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
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
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
"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."