The Escape Artist (Chicago Sun Times/Aug 04/1996/US) By Bob Strauss

Kurt Russell has never taken the proper path to stardom. And it's starting to pay off in a big way.

At 45, the actor, who's been in show business for 37 years, has become one of the most bankable names in movies. He's getting paid $15 million for his next feature, a sci-fi actioner called
Soldier. And Russell pulled down $10 million, as well as producing and writing credits, for his latest release,
John Carpenter's Escape From L.A. Escape From L.A. is a sequel to the same team's far-from-blockbusting Escape From New York (1981).

How did this happen to a guy who, in the '60s, was just another Disney movie kid (
Follow Me Boys, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes), put most of his effort into a baseball career that never happened in the '70s and, for much of the '80s, juggled Carpenter's oddball genre hybrids (
The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China) with underattended comedies that sometimes co-starred his longtime love, Goldie Hawn (Swing Shift, Overboard)?

Well, the quick answer can be summed up in a few titles:
Tombstone (1993), Stargate (1994), Executive Decision (1996). They were all moderately budgeted action films that found unexpectedly large, appreciative audiences in the last couple of years. But there's a little more to Russell's late rise than a string of international money-makers. His longtime friend Carpenter says it has as much to do with the times catching up with Russell as with Russell growing into a big star.

"All these years of being a solid pro have finally paid off for Kurt," said the director, who gave Russell his first big, adult break with the title role in his 1979 TV movie
Elvis. "That happens rarely in this business, but it's part of the times, too; the value of bankable stars has been escalating up and up recently.

"That said, just look at Kurt in
Tombstone. My friend Bill Fraker, who was the director of photography on that film, told me that age has done something really cool to Kurt's face. It's got this extra character, a kind of world-weary look. And the camera loves the ----- out of that. It's like Kurt's gotten better with age."

Russell himself attributes his blossoming success to a variety of factors. Though his Carpenter films were coolly received in theaters, they've since become hot video cult items. A steady, if unshowy, display of serious acting chops in
Silkwood (1983), Tequila Sunrise (1988) Winter People (1989) and Backdraft (1991) helped him build a reputation for versatility and impressive range.

And on a subtler level, Russell's apparent lack of interest in superstardom may have had an incalculable effect on his achieving it.

"I've never publicized myself," said the actor, whose face is indeed taking on a chiseled angularity more intriguing than his previous endless summer baby face. "I am therefore not a magazine cover, nor do I care to be a magazine cover. I don't care to be famous. I care to make entertainment."

That said, Russell is the first to admit that
Escape From L.A. may not fit very comfortably in the run of slick, undemanding action entertainments he's done so well with lately. A dark, pessimistic political satire disguised as a futuristic action attraction, the film revives Escape From New York's ultimate rebel, Snake Plissken, perhaps the most nihilistic action hero of the post-Star Wars era.

A committed lone wolf, the leather-clad, eyepatch-wearing Snake once again finds himself in the unenviable position of having to pull off an impossible, nation-saving mission for authorities he doesn't like. In the first movie, set in 1997, Manhattan had been turned into a giant, urban penal colony. In the new film, which takes place some years later, a catastrophic earthquake has separated what remains of Los Angeles from the mainland. Worse, a religious fanatic who predicted the disaster (
Cliff Robertson) is now U.S. president for life, and has deported anyone whose morals he dislikes to the chaotic L.A. ruins.

But then the president's rebellious daughter Utopia (
A.J. Langer) flees to L.A. with a top-secret doomsday device, which she turns over to the brutal rebel leader Cuervo Jones (George Corraface). Government agents inject Plissken with a fast-acting virus, then give him one night to retrieve the device, kill Utopia and get back in time to take the antidote.

Snake, however, comes up with a strategy to thwart both sides in this power struggle - but it would probably mean the end of life as we've known it.

Russell, who spent eight months working out the script with Carpenter and producer
Debra Hill
, realizes Escape From L.A. may not be what people expect these days.

"When the studio (Paramount) read our script, they sent notes to the effect of, 'Gosh, there's not a lot of humanity here' and 'This guy is, basically, socially unredeemed,'" Russell recalled. "I said, 'Yeah, well, have you seen the first movie?' But this is a different time, and we understood that. So we talked about trying to give Snake a cause or something like that. But finally, after many attempts that didn't lead anywhere, John just said, 'You know what Snake'd say to this.' I happen to love it, but when John and I came to the end, I said, 'This is true to the character, but I don't know if the audience is going to like this very much.'"

Another aspect of Russell's anti-starlike star appeal is the way that, on a certain level, he doesn't care about being liked much personally. His passion for hunting, for example, has outraged some in the past. But that doesn't mean he wants to be a poster boy for National Rifle Association-style conservatives, either.

"I read one article about
Escape From L.A. that said John's lefty point of view could be a plus at the box office, but does Russell know this, being a republican," he noted with a dismissive sneer. "Wrong. I'm not a Republican. By the way, I wrote the script with John; yeah. I do know what's in it. Any political points in the script deal with the amount of ridiculousness we've arrived at on both the conservative and liberal sides of the scale."

A libertarian, Russell revels in politically impolite defenses of personal freedom that could be dubbed Snakelike, if Plissken had anything like an articulate sense of cultural absurdity. And Russell is reaching the peak of his popularity at a time when many kinds of behavior he champions are becoming socially unacceptable.

"Toronto just passed a thing, and it's moving its way down, that says you can't smoke in a bar," said Russell, cigarette in hand. "But where in our Constitution does it say anything about a safety net? Who is the minister of fun in this country?"

"Now it's all about living longer and living safer. Yes, there's a value to that, and I certainly understand that. But there's also a greater value, to me, of getting something out of life. At least make it my choice; I thought that's what this country was all about.

"I totally understand people's concerns about second hand smoke, totally makes sense. But don't take the choice out of somebody's hands if they want to have a bar where you can smoke."

Before you can ask Russell if that means he's therefore voting for tobacco defender Bob Dole, the actor cranks his argument up to a more intense level.

"How far away are we from where you can't smoke, period, because it's bad for you?" he asked rhetorically. "They've told you heroin is bad for you, and that it's illegal. But I'd think, in this country, that if you wanted to be a heroin addict, and as long as you didn't hurt anybody on it, if that's your stupid choice to wreck your life, you could. I thought that the idea was free to think, free to do, just don't hurt anybody on your way and don't let anybody step on you. Don't tread on me."

Being cautiously likable is not on Russell's agenda - and perhaps that's part of what makes him so successful in a movie era where bland likability is the norm. But he wouldn't cop to anything so pretentious. To Russell, popularity ultimately boils down to a simple combination of hard work and good luck.

"I'm just making movies that people like to see," said Russell, who'll next be seen in
, as a meek man who must get in touch with his aggressiveness in order to find his kidnapped wife.

There is one bit of traditional vanity that Russell gleefully indulges, though.

"Goldie does look good," he acknowledged. "I think a large part of it is genetics, and probably the other large part of it is that she's happy in her life - and I think I'm a good part of that!"

But even that little bit of ego is anchored to clear-eyed humility. "We're both fortunate that we discovered each other," Russell said. "We've had a great time with each other and are continuing to."

And that's something, as Hollywood repeatedly proves, that even star salaries can't buy.