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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)

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.

"You know, when Escape from New York first came out, a lot of people said, 'I don't quite understand this movie…is this some kind of comment that, like, New York is a prison?' and years later a lot of people," Russell laughs, "are saying, 'You know, New York is looking a lot like that movie.' In Escape from L.A., it's a story about a guy who just wants a cigarette. He just wants a cigarette! Everybody laughed back then because there was no red meat, no cigarettes in the movie. Well, look around! It's happening! You can barely smoke a cigarette anymore and [although] I quit smoking six months ago, the [antismoking] laws are enough to make me want to smoke!"

Russell admits that while there are numerous roles he's taken where he, within himself, recognized what made the strong male character tick—lawman Wyatt Earp in 1993's Tombstone, firefighter Stephen McCaffrey in 1991's Backdraft, troubled, cigar-smoking detective Eldon Perry in 2002's Dark Blue, the determined husband in 1997's Breakdown, the obnoxiously macho boat captain in 1992's Captain Ron—he also says that his favorite character "that anybody's every done, in any movie, ever, is Snake Plissken. Every man wants to be Snake Plissken.

"He's completely independent. He's given up on everything on earth except for food, air and water. It's every man's fantasy to be completely, completely, capable of walking anywhere, at any time, fearlessly. He has no connection to anything. Nothing. He doesn't care about you, me or anybody. He does not care. He's not human that way [in that] he's not bothered with anything, he's not tied to anything, he has no agenda.

"You know," Russell continues, "when you're not walking to or from anything, there's no walking away…there's nothing to walk away from. New York, L.A., it's all about a person's ability to escape. Snake just survives, minute by minute, and it does tickle his fancy, you know. He does have a sense of humor about it, but he's just got this psychotic need to survive," the actor says with a laugh. It's fascinating to hear Russell talk about a character who doesn't care, who walks alone and doesn't need anyone or anything as being the ultimate male fantasy, since the depiction doesn't seem to bear any resemblance to Russell's own family life. And this is not a guy who conforms to anyone else's idea of what his life should or shouldn't resemble.


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