This former Disney film juvenile actor is 69 years old. How did that happen?
For me, Kurt Russell was a later version of James Garner, ruggedly handsome, a killer smile and never taking himself too seriously. Like Garner, Russell gained fame on television and settled into films. He was likable and equally comfortable in action films or playing a dad. And like Garner, Russell has been drawn to flawed characters, and on the back-end of his career worried less about being a leading man, and looked for good acting roles.
Son of character actor Bing Russell, Kurt was a working actor as a boy, guesting on television (including Gilligan’s Island), minor film roles and co-starring in a television series, The Travels of Jamie McPheeters.
Over the next decade he would go back and forth between television and film, and star in several youth/oriented Disney films. By the late 1970s, Russell’s career had downshifted and was now mainly in television. Then, one television film changed the trajectory of the next forty years of his career: Elvis (1979), directed by John Carpenter. This performance showed that Russell was more than a pretty face, he could act, and Hollywood once again, took notice.
Russell built a considerable film career, often re-teaming with Carpenter, and later, Quentin Tarantino. An A-list action star, he was equally at home in comedy, and later in his career tackled some unsavory, but fascinating characters, in roles other actors clearly avoided.
Here are my 12 favorite Russell roles.
The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969) Russell played college kid Dexter Riley in several comedies. Trouble is usually close by. These Disney films made a lot of money, and Russell was the teenage version of Dean Jones. This was the best of the Dexter Riley films.
Used Cars (1980) Directed by Robert Zemeckis, this was Russell’s first real adult film role. He is a fast-talking loser, a down and out used car salesman who must hide the death of his boss while winning a bet to save the business. A very silly film, but Russell found a character type that he would often revisit.
The Thing (1982) John Carpenter’s best film and a meaty role for Russell. A remake, this version is a cult classic. The oddball humor arrives at the right time. Russell plays the moody loner, who must figure out the real human from the imposters. The film has a dark, grim mood that never lets up. This film proved Russell could be an action star and carry the film’s narrative.
The Mean Season (1985) Playing a newspaper reporter, he follows a serial killer and gets duped into becoming part of the story in his zealous pursuit of the killer. A grim crime film, Russell brings the right combination of zeal and naïveté to the role.
The Best of Times (1986) Russell plays the flashier of the two main roles, Robin Williams plays the other. Russell doesn’t expect to keep up with Williams, so he focuses on his character as a poor man’s Joe Namath, who never realized his dreams. The script by Ron Shelton is pure fun.
Overboard (1987) Considered a critical and commercial flop, the film stars Russell as a hapless but conniving single father who tricks Goldie Hawn into believing she is his wife. Russell excels at these fast-talking characters who is a bit of a dim bulb. A great film? Not hardly, but the chemistry between him and Hawn is real. Harmless fun.
Captain Ron (1992) Another goofy, oddball character, a one-eyed captain who would rather guzzle beer and ogle young women. Captain Ron is entrusted to help a family get their rundown boat to an island port without falling prey to rebels or pirates. Russell’s character is fun. Martin Short is the normal character by comparison.
Tombstone (1993) Garner also played Wyatt Earp, but Russell’s is the best of all the versions. This is a very enjoyable film and Russell is the film’s center. His Earp is far from perfect, he’s unfaithful, cold and vengeful. But he is steely, has grit and won’t walk away from a fight.
Executive Decision (1996) A far-fetched thriller about an anti-terrorist team boarding an airliner in midair to locate and stop a bomb plot. Russell plays a government consultant who winds up leading the effort even though he is a think tank doctor instead of a field agent. The role is a switch for Russell who is usually the soldier not the tuxedo dressed academic.
Dark Blue (2003) Russell re-teams with Ron Shelton for a film about a bad cop who is in a downward spiral in a city that is about to explode. Russell’s character knows he is at the end of his rope, but he is caught in his own debacle and must play out the string. Sadly, this film was ignored when it was released.
Dreamer (2005) one of Russell’s best roles. A flawed father who must rebuild his relationship with his young daughter. An injured horse is how that happens. Russell’s character must find compassion and support his daughter’s dream. Through her passion and belief, he must find his own belief and trust in her. A great cast and one of the better horse racing films. This film failed to find an audience. It’s a winner.
Death Proof (2007) Russell goes full tilt here, a charming psychopath who stalks and tries to kill a group of young women. He teamed with Quentin Tarantino for several films. This is a tough film to watch, Russell’s character is beyond sadistic, but as he cranks up the crazy dial, you root for his demise.