From his turn as antihero Snake Plissken in 1981’s Escape From New York to tough-guy truck driver Jack Burton in 1986's Big Trouble in Little China to Western lawman Wyatt Earp in 1993’s Tombstone, Kurt Russell has endured as one of the more versatile leading men in Hollywood. For more on Russell, including his early athletic ambitions and playing Elvis Presley, keep reading.
1. Kurt Russell originally had his sights set on being a professional baseball player.
On March 17, 1951, Kurt Russell was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, to parents Bing and Louise Russell, but grew up in Thousand Oaks, California. He took heavy inspiration from his father, himself an actor and later owner of a minor league baseball team, the Portland Mavericks. In addition to acting in family films for The Walt Disney Company like 1969’s The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes and 1975’s The Strongest Man in the World, Russell was also pursuing a career in professional baseball. In 1971, he joined the Bend Rainbows and later played for his father’s Mavericks. When a shoulder injury halted his athletic ambitions in 1973, he began focusing on acting full-time.
The news was not broken to him so gently. Remembering the doctor who told him his shoulder would end his baseball career, Russell remembered him asking, “Aren’t you also an actor?” When Russell said he was, the doctor said, “Well, you’re an actor all the time now.”
2. Kurt Russell passed up a chance to be in Star Wars to do a television Western.
When George Lucas was casting Star Wars in 1975, he saw a number of actors, including Russell, who auditioned for both Han Solo and Luke Skywalker. Russell was interested in the film, but later said that he was also being offered a role on a television Western called The Quest around the same time and asked Lucas if he could make a decision about whether he wanted Russell in the movie—and if so, in which part.
“I don’t know which part I prefer you in,” Russell recalled Lucas as saying. “I don’t know if I like you as Han and this guy as Skywalker, or this guy as Han and you as Skywalker. I don’t know.” When Lucas couldn’t give him an answer, Russell opted to do The Quest.
3. Kurt Russell was nominated for an Emmy for playing Elvis Presley.
Following his string of Disney films, Russell began tackling more mature roles, including the title character in the 1979 television miniseries Elvis directed by Halloween filmmaker John Carpenter. Playing Elvis Presley earned Russell an Emmy Award nomination and also marked the beginning of his working relationship with Carpenter, who cast Russell in 1981’s Escape From New York, 1995’s sequel Escape From L.A., and 1982’s The Thing, among others.
The King has followed Russell around, or vice versa. Russell had a small part in an Elvis film while as a child actor, appearing in 1963’s It Happened at the World’s Fair. In 2001, he appeared as a criminal who was also an Elvis impersonator in 3000 Miles to Graceland. Most notably, he agreed to dub over an actor playing Presley in 1994’s Forrest Gump as a favor to Robert Zemeckis, who directed Russell in 1980’s Used Cars.
4. Bull Durham was written for Kurt Russell.
If you’ve ever wondered why a former baseball player like Russell never made a baseball movie, he came close. Writer and director Ron Shelton wrote 1988’s Bull Durham, about an aging slugger named Crash Davis, specifically for Russell. The studio, however, insisted that Shelton cast Kevin Costner instead.
5. Kurt Russell was paid twice his going rate for Stargate because he was considered impossible to dislike.
It’s often been said of Russell that he possesses an inherent likeability. Perhaps audiences won’t like every film he appears in, but they like the actor himself. According to Russell, that was once backed by research. Recalling that the producers of 1994’s science-fiction movie Stargate offered him twice his going rate to secure his services, he cited audience satisfaction as the reason why. “They said, ‘Oh, well, we ran a questionnaire around the world,’” Russell told GQ in 2016. “They wanted to rate actors on their unlikeability. They wanted to find someone who was likeable because the part, as written, was not. And they said, ‘You know the only star out there who has zero unlikeability?’ ‘Kurt Russell.’ Zero unlikeability!” Russell added that the research was done a long time ago and “that number may have changed significantly.”
6. Kurt Russell may have stealth-directed Tombstone.
In 1993’s Tombstone, Russell plays a world-weary Wyatt Earp attempting to bring order to the lawless town of Tombstone. Directed by George P. Cosmatos, the film has become a classic of the Western genre. According to an interview with Russell in True West magazine in 2006, it was he, not Cosmatos, who did most of the heavy lifting behind the scenes. After screenwriter Kevin Jarre was let go from directing, producers asked Russell if he wanted to direct it. He did, but he didn’t want to put his name on it. Instead, he said, he gave Cosmatos a shot list every night for the following day’s shooting, an arrangement that Cosmatos agreed to and apparently had with Sylvester Stallone on 1985’s Rambo: First Blood Part II.
Russell later criticized the True West interview, saying that he preferred not to discuss what went on with Tombstone in a public forum. “I told [George] that if the studio heads talked to me and the producers talked to me about what took place on Tombstone in terms of George’s involvement, in confidence I would tell them the private and real truth,” he told The San Diego Reader in 2016. “Publicly, I have no interest in tainting anything about Tombstone. The credits are what the credits are, and I will leave it at that.”
7. Kurt Russell once reported a UFO sighting while flying an airplane.
Russell is an aviation buff who has his pilot’s license. While flying his plane with Oliver Hudson (Goldie Hawn's son, who Russell raised and considers his own son) in 1997, he reported a strange event. “I was flying Oliver to go see his girlfriend, and we were on approach,” Russell told the BBC. “I saw six lights over the airport in absolute uniform in a V shape. Oliver said to me—I was just looking at him, I was coming in, we’re maybe a half-mile out—and Oliver said, ‘Pa, what are those lights?’ Then I kind of came out of my reverie and I said, ‘I don’t know what they are. He said, ‘Are we OK here?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna call in,’ and I reported it.” The lights soon became known as the Phoenix Lights, which were witnessed by several people. Russell didn’t make his sighting public until 2017.
8. Kurt Russell is not crazy about an Escape From New York remake.
Talks have been ongoing for a remake of Escape From New York, the 1981 film that put Russell on the map as a viable action hero. Speaking to Entertainment Weekly in 2017, Russell was asked how he felt about someone else playing Snake Plissken. “I didn’t play Snake Plissken,” Russell said. “I created him!” Asked if he would do a cameo or play a supporting role, he was more succinct. “F**k that! I am Snake Plissken!”