Kurt Russell's 'Escape' To Stardom (The Morning News/Jul 12/1981/US) By Harry F. Themal



Kurt Russell may finally be reaching the major leagues of acting. Escape From New York is the film that could put him there.

If so, he'll achieve what he couldn't as a minor league baseball player. He seemed to be knocking on the doors of the majors when he was injured in 1973.

Although he has been in TV and films for 20 of his 30 years, his first real recognition as an actor didn't come until the last few years with two roles: as Elvis Presley in the television biography and as ambitious and sleazy salesman Rudy Russo in Used Cars.

With Friday's opening of John Carpenter's Escape From New York, Russell could finally win the name recognition all actors covet. Although his Snake Plissken is an anti-hero in the film, he becomes in Russell's beautifully balanced acting the one voice of sanity in an insane world of the future.

The performer demonstrates Russell's range and versatility, acting achievements that should be reinforced by his probable next projects - Carpenter's remake of The Thing and an intimate character drama that he will direct and which he'll costar.

Discussing his career at a Philadelphia lunch the other day, Russell said he had been making a "conscious effort to do different roles because that's where my strength lies as an actor... as a character leading man." He agrees with an assessment that his "career is not dissimilar to that of Paul Muni, of playing many specifically different roles."

Snake Plissken is certainly a departure from other roles: Snake is cold and tough, resourceful in meeting challenges and danger. He's a man of few words, uttered in a gravely flat manner that Russell concedes was, to some extent, a camping up of Clint Eastwood, since the film is "sort of a futuristic spaghetti western." (The cast also includes Lee Van Cleef, another ex-spaghetti star, and Adrienne Barbeau, Carpenter's wife.)

Snake Plissken is also visually memorable: constantly scruffy, a snake tattoo on his scarred body and the most famous eyepatch since John Wayne's in Rooster Cogburn. It was Russell's idea to add the patch based on his real-life need to wear a patch four days a month to strengthen a weak eye.

The film takes place in 1997, when Manhattan Island is a maximum security prison surrounded by a 50-foot wall, mined bridges, tunnels and constant patrols by the United States Police Force.

When President Donald Pleasence's Air Force One crashes on the island, Plissken is given 24 hours to bring him out in exchange for a pardon from a life sentence. To make sure Snake is successful, explosive charges are planted in his neck to kill him if they are not neutralized within those 24 hours.

Snake's race against time pits him against formidable criminal elements on Manhattan, including the crazies who escape from the sewers at night and the Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes) who is holding the president for ransom. Some of the film's best touches are seeing how Carpenter visualizes the New York City of 1997.

Russell pointed out that when the film company got a special waiver last fall to continue work - almost none in New York itself - during an actors strike, "we thought we'd be one of 10 movies out next year. So what happened? The greatest summer in the history of motion pictures with 19 new films in July?

"I'm a believer in the idea that good movies beget good movies begat good business, that the market expands when people start talking about movies. But how far can we go without bursting?"

Russell is upset by the film's R rating, claiming that it was slapped on because of its concept, "that a president was being held for ransom," before the film was even shot. Once the filmmakers knew they would get an R no matter what the film was like, they didn't bother toning down the language or the action, although neither is more graphic than many PG films today.

Russell has been around films and TV since he was 10. In his first feature, he kicked Presley in the shins in It Happened at the World's Fair. Over the years he made 10 films for Walt Disney Studios, including The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, and he's one of the voices in The Fox and the Hound, which also opened on Friday.

"It was a great experience. I owe a lot of loyalty to them. Working for Disney was a blessing for me. I was making
$400 a month in the minor league and I could work for them in the winter and pay my bills," he said.

Russell's relationship with director Carpenter started on Elvis, which also starred Season Hubley as Pricilla Presley and Russell's father Bing as Elvis' father Vernon.

Hubley is Russell's wife of 2 1/2 years. She joined him on the current promotion tour with their 16-month -old son Boston Oliver Grant Russell. She has a bit part in Escape and was George C. Scott's guide to pornoland in Hardcore.

Russell grew up in Los Angeles, where his father had gone after a minor league baseball career that ended after four years with a beaning. Twenty years later Russell's own baseball hopes ended in El Paso, Texas when he was spiked in the shoulder by a player sliding into him at second base.

Bing Russell's best-known role in 25 years in Hollywood was probably as the sheriff on TV's long-running Bonanza.

The family remains close. Father and son, a brother-in-law and friends form a corporation that's in "various investments," which at one time included the Portland (Oregon) baseball club and which is now going into motion pictures, perhaps investing in the film Russell hopes to direct in February.