Dec 23, 2012

Kurt Russell

Few actors make the difficult transition from child star to teen idol, and fewer still survive as adults in show biz.  Kurt Russell did it, but he lost something along the way.

Born in 1951, Kurt first became a star on The Travels of Jaimie McPherson (1963-64) , about a boy traveling through the Old West who bonds with a gruff wagon train operator (Charles Bronson).

Later in the 1960s, he became a familiar sight on tv, often playing oddball outsiders -- a jungle boy on Gilligan's Island (1965), an alien warrior who bonds with Will Robinson on Lost in Space (1966), an Indian boy who bonds with William Smith on Laredo (1966).  His physique became a familiar sight, too, as many gay preteens of the era could attest.

As a teenager, Kurt's impish smile and slightly confused expression made him unsuitable for Disney Adventure.  He made only one Adventure Boy movie, The Secret of Boyne Castle (1968) -- as American exchange student Rich who fights spies in rural Ireland, along with his boyfriend -- but unlike other Adventure Boys like James MacArthur and Peter McEnery, he never dropped a button.  He had many more shirtless, underwear, and semi-nude shots as a boy than as a teen.

After that, he concentrated in comedy, taking over the oddball genius roles left behind by the fired Tommy Kirk -- The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969), The Barefoot Executive (1971), Now You See Him, Now You Don't (1972), The Strongest Man in the World (1975). With one major exception -- Tommy Kirk wasn't very good at displaying believable heterosexual interest, but Kurt's comedy characters were indefatigably girl-crazy.

As a young adult in the 1970s, Kurt moved into serious dramatic roles, playing Charles Whitman, the University of Texas sniper, in The Deadly Tower (1975), and Morgan Beaudine, who travels through the Old West bonding with his estranged brother Quentin (Tim Matheson) in The Quest (1976).

And from serious dramatic roles to gnarled, surly Snake Plissken, who negotiates Manhattan as a maximum security prison in Escape from New York (1981); R. J. Macready, who fights a monster escaping from the Antartic ice in The Thing (1982); Reno Hightower, who longs to regain his former football glory in The Best of Times (1986).

His list of memorable buddy-bonding roles is practically endless: Detective Cash, who gets naked in the shower with Sylvester Stallone's Tango in Tango and Cash (1989); firefighter Bull McCaffrey, who rescues his brother Brian (William Baldwin) in Backdraft (1991); Michael Zane, who tracks down his former partner during an Elvis convention in 3000 Miles to Graceland (2001).

But subtexts only work if the actors are utterly unaware of the homoerotic potential of their on-screen friendship, or are completely aware and ok with it.  The adult Kurt Russell is aware, but not ok with it; he uses homoerotic potential as a source of squeamish laughter or disquieting menace.