Kurt Russell and writer/director John Carpenter’s Snake Plissken was as intriguing as he was terrifying. A man who had no time for anything except completing the mission laid at his feet, Snake took down whatever authority figure or gang member who dared to stand in his way. He first took down Gotham in 1981’s Escape from New York, gliding into a version of Manhattan that had been isolated from the mainland and turned into a prison colony. His mission? Save the President of the United States (whose escape pod had landed in the city after terrorists had taken Air Force One). Plissken was called upon again in 1996 to rescue a different President’s rebellious daughter from a similarly isolated Los Angeles. Though the plot echoed the original in a few spots, the box office and critical acclaim did not despite another rock solid performance by Russell.
There has been talk about an Escape from New York reboot for years now, and while that may or may not happen, Kurt Russell’s take on the character will be nearly impossible to top, specifically in the minds of fans who have accepted Snake as iconic. In the spirit of the film’s 35th anniversary, here are some facts you may not know about the creation of Snake Plissken and the effort to bring him to life on the big screen for his escape from the big apple.
Kurt Russell scared people while in “Snake mode”
It’s obvious before he even opens his mouth that Snake is an intimating character. The eyepatch, the clothes, the look on his face that says “I could kill you without giving it a second thought,” it all adds up to one incredibly mean-looking dude. Russell spoke out on how he found out just how bad his character really was during a Q&A at EW’s Capetown Film Festival in 2013, relaying a story about a stroll he took through the streets of St. Louis while on location.
“One night I had to go down about three blocks, and we didn’t have anybody to go down there with me, so I just geared up with all my guns and everything – Snake’s coming in to wreak some havoc – and I came around the corner and there are these four guys there. We’re around the corner now, and none of my guys can see me. I just looked at these guys and they looked at me. And this is how different this was at that time: when you saw that guy, with a serious machine gun and a knife and a bunch of stuff you didn’t know what it was, even. I just flashed the light a little bit on the gun, and these guys looked at me, and they were pretty rough characters, and they just went, ‘Hey man, easy, easy.’ And they turned and walked away. I couldn’t wait to get back and tell John, ‘I think this guy’s going to work!’
Snake Plissken was a real guy
Well, sorta. There wasn’t actually a gun-toting dude who had to break out of a super prison on Manhattan island, but John Carpenter did know a Snake. When writing the script, Carpenter was having a tough time coming up with a name that would capture his character’s true nastiness, but he happened to have a friend of a friend who knew somebody named Snake Plissken. Carpenter said it wasn’t just the name that he used for inspiration, but the real Snake’s ink, as well.
“When I was writing he script I had to come up with a name for my main character and I had a friend who knew a guy in Cleveland named Snake Plissken. He had a snake tattooed on him and he could make that snake move. He was kind of a high school tough guy and had some ridiculous qualities to him, and it just seemed like, that’s my hero. That’s my kinda guy.”
We have Kurt Russell to thank for the eyepatch
Snake without an eyepatch would be like a unicorn without its horn, a hot dog without a bun, a Trump rally without a protest — some things just go together. Snake’s trademark eyepatch wasn’t actually part of John Carpenter’s original vision for Snake. That incredible addition was all Kurt Russell, who came up with the idea after being inspired by John Wayne’s eyepatch wearing tough guy, Rooster Cogburn in True Grit.
“I said to John, ‘I think it’d be cool to wear an eyepatch.’ I think a lot of guys would have gone, ‘Well, I don’t know…’ but John immediately went, ‘That’s great! I don’t think anybody’s worn an eyepatch since John Wayne in True Grit!’”
Not many actors have worn an eyepatch since Escape from New York, either, and there’s certainly nobody out there who’s rocked it better than Snake. Sorry, Sam Jackson.
Russell took a beating during his gladiator fight scene
Russell was already an acting vet by the time he began shooting Escape from New York, so throwing a fake punch was no big deal. His opponent, pro-wrestler Ox Baker, didn’t have as much practice, though, and laid into Russell a little too much during the fight scene. Carpenter recalled having to tell Baker to lay off because he was hitting with way too much force, saying, “If you look at the film, you’ll see a couple of shots in there where Kurt is fighting for his life.”
Russell eventually got the message across to Baker in a not so subtle, but effective way. According to Carpenter, Russell walked over to the wrestler during a break and gave him a light tap in the groin, telling him “you gotta ease up.” From then on, they didn’t have any issues.
Russell wasn’t the only actor considered for the role
While it might be impossible to think of the Escape movies without Russell, he wasn’t the only actor up for the role. Carpenter felt that Russell was “the only man for the job,” but the studio wasn’t sure and wanted to look at other actors. Tommy Lee Jones, Chuck Norris, and Charles Bronson were all candidates for the part early on in the casting process. What eventually won the studio over was Carpenter’s relationship with Russell from their work together on the Elvis biopic.
During the Capetown festival, Russell commented on how Carpenter fought for his role in the movie and the desire he had to take it on.
“So I read it, and I said, ‘This is exactly what I want to do. It’s something that I know I can do that I know nobody is going to think of me for except for you, John.’ They wanted Charlie Bronson to do it, and John fought for me. A couple of times in my life, I’ve gotten to read something – Tombstone was like that – and I just said, ‘I’d love to do this.’”
Remember, we instantly think of Escape from New York, The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China, and Tango and Cash when we think of Russell, but in 1980, he was a guy who had done a lot of TV work (including the high-profile Elvis bio-pic), some Disney films, and starred in Used Cars. Seeing him as Snake was a career-altering revelation for Hollywood.
Snake’s bank robbery scene was cut
Snake certainly seems like the type of guy who would take up bank robbing, and Carpenter and Russell shot a scene for the film’s opening that had him doing just that. Audiences during test screenings found the scene confusing, though, and it was eventually left on the editing room floor. On the film’s DVD commentary, Carpenter would admit that the scene would have bogged down the film and given a little too much of Snake’s mysterious backstory to the audience.
Snake almost escaped from Earth
Due to the curse of time, we’re almost certainly never going to see Russell play Snake ever again (though, one never knows with the trend of other notable actors returning to play older versions of popular characters), but there was once a time years ago when a third Escape film wasn’t such an unrealistic possibility. While talking at the Capetown Film Festival, Russell entertained the ridiculous idea they once had for Snake’s next escape, saying, “The only other one we wanted to do, both John and I thought Escape from Earth for Snake.”
With Lockout, filmmaker Luc Besson trotted out his own escape from a prison in space film in 2012, much to the displeasure of Carpenter (who sued), but there’s only one Snake, so surely we can all unite in an effort to send Kurt Russell into space, can’t we?