Escape From New York’s Snake Plissken was Kurt Russell’s breakout role, and he based his performance and mannerisms around Clint Eastwood.
Kurt Russell is essentially playing Clint Eastwood in Escape From New York. After making his name as a young actor with roles in Disney movies like The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, Escape From New York was the film that signaled Russell’s transition to grown-up roles. The actor has since labeled Snake Plissken his most favorite role, not only for how it impacted his career but because it let him explore his darker side as a performer.
Escape From New York reteamed Kurt Russell with John Carpenter, who he worked with on Elvis. Like most of Carpenter’s work, the movie is essentially a Western in disguise. Russell’s Snake Plissken walks into a lawless town – in this case, New York Maximum Security Penitentiary – and delivers his own brand of justice. Carpenter made those ties even clearer with the casting of Spaghetti Western icon Lee Van Cleef as Hawk, the police commissioner who forces Plissken on his rescue mission. Being paired with Clint Eastwood’s old nemesis from The Good, The Bad And The Ugly also inspired Russell’s performance as Snake in one distinct way.
Russell Based Snake Plissken On Clint Eastwood
Recounting his acting choices in the retrospective documentary Return To New York, Russell stated that Van Cleef’s casting inspired him to play Snake like Eastwood. The most obvious mannerism he zeroed in on is Snake’s low, raspy voice, which mimics Eastwood’s typical Man with No Name delivery. While Western heroes were almost always honorable figures in the early days of Westerns, Eastwood’s anti-heroes ushered in a new era. His characters often acted out of self-interest and weren’t afraid to shoot first or betray others in pursuit of their goals.
Snake Plissken is in many ways the logical conclusion of that brand of anti-hero. Escape From New York’s Snake has a sense of honor and of what’s right, but he’s focused on his own survival first and foremost. There is a sense he was once a patriot but became so burned by the state of his country that he turned to the outlaw life, but just the Man with No Name, he’s given little backstory. Carpenter’s sci-fi sequel Escape From L.A. only strengthened his gunslinger ties by giving him two revolvers and a bike – instead of a horse – to ride on.
The Other Actors Approached To Play Snake
Since Russell wasn’t exactly known for action roles before Escape From New York, production comedy Avco Embassy – who also produced Carpenter’s The Fog – wanted a bigger name for Snake. Their first choice was Charles Bronson, whose vigilante thriller Death Wish had partly inspired Carpenter’s first draft of Escape From New York. However, the actor was approaching 60 when the film was nearing production, and Carpenter felt he was too old for the part. He also recalled in book John Carpenter: Prince Of Darkness that “… I was afraid of working with him. He was a big star and I was this little s*** nobody.”
Avco also suggested Tommy Lee Jones for Escape From New York, who had appeared in the Carpenter scripted thriller The Eyes Of Laura Mars – which inspired Malignant – a few years prior. Jones is closer to Russell’s age, but it appears Carpenter vouching for his Elvis leading man is what cinched him the role. While Jones and Carpenter never worked together directly, the former later starred in 1986’s Blood Moon Rising, which was based on a spec script by Carpenter from the late ’70s. Despite starring Jones and Linda Hamilton, the film received mixed reviews and Carpenter has claimed to have never seen the end product.
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