The power of Elvis Presley is pretty wide-reaching, and it’s certainly had a long-lasting effect on actor Kurt Russell and director John Carpenter, who worked for the first time together on the 1979 TV movie Elvis. They found it to be a life-changing experience, as both recently discussed at the Escape From York panel at the TCM Classic Film Festival.
By the time Elvis came along, Kurt had largely been a television actor, guest starring on many TV shows and being a series regular on 1963-64’s The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters, 1974’s The New Land and 1976’s The Quest. On the big screen he’d been largely relegated to Disney live-action films like The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969), The Barefoot Executive (1971), Superdad (1973) and The Strongest Man in the World (1975). For his part, John had directed films like Dark Star (1974), Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) and the seminal horror film Halloween (1978).
When they worked together on Elvis, though, something just clicked. This led them to the 1981 sci-fi adventure Escape From New York — the film that made Kurt a movie star. In it, he plays Snake Plissken, a former Special Forces soldier-turned-criminal who, in 1997 (way in the future back then) when the island of Manhattan has been turned into a maximum security prison, must rescue the President of the United States after Air Force One has been hijacked and crashed there.
“If it wasn’t for John Carpenter,” Kurt offers “my career would have been completely different. I don’t know what it would have been, but he was the only person in the world at that time that would’ve given me the opportunity, and it’s something he fought for, too. It wasn’t something where they just laid down and said, ‘Okay.’ They didn’t want that at all. I owe him a great, great deal.”
John reflects that when he was hired to direct Elvis, Kurt had already been signed to play the title role. But, he says, “I’ve never seen anybody fit a character like Kurt did. He was Elvis, and I thought he could play anything. So, how about let’s go as far away from Elvis as we can? Let’s do Snake Plissken.”
The way Kurt saw it, the part of Elvis was his moment to prove to the world that he could do much more than he was being allowed to up until that point. “I was in this position where I was going to play a part that I was going to flame out on — which was fine by me — or do something that’s going to work. I kind of asked for mercy from John and said, ‘I’d like to be able to get to a place with you where we could have an ability to speak really quickly with each other in a short way, ‘cause I have to do this.’ He said, ‘I totally get it.’ In about a day and a half, I looked at him and he’d say, ‘A little more Elvis, a little less Elvis.’ I needed it to be that simple. We developed a language like that that we’ve had ever since.”
At the same time, it’s a pretty big leap from Elvis to Snake, which raises the natural curiosity of how that character came about. “When I wrote the script,” says John, “I had Clint Eastwood in mind, frankly, because he’s a rough and tumble guy. Kurt did a great imitation of him.”
“It was strange,” Kurt adds, “because I had an image of a snake in my mind and I said to John, ‘I’d love to wear an eye patch,’ and he said, ‘Oh, I like that.’ The studio wasn’t really happy about that, because they said it was going to cover half my face. But then I couldn’t hear [Snake’s] voice, but John told me that Lee Van Cleef was going to play [the character] Hauk, and I said, ‘Oh, I know what I’m doing.’”
Part of the character’s look includes a cobra tattoo on his abdomen, the tail of which travels down his pants. “At first we did a little publicity thing where I had the tattoo on my arm, but this was before we started shooting,” Kurt details. “I saw that with the wardrobe, which was regular fatigues and the boots and stuff. The wardrobe gal came up with a very different look at that time. The eyepatch and the tattoo, I felt, had to go together. He was an enigmatic person, so the tattoo, I thought, was kind of cheesy there [on the arm]. I just thought it was more mysterious by putting it on the chest and having the tail go down his pants. It was highly suggestive, and that’s what it was meant to do.”
The impact of Escape From New York was certainly not limited to Kurt, who is very much aware that other filmmakers have been influenced by it as well. “The two that come to mind right away are Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, because one night we went out to dinner and it was great to listen to them speak at length about what that movie meant to them when they were younger guys just wanting to be directors. John Carpenter was one of the greatest influences on them.”
Besides Elvis and Escape From New York, actor and director have collaborated on the 1996 sequel Escape From L.A. as well as 1982’s The Thing and 1986’s Big Trouble in Little China. Despite the fact it’s been nearly 40 years since the original, people are still asking about another adventure of Snake. Apparently not seeing the point, Kurt suggests, “Escape From the Geriatric Wing?”
John, though, is a little more philosophical: “There’s one thing I’ve learned in this business. Never say never.”
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