Making a list of “essential” Kurt Russell performances that doesn’t just list every movie he’s been in feels a little bit like an exercise in futility. Russell, who was born on March 17, began acting in 1963 at age 12, and hasn’t stopped since, working in every genre and taking on any kind of role imaginable. All of which is to say that we understand that everyone has their favorites -- so as we commemorate his 68th birthday, please try not to get too upset at our choices (we promise, we really love "The Thing," we just didn't have room here for it) as we chronicle his remarkable growth and versatility through a collection of films that challenged both his expectations and our own.
'Used Cars' (1980)
Kurt Russell had long since graduated from Disney films and episodic television by the time he took a role in Robert Zemeckis’ sophomore directorial effort, a pitch black comedy where he plays a calculating used-car salesman trying to launch his campaign for state Senate.
'Escape From New York' (1981)
After working with writer-director John Carpenter on the 1979 TV movie “Elvis,” they became an iconic creative duo thanks to this thriller about a gruff ex-soldier named Snake Plissken who’s sent into a futuristic New York to rescue the President of the United States. Several more films would follow, including at least one that shows up on our list.
'Big Trouble In Little China' (1986)
Carpenter’s versatility in 1980s genre films was virtually unrivaled, and he made sure to bring Russell along for the wild ride, this time casting him as a hilariously overconfident truck driver who literally spends most of the climax of his own film lying unconscious on the ground while much more capable fighters save the day.
This Garry Marshall film marked Russell’s second collaboration with his longtime romantic partner Goldie Hawn, who plays an heiress with amnesia who unwittingly falls for the carpenter (Russell) that she previously mistreated.
Ron Howard cast Russell opposite William Baldwin as the older of two brothers raised in a family of firefighters. Russell’s broken, resilient, resolute Stephen McCaffrey remains one of his most powerful and nuanced performances, and demonstrated that he could shift easily from one character to the next without worrying about typecasting.
When two films about Wyatt Earp raced into production against each other. George P. Cosmatos’ version arrived in theaters first, not just with an A-list ensemble cast but a decidedly more fun approach to examining the life and times of one of the Wild West’s great lawmen, played beautifully from behind a bushy mustache by Russell, of course.
Roland Emmerich was in his ascendance as a director when he cast the stalwart screen presence Russell as Colonel Jack O’Neil, a soldier sent to protect and observe a goofy scientist (James Spader, cast wonderfully against type) as they unlock and explore a wormhole in the universe. Russell brings so much of his trademark authority to the role but also taps beautifully into the sense of loss and regret that his character carries with him.
Gavin O’Connor not only made one of the greatest sports films of all time with his account of the 1980 US hockey team, but coached Russell to one of his best ever performances as Herb Brooks, the taciturn and mysterious coach who helped a group of untested young men become champions.
Death Proof (2007)
It’s easy to think of Russell’s casting in Quentin Tarantino’s grindhouse homage as a tribute to Russell’s body of work with John Carpenter, but Tarantino gave him the role of a lifetime, playing a murderous stuntman who encounters more than he bargains for after attacking a group of young women. Russell gets to play menacing, goofy, sexy, pathetic and vulnerable, sometimes in the same scene, and he is absolutely electric.
The Hateful Eight (2015)
Tarantino reconnected with Russell almost ten years later to have him play John “The Hangman” Ruth, a gregarious but principled lawman who finds himself trapped in a cabin the middle of winter with a group of mysterious and potentially dangerous individuals who may or may not be in cahoots with his foul-mouthed prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh).
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
With almost 55 years of experience on screen and so many iconic performances under his belt, Russell takes on a character that he’d earned the right to play -- a planet named Ego, who happens to be the father of the decidedly egocentric Star Lord (Chris Pratt) -- in this blockbuster sequel to Marvel’s first full-fledged foray into science fiction. He somehow manages to combine elements of so many of his earlier performance -- paternal love, oblivious confidence, some hidden, unforgivable secrets -- making his supporting turn significant in more ways that one, keeping the film’s story, and its emotional substance, afloat.