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Kicking back with Kurt

Whether it's been leaving acting for a stint as a second baseman or taking on roles that would one day become iconic, actor Kurt Russell has always been a maverick.
Betsy Model
From the Print Edition:
Kurt Russell, May/June 2006

(continued from page 3)

Kurt Russell has a thing for strong, independent women and Mother Nature has decided to accommodate him by dumping more than two inches of rain on Malibu in a matter of hours. The coastal road leading to Russell's home, which he shares with longtime romantic partner Goldie Hawn, is awash in muddy water, rock debris and a litter of highway cones, flood warning signs and the occasional low-slung luxury car that's more often observed in valet parking or in a "reserved" spot on a studio lot than on the shoulder of the Pacific Coast Highway.

 

Suddenly, the storm subsides and the sun reemerges. In retrospect, the abrupt flip-flop back to typical California weather shouldn't come as a surprise. Seeing as how Russell's a guy who's done a lot of his own stunts over the years and always seems to land on his feet both physically and karmically, the sun not only breaks out as the interview approaches but breaks out with a vengeance; suddenly, it's not just a typical sunny, blue-sky day in Malibu, it's bright, it's hot and it's muggier than hell. Russell's only acknowledgement to Mother Nature's little temper tantrum is to raise his face and stretch his blue jean—clad legs and naked feet into a patch of sun and let 'em bake.

But then Russell, the man who's currently squinting into the sun and calmly enjoying his view of the Pacific Ocean, gets to be far more sanguine about Mother Nature's little show-and-tell than Russell, the actor, gets to be in his upcoming film, Poseidon.

Opening in the United States May 12, Poseidon stars Russell, Josh Lucas, Richard Dreyfus and Emmy Rossum in the Wolfgang Petersen remake of the 1972 Gene Hackman hit The Poseidon Adventure. Russell, who plays Robert Ramsey, Jennifer Ramsey's [Rossum] overprotective father, likes to joke that Poseidon is the final chapter in Petersen's "water trilogy. First he made Das Boot, then A Perfect Storm, now Poseidon. The guy's got a fascination with water!"

Russell signed up for the movie, he says, because of his respect for what Petersen did with the other two sea-themed films. With industry sources suggesting a $150 million price tag for the production (a number that Warner Bros. refused to confirm) and an opening date smack in the middle of the releases for Mission: Impossible III and The Da Vinci Code, a lot of hopes are being pinned on a new generation of filmgoers wanting to relive a disaster epic featuring a luxury cruise liner being turned upside down by a rogue wave.

Obviously, the filmmakers, cast, crew and studio brass are also counting on those who saw the original The Poseidon Adventure in the theater—and ignored the television movie remake in 2005 that had the cruise ship capsized by terrorists—wanting to see this new, improved version, too. Technology has advanced dramatically in the last 30 years and, by all counts, Petersen outdid himself on choreographing scenes and special effects meant to keep moviegoers on the edge of their seats.

Russell tells a great story—complete with his own personal special effects and vocal sound system—about how Petersen took some of the cast completely off guard when, shooting a particular scene for the first time, they discovered that the director had choreographed a dozen or more cameras to move in time with the scene and cast to the accompaniment of a professional sound system booming out the opening notes of Wagner's The Valkyrie.

Russell laughs while telling the story and slips in and out of a credible German accent as he relays Petersen's delight in the effectiveness of both timing the cameras and startling the cast and crew. He then goes on to talk appreciatively and at length about two of his cast mates, Richard Dreyfus ("I've always loved the guy's acting, he's had an amazing career, and his style is always unwavering.") and Josh Lucas ("He's got a good eye, a good ear. He's not a complainer and he's not someone who blows his own horn. I hope this is his breakout movie."), before describing the sheer physical hardships of filming, for weeks, on sets that were on water, in water and beneath water. The production of the film, done entirely on two Warner Bros. stages, involved shooting the scenes and the cruise ships right side up and in water on one stage, upside down and submerged on the other.

According to media reports from the set, Lucas suffered a couple of mishaps during the filming of Poseidon, including a hand injury that required surgery, and Russell admits that he, like many of the other cast members, came down with one infection or another while filming, usually bronchial. "All that water," he says, putting a finger in one ear and shaking his head.

Russell declines to predict whether Poseidon will be successful, not because he doesn't believe in the film, he quickly explains, but because over the years he's learned that good, even great, films sometimes don't make it due to timing or lack of proper marketing. Sometimes, he says, films that don't find their audience in the theater find their deserved success anyway in DVDs.

Some of Russell's own hits found their place in movie history long after they'd left the big screen. Big Trouble in Little China is one, Russell says, as is The Thing, and he's been teased about it so often that he was once prompted to quip back at a reporter: "I have a thing for picking movies that go on to be cult favorites" and "If it hadn't been for videocassette, I may not have had a career at all!"

Considering that Kurt Vogel Russell has spent more than four decades making a living in the public eye, you can understand the on-again, off-again enthusiasm the guy's got for 16-hour days, early set calls and being away from family and friends, sometimes for months on end.

Back in 1963, when the idea of landing even a bit part was still a thrill, a role in the television series "The Travels of Jamie McPheeters" led to a modest part in his first big-screen movie, It Happened at the World's Fair, starring a then-28-year-old Elvis Presley. That particular role, albeit small, brought him to the attention of Walt Disney—the man, not the conglomerate—who promptly signed the adolescent to a lengthy film contract.

Russell made plenty of movies while under contract to the studio, wholesome family films with titles such as Follow Me, Boys!; The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit; The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band; The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes; and The Barefoot Executive.

The movies were great exposure for Russell, who'd started out as a cute enough kid but had morphed during his teen years into a heartthrob. While the studio loved that his California surfer-dude looks and screen presence were tugging at the hearts of teenage girls all over the world, his own heart was being tugged towards a different, or at least concurrent, career. He had a passion for baseball, and soon decided to indulge it.

Russell is insistent that his love of baseball and his natural athleticism and skill playing the game were predetermined and genetic. "My dad didn't just play baseball, my grandfather played professional ball. It's inherited, it's in the DNA, and I don't have any question that my sisters and I inherited both my mother's athletic skills [Russell's mother, Louise, was a dancer] and my father's athletic skills. My nephew [former Atlanta Braves first baseman Matt Franco] has it. My sisters were strong athletes, too. For a long time my older sister was better than me and I was good, better than good. I was great at the game and the best there was in the neighborhood. I was," he concludes, "born to play baseball."

Russell's father, Bing, had morphed from a career playing and coaching professional baseball into an acting career, most notably as Deputy Clem Foster on the television series "Bonanza" between 1962 and 1973. Bing appeared in hundreds of television shows as varied as "Ironside," "The Fugitive," "The Virginian," "The Big Valley" and "Gunsmoke."

Since the women in the Russell family hadn't blinked an eye when the entire family had upped and moved from the east coast to the west coast to follow Bing's post-baseball dreams of acting, they were equally sangfroid when a teenage Kurt, already successful in film, decided that while a few acting jobs here and there were fine, what he really wanted was to play ball.

Russell was good enough to be signed by the California Angels and played second base on its minor-league Double-A squad between 1970 and early 1973 before a shoulder injury forced him to quit right as he was making the move to the majors. One season he hit .563 to lead the league in hitting.

"I could move runners," Russell says. "When it came to hitting I was professional. I was a good hitter, and out in the field my range was real good to my left, OK to my right. I knew the game, inside and out."

During his baseball tenure, he continued to take occasional acting roles as his team schedule would allow. When asked to think back to being 20 years old and to compare the two pursuits, he ponders for a minute before responding.

"Professional sports is a much more difficult world, a much more black-and-white world. It's physically, emotionally and in all ways a tougher world," Russell says, "And I was better in that world than I am in this world [of acting] because it was simpler. I didn't mind the rules because I knew the rules."

That's not to say that baseball was easy, Russell insists, and that's not to imply that acting is a piece of cake all the time, either. "You know, when I was playing baseball, I had players look at my acting career and say, 'How much money do you make doing that?' or 'I bet you get to meet a lot of girls, pretty girls…can you get me into that? Can you get me a job acting?' Shit," Russell says, shaking his head. "To give you an idea of how much simpler that world is, there was nobody, nobody, from the world of acting who would have ever said to me, 'Can you get me into that, into that world of baseball?' because it was understood. Man, nobody can do anything for you in that world! If you can play, you play. You have the skill or you don't. But no one has that same regard for acting."

Even after the shoulder injury, Russell continued to mingle the two careers a bit as did his father. In 1973, besides their respective acting jobs, the two bought the Portland Mavericks, the only independent baseball team in the Class A Northwest League.

In many regards, the father/son owners of the Mavericks were, well, maverick. Portland was the first team in professional baseball to ever hire a female general manager and, sometime later, the first team in professional baseball to hire an Asian-American general manager.

This wasn't a soft, on-the-side endeavor for either of the Russell men, however. Kurt actually played for a while until the shoulder gave out, the team set a record one season for the highest attendance in minor-league history, and, that same season, the Mavericks won the pennant. And, in addition to their progressive hiring practices, the Russells opened tryouts every June to anyone who showed up, from former major league players to those who'd simply dreamt of telling their friends they'd once tried out for a professional team.

It's his natural athleticism and knowledge of team sports, Kurt Russell says, that made his portrayal as single-minded hockey coach Herb Brooks in 2004's Miracle, which chronicled the American Olympic hockey team's surprising win over the Soviet Union at the 1980 Winter Games, so believable and one of his favorite roles to date. He enthusiastically recounts how Olympic athletes report watching the movie the night before competition and of big league sports teams watching the movie for inspiration.

That Russell takes pride in his athleticism and dual career is obvious. If, at 5 feet 11 inches, he isn't built like a giant, there's a natural athlete's breadth to his shoulders, a ballplayer's bearing to his stance, and a bit of a swagger to his walk, and he handles himself with the surety and cockiness of the proverbial jock.

That same pride and cockiness comes into full view when the subject of a certain Sports Illustrated article from a few years back arises. It seems that SI ranked a bunch of actors on their athletic abilities and Russell came in second to Kevin Costner, his costar in the roundly panned 2001 film 3000 Miles to Graceland. Though Russell's undoubtedly heard about the ranking before, it obviously still rankles him.

"Oh, bullshit! That's just bullshit. I played professionally [and] there's a world of difference between amateur and professional. Now, I love Kevin Costner. He's a really nice guy but he's not even remotely in my world when it comes to baseball. No, no, no. Sorry. That's where I take a stand and say, 'Really! Oh, really?' Are you fucking kidding me? I'll grab a bat right now with my 54-year-old arm and go out there right now. Whoa," he says.

Whoa indeed. If we can't call the posture and the glint in Russell's eye as he responds to this outrage "macho," one can say at the very least that he's definitely pulling a "Plissken."

Snake Plissken, the buff, acerbic, one-eyed character from two of Russell's best-known movies, Escape from New York and Escape from L.A., is the kind of role that only director, and Russell friend, John Carpenter could have dreamt up and only Kurt Russell could have endowed with so much testosterone as to make the decidedly campy sci-fi/western/action flicks into immediate cult classics. Dressed entirely in a black leather and Spandex outfit—right down to the eye patch—that the actor helped design, Russell made the character of Snake Plissken immortal. His swagger, his complete disrespect of authority, his Clint Eastwood—inspired voice and his droll one-liners could never have been played by those with last names such as Clooney, Cruise or Kilmer. They're just not, well, macho enough.

Neither film had complicated plots. In the first movie, 1981's Escape from New York, New York City has become a walled-in prison state for those deemed unworthy or unsuitable to live among the rest of society. When the president of the United States crash-lands inside the walls of this government-prescribed hellhole, Snake Plissken, a former soldier and recipient of numerous medals before becoming an undesirable himself, is sent inside to save him.

The plot's almost identical in the sequel, 1996's Escape from L.A. This time, a massive earthquake predicted by a rabid preacher-turned-U.S. president has sheared off most of Southern California and created an island that is being used as a maximum security prison for the country's undesirable elements, the unworthy and, this being L.A., those grossly disfigured by too much plastic surgery. Both Carpenter and Russell, a coproducer on Escape from L.A., may have been uncomfortably prescient in their take on what New York and Los Angeles, and society in general, would be like in the not too distant future. Russell credits the films' cult status to a couple of things: his portrayal of the iconic figure, the movies' statement on the future of government, and the fact, Russell says, that most men really, really deep down want to be Snake Plissken.


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