He made his movie debut at 12, kicking Elvis Presley in the shins in 1963’s It Happened at the World’s Fair. Yet Kurt Russell didn’t set out to be a movie star. His dream was to play baseball, but a torn rotator cuff ended his career in the minors. “It took a while to adjust to not identifying myself as a ballplayer,” Kurt, 68, has said. “I couldn’t put ‘actor’ on my passport for a long time.”
Still, Kurt toiled on TV (he played “Jungle Boy” in a 1965 episode of Gilligan’s Island) and in Disney movies (The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes) all through his teens and 20s. Now he’s reliving that era with a role in Quentin Tarantino’s 1969-set drama Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.
“This film is a love letter to Hollywood,” Kurt once said. “When I was doing it, it reminded me of me and my friends in the late ’60s and early ’70s. I grew up in that world.” That’s also where he met his longtime love, Goldie Hawn. The duo both appeared in the 1968 Disney musical The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band but didn’t start dating until they co starred again in 1984’s Swing Shift.
“If you’re lucky enough to have someone like Goldie Hawn come along and feel the way she feels, you’re just lucky,” Kurt has gushed. “Thirty-six years have gone by in a flash. I’m still in love. That doesn’t mean we don’t have to pay attention and work at it.”
Kurt’s work ethic was instilled in him by his father, actor Bing Russell, who played Deputy Clem Foster on Bonanza, a show young Kurt guested on twice. “You’re being paid a man’s salary, so you should do a man’s job,” Bing told him. “Know your lines, be ready to work.” Agrees Kurt, “Really, that applies to anything in life.”
It’s a lesson Kurt has passed along to his and Goldie’s kids who have joined the family business — Kate Hudson, Oliver Hudson and Wyatt Russell. “What were we gonna say, ‘No, don’t do this’?” Kurt noted with a laugh. “Because they’d say, ‘You guys look like you have a pretty good life.’”
That’s true, but it hasn’t always been easy. “Goldie and I did try to make them understand that you have to do it for the work, because you want to, and not to create great wealth,” explained Kurt. “If you enjoy the work, the process of acting, and you do it for that reason, then you can have a great time. It doesn’t get old. It’s great work, if you can get it.”
The turning point in Kurt’s career came when director John Carpenter cast him in a pair of wildly divergent roles: the King of Rock ’n’ Roll in the 1979 TV movie Elvis and the ex-convict commando Snake Plissken in 1981’s dystopian action flick Escape From New York. “I realized he can do anything,” said Carpenter. “He can play anybody. He’s a mimic, and a genius at it.” Said Kurt, “My career would have been completely different without him.”
What a brilliant career it has been, as Kurt has careened from rom-coms (1987’s Overboard, with Goldie) to ultra-violent Tarantino films like The Hateful Eight. “There aren’t many actors with his longevity — that’s not easy for anybody,” raves Ron Howard, who directed Kurt as a firefighter in 1991’s hit Backdraft. “There aren’t many guys who start as kids and become leading men. Plus, he’s always been a strikingly good-looking guy.”
Even Kurt is amazed at his career longevity. “Actors who have done it a long time — I’m convinced we have some kind of condition,” he cracked. “After a while, you think: Haven’t you done it enough? But there’s something you don’t get anywhere else, that you keep coming back for, that gets you excited about doing it.”
For more on your favorite celebs, pick up the latest issue of Closer Weekly, on newsstands now — and be sure to sign up for our newsletter!