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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 1)

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.

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