As a 10-year-old, Kurt Russell acted with Elvis Presley in It Happened at the World's Fair. When Russell played Presley in a TV movie 19 years later, he did the best impersonation he could.
Russell was not about to add any artistic flourishes to Olympic hockey coach Herb Brooks, either. He studied Brooks in meetings and on tape to nail his persona for Miracle, opening tomorrow.
"I detest when I watch a movie and someone is portrayed in a fashion that is just some writer's fantasy," Russell says. "It's rewriting history."
Little did Russell know that his work might be all the public remembers of Brooks, who guided scrappy U.S. collegians to victory over the Goliath Soviet Union at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y. The Americans then beat Finland for the gold medal.
Brooks died at 66 when his minivan veered off a road near Minneapolis last Aug. 11, after the movie was shot. Russell got the news as he happened to be flying his plane near the crash site. The responsibility of his performance bore down on him.
"I better have gotten it right," Russell says. Russell, the star of Escape From New York and Tango and Cash, had been downshifting his career - for hockey, no less. He and his longtime love, Goldie Hawn, had moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, so their son, Wyatt, an aspiring goalkeeper, could get the best training.
At first, the couple created what Russell called a circus atmosphere wherever they went, including the rinks where Wyatt played. But that settled down in five or six months.
When approached with the Miracle role, Russell told producers he wouldn't miss his son's games. He scouted locations with director Gavin O'Connor, and all parties agreed that Vancouver could stand in just fine.
In the meantime, Russell's hockey consciousness had expanded, allowing him easier access to Brooks' world.
Like Brooks, who had been cut from the 1960 U.S. team as a player a week before it won the gold medal, Russell had his share of athletic disappointment. After 10 years as a Disney-contracted child star, Russell played minor-league baseball in the Angels system and tore up his shoulder. He insists he is not investing his own dreams in his son, now 17.
"I discovered that I would have been a bad baseball father," he says. "I'm a very good hockey father because I don't know the game."
Russell, 53, comes from a family of jocks. His dad, Bing Russell, played pro ball before becoming an actor, playing the deputy sheriff on Bonanza. His nephew, Matt Franco, has been a major leaguer for eight years. Russell says he warned his son of the limitations of professional sports.
Brooks had modest success as a professional, winning more than he lost as a National Hockey League coach with four teams. But with amateurs, he won three national championships at the University of Minnesota and then used tough love to unify an Olympics team of bickering young men.
"He was not a humorous man, but he had a great sense of humor," Russell says. "He sort of, to me, had a perennial love of life on his face.
"He was a hockey geek, a hockey genius."
How close did Russell get in capturing Brooks?
"He was perfect," says Buzz Schneider, a member of the '80 team. "Same actions, same mannerisms. You could tell he studied him a lot."
Russell has no other acting work planned.
His previous role was as a cop in the critically praised but publicly ignored corruption drama Dark Blue (2002). Russell blames the late February/early March release for its fate, saying a November release might have perpetuated Oscar buzz for him and the film.
"All my life, I seem to have strange karma with that kind of thing," he says.
The latest production in his life is Hawn's new grandson, born to daughter Kate Hudson (from Hawn's marriage to Bill Hudson) and her rocker husband Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes. The boy's name is Ryder Russell Robinson.
"I'm more than flattered," Russell says of the middle name. "What it meant to Kate, it meant as much to me."
Now if only Russell could blast a puck into rumors that his decades-long relationship with Hawn has foundered.
"I don't know where those papers would be without rumors," he says. "Goldie and I have lived our lives as we have always lived it. We're very happy together. We really get along. We're very much in love."
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