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
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
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
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
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.