The hair, the determined but mischievous stare, the resume that spans everything from The Thing to Stargate to The Hateful Eight — add them all together and there’s no one quite like Kurt Russell. For more than five decades, he’s been charming his way across big and small screens, whether starring in Disney flicks as a teen, proving the ultimate '80s hero or spending his recent years spouting Quentin Tarantino’s dialogue.
Indeed, today he has two of 2017’s biggest box office successes to his name, but 55 years ago, he was a kid making his first uncredited TV appearance on an episode of Dennis the Menace. In between, he has travelled to Gilligan’s Island, stepped into Elvis’s shoes twice, escaped from New York and LA, and weathered a snowstorm at Minnie’s Haberdashery. With nearly six decades in the business, there are plenty of highlights — and a Kurt Russell decade for everyone.
The '60s: Teen TV star Kurt
Fresh-faced and sporting a wide smile, Russell was once an adorable kid featuring in every '60s television show you can imagine: Dennis the Menace, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Virginian, Lost in Space, The Fugitive, Gunsmoke and Daniel Boone among them. His first significant part came courtesy of Western series The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters, in which he played the titular boy opposite Charles Bronson, but he has Walt Disney to thank for his biggest break. From the mid-'60s onwards, he would appear in Disney movies and TV programs such as Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color, The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band and the delightfully named The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. And, he also became the subject of a persistent urban legend that claims his name was the last thing the dying Walt ever wrote.
The '70s: Elvis beckons
If the '60s were all about making an initial splash, Russell’s '70s career saw him maintain momentum — not scaling lofty heights just yet, but making his way there. He spent the early portion of the decade pursuing a baseball career, before injury forced him out of the game, while also making two sequels to The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, and starring in short-lived TV shows The New Land and The Quest. Then Elvis and John Carpenter came calling in two matches made in heaven, with Russell a perfect fit for the TV biopic part that sparked his first of five collaborations with the director. If he didn’t say “thank you very much” to the filmmaker while wearing blue suede shoes (and earning an Emmy nomination for his troubles), he’d surely utter those words during the next decade.
The '80s: The name's Plissken!
When you end one decade by playing Elvis, how do you start the next? Two words: Snake Plissken. Used Cars and TV movie Amber Waves might be his first '80s credits, but his involvement in Escape from New York would reshape Russell’s career. In a period filled with “punch first, ask questions never”-style action heroes, Plissken was the tough, resourceful and cynical figure no one knew they needed. Two more Carpenter flicks followed in the form of The Thing and Big Trouble in Little China, each as iconic as the last. The rest of his resume wasn’t short on highlights either, including romancing Goldie Hawn in Swing Shift and Overboard, getting dramatic in Silkwood and Tequila Sunrise, and teaming up with Sylvester Stallone in Tango & Cash.
The '90s: The hard man
When Russell starred in Tango & Cash, he replaced Patrick Swayze. To the movie-loving world’s collective sorrow, no one ever cast the two together in what would’ve been the most (and surely the best) late '80s/early '90s movie ever. Odd couple cops with matching no-nonsense attitudes, furious fists and flowing mullet locks… it writes itself. Instead, Russell spent most of the decade playing the hard man — the jerk firefighter in Backdraft, the protective partner in Unlawful Entry, gun-slinging lawman Wyatt Earp in Tombstone, the determined Colonel in Stargate, the cross-country road tripper in Breakdown and, of course, Snake Plissken again in Escape from L.A. There are shades of vulnerability in each of these roles, with Russell making them all stand out, but messing with him in the '90s wasn’t recommended.
The '00s: Just playing around
The '00s were a quieter time for Russell. He kept adding to his resume thanks to 300 Miles to Graceland, Vanilla Sky, Miracle, Sky High, Dreamer and Poseidon, but few made much of an impact. Two stood out, however: Dark Blue and Death Proof. In the former, he stepped into the crime world of novelist James Ellroy, bringing his charms to the dirty cop genre. In the latter, he revitalised the later stages of his career thanks to Quentin Tarantino, a car and a guy by the name of Stuntman Mike. It’s a masterclass in vehicular menace — and watching Russell’s character react to his prey turning predator is a thing to behold.
The '10s: Return of the Russell
It’d take almost a decade for Russell to really capitalise upon Death Proof, but the results were worth the wait. Since 2015, he’s been ratcheting up the hits, mostly at the big end of town. Taking on the role of Mr Nobody, Fast & Furious 7 and The Fate of the Furious’ smooth, secretive government fixer, kept him firmly in the spotlight. Playing planet-turned man Ego in this year’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 helped as well. Then, there are the knockouts that were Bone Tomahawk and The Hateful Eight. Russell in a cannibal Western? Russell as a gruff bounty hunter under Quentin Tarantino’s guidance? Yes, he’s back.
Watch Stargate on Wednesday 29 November at 8:30pm on SBS VICELAND.