movie, Elvis, that brought him his most attention. ("You can do something that is seen by 35 million people in one night and have agents say, 'What have you done?'")

Russell also met his wife, actress Season Hubley, while making Elvis. She played Pricilla Presley. They have a 16-month-old son named Boston.

Until Escape From New York, Russell's image was still that of a fresh-faced all-American boy from Disney past. However, his snarling, one-eyed presence as Snake in Escape may change all that. In fact, he thinks writers may already be confusing the person with the character.

"The headline in one of the New York papers said 'Kurt Russell turns vicious,'" Russell said, having just returned from a promotional tour for the film. "I tend to be a little sardonic. I think they're mistaking that sardonic flavor for bitterness. I'm about the most non-bitter person I know."

During this interview, which was more like a conversation over burritos and chili at a Hollywood fast-food stop, Russell was neither sardonic nor bitter. Nor did he sound much like a nine-year-old.

He sounded like a man who's been on roll for 20 years, doing everything he's wanted to. He says he was lucky to have parents who enjoyed their lives and spent a lot of time with their children. (His father is character actor Bing Russell.)

"You have to consider yourself incredibly lucky to be living in this country and to be good enough at what you do to be able to do it," he says. "But more importantly, you have to take advantage of your situation. You can't curse yourself for being lucky."