Walt Disney knew a great many people in his life – his family and friends, members of the Walt Disney Studios and Disneyland, Hollywood celebrities and studio executives, and even world leaders. Every once in a while, one of those people to come across Walt’s radar made a distinctly positive impression on him. Acting legend Kurt Russell is one of those people. He only knew Walt for a short while before Walt passed away in 1966, but Russell made an impression that carried him through many successful films and television specials over the course of his six-decade acting career. He’s even the subject of one of Walt’s legendary legacy moments. Let’s dive into the life and career of Kurt Russell, in this edition of Disney Legends Spotlight.
Born With a Love of Baseball and the Screen
Kurt Vogel Russell was born March 17, 1951 in Springfield, Massachusetts. Born of two multi-talented parents, success was in Russell’s blood. His father, Bing Russell, was an actor, but also spent time as a professional ballplayer – a career track Russell would pursue for a period in his own life. Russell’s mother, Louise, was a dancer.
Russell didn’t spend too much time in Massachusetts. While he was still a young child, his family moved to California, and he grew up in Thousand Oaks – a Los Angeles suburb – where he graduated from high school in 1969.
Young Kurt Russell loved the game of baseball. His dad played professionally, and at the age of nine, Russell learned that his sports idols Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris were planning to appear in a movie (1962’s Safe At Home!). With two of his great loves – baseball and movies – combined in one enticing package, Russell auditioned for a part in the film. He didn’t land a role in that film, but Russell did himself even better – getting a small part in the 1963 Elvis Presley film It Happened at the World’s Fair. In fact, Russell’s character got to kick Elvis’ character in his knee. How many people can say they’ve ever done that?!
Russell’s bit part was just the tip of a decades-long iceberg of acting success. Russell followed his uncredited role in the Elvis film with a guest appearance in the ABC series Our Man Higgins. Over the early to mid-1960s, Russell made television appearances in other shows such as The Fugitive, The Virginian, Gunsmoke, Gilligan’s Island, and The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters.
While wading his way through school and making movies, Russell somehow still found time to play the game he loved. He played little league baseball throughout his childhood, and continued on his high school baseball team as a second baseman. Russell continued to play hardball after graduating high school, landing a role as a switch-hitting second baseman for the California Angels minor league affiliate – the Bend Rainbows – in 1971. He played for the Walla Walla Islanders in 1972, and with the Class AA El Paso Sun Kings in 1973.
During his time playing for the Sun Kings, Russell endured a life-defining moment. While turning the pivot of a double play early in the season, the incoming baserunner collided with Russell. The play tore the rotator cuff in Russell’s right (throwing) shoulder, rendering him less effective in the field. Russell hung on to baseball for a bit as a designated hitter for the Portland Mavericks, but he ultimately retired shortly thereafter, choosing to focus on acting.
Russell’s Disney Heyday
In 1966, Russell was cast in his first Disney picture, Follow Me, Boys!, starring fellow Disney Legend Fred MacMurray, where he portrayed a teenager who becomes involved with the Boy Scouts. Walt Disney himself was smitten with Russell’s charm and aptitude, referring to him as “a 15-year-old boy for whom I predict a great acting future.” With that stellar prognosis, Walt signed Russell to a ten-year contract.
The Legend of “Kirt Russell”
As is often the case with Walt, some of the circumstances surrounding his deepest life moments are shrouded in legend. The creation of Mickey Mouse, opening day of Disneyland, and Walt’s mysterious “Florida Project” all have multiple accounts of the stories. Walt’s dying moments have also received a treatment of mythology, revolving around none other than Kurt Russell. Urban legend has often claimed that Walt’s last words, in that Burbank, California hospital bed, were “Kurt Russell.” Truth be told, Walt still had a foot in the future, even in his last moments, as he continued to plot his dreams for EPCOT – his Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.
So where did this legend come from? The truth was found by Disney archivist (and fellow Disney Legend) Dave Smith. The employees of the Walt Disney Studios were shocked with grief over Walt’s passing, his office went untouched for years. But in 1970, Smith was tasked with meticulously cataloging everything in Walt’s office, with the goal of preserving (and eventually re-creating) his revered space.
A piece of paper on Walt’s desk included several names – written by Walt himself – one of which was “Kirt Russell” (slightly misspelled, though the intention was unmistakable). Walt’s nephew Ron Miller and a couple project ideas were also written on the page, which proved to be a listing of television projects planned for production. But that didn’t stop the legend of Kurt Russell from gaining a foothold. And it was an easy rumor to believe, considering how fond Walt was of the rising Hollywood star.
The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band (1968)
Walt’s judgment of talent was usually spot-on, and Kurt Russell was no exception. The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band was Russell’s next Disney film. The production of this comedy musical western (did you even know that was a film genre?) saw Russell meet his future partner Goldie Hawn (though they wouldn’t unite personally until 1983).
Russell rose to superstardom with a trilogy of Disney films based on the character Dexter Reilly – an uber-lucky goofball student at the fictional Medfield College who accidentally finds his way to success…and a double helping of trouble along the way. With The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969), Now You See Him, Now You Don’t (1972), and The Strongest Man in the World (1975), Russell was firmly planted in the consciousness of Disney fans and the overall public audience alike.
The Barefoot Executive (1971)
One of Disney’s many wacky comedies from the 1960s and 1970s centers around a pet chimpanzee, named Raffles, who can predict the popularity of television programs. Russell plays Stephen Post, a studio mail clerk who discovers the prophetic chimp and incorporates him into the studio’s strategy for small screen success.
Russell’s Supporting Disney Roles
Russell played non-starring roles in numerous other Disney films, including The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit (1968), Guns in the Heather (1969), Charley and the Angel (1973), and Superdad (1973).
In 1970, Russell hosted The Wonderful World of Disney episode Disneyland Showtime alongside the Osmond Brothers. The show chronicles the adventures of the hosts as they explore the park (and are almost late for a scheduled show performance). In the show’s spotlight, Russell introduces viewers to a new Disney theme park adventure, the Haunted Mansion.
Off-camera, Russell narrated the 1970 animated short Dad, Can I Borrow the Car?, where a young man humorously traces his involvement with “wheels” from his own birth, through childhood and teenage activities, and on to the wild world of “love.”
In 1981, Russell lent his voice to the big screen when he provided the voice of Copper (as an adult hunting dog), in the animated film The Fox and the Hound.
After a decade-long absence while working on other projects, Kurt Russell returned to the Walt Disney Studios in 1992, and has since added several more big screen successes to his Disney repertoire.
Captain Ron (1992)
Starring as the film’s title character, Russell plays a quirky sailor with a checkered past, hired by a family to sail them through the Caribbean. This is classic Kurt Russell shenanigans.
The following year, Russell portrayed lawman Wyatt Earp in the Hollywood Pictures western drama, chronicling the events of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
Russell’s most sentimental Disney role may be that of Herb Brooks, the coach of the 1980 U.S. men’s olympic hockey team. The film recounts the story of the “miracle on ice”, where the U.S. men defeated the heavily-favored Soviet Union team en route to winning a gold medal.
Sky High (2005)
Kurt starred as the world’s most famous superhero. The film – in which Russell’s Steve Stronghold / “The Commander” is a superhero dad – follows the trials and tribulations of a family filled with superheroes.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
The second of three Marvel Studios films following a motley team of unlikely galactic heroes cast Russell as Ego – a celestial being who manifests as a living planet. Russell reprised his role as Ego in Marvel’s 2021 animated series What If…?.
Fun Fact: Russell auditioned for – but failed to land – two very notable roles in the Star Wars galaxy. He tried out for the role of Han Solo in 1977’s Star Wars (later modified to Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope) – a role which went to Harrison Ford. Over twenty years later, he was considered for the role of Qui-Gon Jinn in 1999’s Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, but lost out to Liam Neeson.
Beyond the Disney Universe
While Kurt Russell made exclusively Disney films throughout the late 1960s and most of the 1970s, he starred in a great many films for other studios outside those years. Let’s look at a few here.
There have been many portrayals of Elvis Presley over the years, but Russell was nominated for an Emmy award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or a Special, for his portrayal of the King of Rock & Roll. Adding a family connection in the television film, Russell’s father Bing played the role of Elvis’ father Vernon Presley.
Escape from New York (1981)
In a dystopian look at crime-filled America, Russell played Snake Plissken – an ex-soldier and current federal prisoner tasked with rescuing the President of the United States. Where exactly is the president being held hostage? The island of Manhattan – the country’s sole maximum security prison. Russell reprised his role in 1996’s Escape from L.A.
The Thing (1982)
This sci-fi horror film stars Russell as R.J. MacReady, helicopter pilot for a team of scientists trapped on Antarctica with a psychologically-frightening extraterrestrial life form.
Russell was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture for his performance as Drew Stephens, boyfriend of nuclear whistleblower Karen Silkwood.
Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
This mid-1980s box office bomb has persisted in the decades following its release. The story sees Russell’s Jack Burton – a cocky, wise-cracking truck driver – get entangled in an ancient battle between Good and Evil in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
Tequila Sunrise (1988)
In this crime drama, Russell plays an ambiguously motivated cop. Russell credits this role with changing the way Hollywood perceived him – giving him credit for the ability to perform serious roles.
Tango & Cash (1989)
This buddy cop film pairs Lieutenant Ray Tango (played by Sylvester Stallone) against Russell’s Lieutenant Gabe Cash, as two Los Angeles cops who work together to catch a criminal mastermind who has framed them both for murder.
This star-studded action thriller follows Kurt Russell as Lieutenant Stephen “Bull” McCaffrey – a Chicago firefighter who works to track down a serial arsonist.
Russell stars in this sci-fi film as Colonel Jack O’Neil, a troubled U.S. Air Force Special Operations officer, who enters the Stargate – a wormhole allowing travel through space.
Forrest Gump (1994)
Fun Fact: Kurt Russell performed an uncredited role of Elvis Presley (speaking voice) for a brief moment in the life of the slow-witted yet dearly charming Forrest Gump. This marks a third Elvis connection for Russell, who “kicked” the King of Rock in a 1963 film, and played the King in a 1979 biopic.
3,000 Miles to Graceland
I included this universally panned film on this list simply because it gives Kurt Russell yet another Elvis connection – this time revolving around a Las Vegas casino heist taking place amidst an Elvis convention.
The Battered Bastards of Baseball (2014)
A passion project for Russell – this documentary film chronicles the Portland Mavericks, a defunct Class-A minor league baseball team in Portland, Oregon owned by Russell’s father Bing Russell.
The Christmas Chronicles (2018) and The Christmas Chronicles 2 (2020)
These two fun, feel good holiday films feature Russell in the role of Santa Claus, offering a modern spin on the yuletide legend and the holiday itself. Russell’s long-time partner Goldie Hawn joined him as Mrs. Claus for the sequel film.
A Legendary Acting Career
Kurt Russell earned his Disney Legend status In 2015. Two years later, he and partner Goldie Hawn received stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. But make no mistake – Kurt Russell isn’t done yet. At 72 years young, this six-decade film and television star is still going strong. Much like Walt Disney himself, Russell still has one foot stepping toward the future.
Thank you friends for joining me to celebrate the larger-than-life Kurt Russell. Did you realize he had so many film hits? And I only mentioned the biggest ones! Offer a comment or share this article with a friend by reaching out on social at:
Follow along here for additional articles in this series. We’ll continue to highlight more of the extraordinary people who have shaped Disney’s storied history.