In Chinatown, John Huston’s wealthy, corrupt Noah Cross tells Jack Nicholson’s private investigator, “‘Course I’m respectable. I’m old. Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.”
You could add movie stars to that list. Some actors become household names in their prime by playing action heroes in B-movies and other disreputable genres, never doing the kinds of “prestige” films that would give them critical cachet or the undying admiration of their peers. But if they hang around long enough, a sort of cultural affection attaches to them.
Kurt Russell has been having that moment over the last couple years. For more than a decade, he was a reliable on-screen presence, playing either badasses or bozos in movies that never got nominated for awards. To make a baseball analogy — which is fitting, considering how much Russell loves the sport — he’s a star who hits for average more than power, getting on base rather than worrying about swinging for the fences. And yet, lately, he’s emerged as a beloved Hollywood institution in two giant franchises: the Fast and the Furious series and, today, in a crucial role in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
At 66, he’s finally respectable.
Russell grew up in Southern California in a baseball family. His great-grandfather played. His dad, actor Bing Russell, owned a minor league team. And for much of his youth, even while acting, Kurt thought he’d be part of the national pastime, too. “My mom didn’t have a backyard with a pool and beautiful grass and trees,” Russell told NPR in 2014. “Our backyard was a batting cage. It was how I grew up. … Our other business was the picture business and television. That was how [my dad] made his living, and that was how I later started, you know, to make my living. But baseball was always the family business.”
In his early 20s, Russell was having a good season in the minors as a second baseman when a runner collided with him while he was trying to convert a double play. “I didn’t know what happened, but the next thing I knew I was laying flat on my back,” he recalled to ESPN in 2004. “It didn’t really hit me how bad I was hurt at the time. I went out that night and played air hockey and I began to feel my arm bothering me.” His coaches suspected he’d torn his rotator cuff, and he traveled to L.A. to have it looked at. “The doctor did an arthrogram on me and he looked at the arthrogram and he looked at me and he said, ‘Aren’t you also an actor?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ And he said, ‘Well, you’re an actor all the time now.’”
By that point, Russell had already been doing Disney live-action movies for years, including the 1969 comedy The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, in which he plays a college screw-up who (for some reason) becomes a computer once a hard drive he’s working on gets struck by lightning. Even in a dopey film like this one, Russell is incredibly charming — but he also had the heft to pull off sounding super-brainy once his character transforms into a genius:
From an early age, he loved how well movies paid and what fun they were — but he was never interested in promoting himself. In a 2016 GQ profile, he remembered being 12 and hanging out on the Disney lot. “I’d see the publicity guy come on set, I’d run up to the rafters,” he said. “All the electricians up there knew when I was coming up. They go, ‘Get up here!’ And I’d go hide.”
His aversion to publicists didn’t hamper his career, however: He did episodes of Gilligan’s Island, Dennis the Menace, The Fugitive, Lost in Space and Hawaii Five-O from the mid-1960s all the way through the late 1970s. And he famously auditioned for Star Wars, reading for both Luke Skywalker and Han Solo. Ultimately, though, he had to commit to doing a TV Western, The Quest, before George Lucas was able to make any casting decisions. Thankfully, Russell’s audition tape survives, serving as eternal proof that Russell would’ve made a really good Han Solo:
But as Russell got into his mid-20s, he faced the same dilemma that affects a lot of young actors: Would people accept him as an adult after seeing him play kids for so long? He answered that question by agreeing to play Elvis Presley in a 1979 TV biopic just two years after the King’s death. The two men had spent some time together when Russell appeared in Presley’s 1963 movie It Happened at the World’s Fair. To portray him in a movie felt like a surreal full-circle moment for Russell, who later noted, “What’s weird for me is to look at it now: I was 10 when I worked with him, and he was 27. And I was 27 when I played him.” Russell lip-synched Presley’s songs, but he captured the performer’s sex appeal and onstage energy:
More important than Russell’s performance in Elvis—which earned the actor an Emmy nomination— was that he met John Carpenter, the biopic’s director, who was fresh off his success with Halloween. Soon, the two collaborated on another project — about a former soldier and consummate antihero who, in a dystopian future, has to rescue the U.S. president after he’s kidnapped. Carpenter sent the script for Escape From New York to Russell, who flipped for it. “I read it, and I said, ‘This is exactly what I want to do,’” Russell explained in 2013. “‘It’s something that I know I can do that I know nobody is going to think of me for except for you, John.’ They wanted Charlie Bronson to do it, and John fought for me.”
The role of Snake Plissken would’ve fit Bronson well, but Russell’s blasé, smart-ass attitude brought its own twist. A precursor to quip-heavy action heroes like Bruce Willis’s Die Hard character John McClane, Snake wasn’t just resourceful with weapons but also incredibly fun company, delivering snarky one-liners and never breaking a sweat even when his life was on the line.
“[He] was the first character that I can think of where he had no social redeeming value,” Russell told GQ. “A lot of the male stars of that time, if they were going to play a role where they seek revenge, that was their social redeemability — they showed the wife and the kids getting burned in the house by the mafia, or whatever. Or, if it was a Western, some terrible thing being done, and now it’s time for payback. We didn’t do that.” Instead, Snake was a dick, which is what made him loveable:
Released in the summer of 1981, Escape From New York became ground zero for a kind of unabashed B-movie that’s beloved by directors like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, who’s attached to direct a remake. The Purge films are unimaginable without Escape From New York’s influence. And in the process, Snake became Russell’s most iconic character. He’s had bigger hits since — Backdraft, Stargate, Tombstone — but nothing can touch what he brought to Snake.
After Escape, Russell started getting involved in bigger Hollywood productions: the Disney animated movie The Fox and the Hound, the Oscar-nominated Silkwood and more films with Carpenter (The Thing and Big Trouble in Little China). But Russell never really broke through in terms of being one of those undeniable superstars.
Partly, that was because of his performances, which often felt subdued and unfussy. But also, it’s because he’s never seemed especially invested in showing the ambition needed to be a superstar. Russell doesn’t do a ton of interviews, and by his own account, he mostly stays away from the limelight. As his Vol. 2 director James Gunn told the Los Angeles Times, “I just think he really loves acting and that’s what makes him different. He’s not interested in the accolades and money isn’t the most important thing. He loves the craft and the fact that he’s able to wake up every morning and do this for a living.”
Russell will take years off between gigs, focusing instead on his winery or on flying planes. As a result, there have been rumors in the past that he’s retired. In last year’s GQ profile, he addressed that speculation, saying, “[W]ithout trying to be clever, I’ve always been retired. I just have. There’s no difference between being retired and working as an actor.”
But the Russell renaissance — the Russnaissance? — began in earnest in 2007, when he starred as the evil misogynist in Tarantino’s Death Proof. The movie, part of the Grindhouse double feature with Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, stiffed at the box office, but it provided Russell with the sort of makeover that Tarantino has brought to other aging stars like John Travolta and Robert Forster. (The director and star reunited for 2015’s The Hateful Eight.) That performance, coupled with his turn in 2004’s excellent sports drama Miracle, gave us a Russell who conveyed a weathered gravitas alongside his usual no-nonsense charm. What could, in the past, sometimes come across as laziness now felt like a confident, mature command of his craft.
In the last few years, he’s enjoyed the biggest hits of his career, happily playing the supporting role while his younger costars get all the attention. In 2015, he came aboard Furious 7, portraying a leader of a covert organization. He returned for The Fate of the Furious, and now he’s playing the missing father of Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord in the Guardians of the Galaxy sequel — a man our hero has long wanted to meet, but who has secrets he’ll kill to protect.
So after years of being just another Hollywood star, Russell has arrived at a kind of elevated status, admired for his longevity and iconic roles. Gunn told the L.A. Times that Russell is the “most famous cult actor in the world,” and it’s telling that several of his films — Escape From New York, Big Trouble in Little China and Overboard — are in different stages of being remade. Maybe the world is finally catching up with him.
Russell was asked this very question — “Are audiences on some sort of delay when it comes to Kurt Russell?” — by The Daily Beast in 2015. His response was pretty modest: “The one now where people come up to me and say, ‘You know what I saw? Death Proof.’ People finally caught onto Death Proof and really love it. I can’t say I don’t know why, because I do, and it’s really not about the public. It’s about the way it’s written about at the time, it’s about the time it comes out in, and it’s about the release pattern it gets. And if it doesn’t get the treatment it needs in all those regards, then it doesn’t even get a chance to get to the audience that hopefully will want to see it. But, hey, a thousand reasons, ifs ands and Peter Pans, who gives a shit.”
That’s the kind of unromantic attitude Snake would embrace.