A few weeks ago, as I was singing the praises of the 2015 Kurt Russell vehicle Bone Tomahawk to anyone who would listen, I learned that Richard Jenkins had declared Russell to be “the greatest beard actor ever.” And while Jenkins may have meant it as an offhanded joke in the middle of a press junket, I’ve done the math. Jenkins is right.
Films have featured great performances, and films have featured great beards, but if you drew a Venn diagram of the two, the “great bearded performances in film history” results would be heavily tipped in Kurt Russell’s favor. What’s more, Russell’s onscreen facial hair has been so good, for so long, that we can actually use it to chart his progress as an actor. There may be great Kurt Russell roles that don’t appear on this list, but the following films – from Carpenter to Tarantino – represent the most important work of his career.
Here are Kurt Russell’s great bearded roles, named and ranked by the power of his facial hair.
5. “THE 2-3 DAY GROWTH”
Snake Plissken (Escape from New York, Escape from L.A.)
Spend enough time listening to Russell describe his early days in Hollywood and it’s easy to see how close he came to losing his career altogether. Russell never seriously considered acting long-term while a child actor at Disney; even as a kid, Russell was pragmatic toward his trade, recognizing that he could earn more money doing television shows than he could in any number of part-time jobs. It was only after a shoulder injury halted his promising baseball career that Russell began to think about his potential as an actor – and years still before he viewed acting as something he could find personally fulfilling. While shooting an Elvis Presley biopic for ABC, Russell met director John Carpenter and the two discovered a shared rebellious streak that would inspire their work in the decades to come.
Arguably the duo’s most famous film, Escape from New York, is the tale of a futuristic New York that has become a rundown penal colony for the worst criminals America has to offer. It is also a love letter from Russell and Carpenter to the violent Westerns and scowling antiheroes who were popular in the 1960s and ‘70s. Russell’s Plissken was compared to Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name upon its release. From the hoarse whisper that Russell affected to his shared scenes with veteran Western actor Lee Van Cleef, Plissken seemed to be stepping directly out of a spaghetti Western and into the nightmare future that Carpenter had dreamed up.
To play the character of Snake Plissken, a one-eyed war hero turned traitor who is blackmailed into going on a suicide mission, Russell was more than happy to shed his all-American looks. This meant disguising his square jaw and blue eyes – recognizable to anyone who had seen one of his many teenage appearances as a Disney boy genius – behind shaggy hair and a week-old beard. It may not have been much compared to his later beards, but it established Russell as an actor unafraid to take chances with his appearance and betrayed his preference for being a character actor whenever possible.
4. “THE CIVIL WAR GENERAL”
Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Bone Tomahawk)
While Russell’s status as a horror icon will never be in doubt, by the 2000s it may have seemed that his days of challenging the boundaries of taste were over. Even his delightful turn as Stuntman Mike in Quentin Tarantino’s 2007 film Death Proof felt like another case of the director lending his edge to a faded star, not the other way around. And this assumption would have lasted perhaps 90 minutes into this year’s release of Bone Tomahawk, a horror-Western in the vein of The Searchers that features some of the most shocking and gore in recent memory. Just when we thought we had him figured out, Russell shows that he is big. It’s the rubber body molds that got small.
While Bone Tomahawk may bear little resemblance to the big-budget largesse of Tombstone, the two Westerns do share one common factor: Russell’s willingness to step back and let his costars shine. Few men in Hollywood can match Russell’s status as a leading man while simultaneously making space for his supporting cast to upstage him at every turn. Russell’s Wyatt Earp is believable as a conflicted hero, but it is the performance of Val Kilmer as effete gunslinger Doc Holliday – and his complicated relationship with the lawman – that makes the film great. Similarly, Russell spends Bone Tomahawk playing the straight man to Richard Jenkins’s Deputy Chicory, often appearing as delighted as the audience to enjoy such a great performance up close. While we (rightfully) praise actors like Tom Cruise and Leonardo DiCaprio for their magnetic personalities, there is democracy to Russell’s films that flows directly from their leading man.
Bone Tomahawk also marked the second time that Russell spread his facial hair growth across two separate films. Just as the week-old stubble of Snake Plissken in Escape from New York would eventually become the untamed wilderness of R.J. MacReady in The Thing, so too did the majestic beard of Bone Tomahawk become the I-don’t-know-what seen in the trailer of Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming The Hateful Eight. Russell has described his facial hair in Bone Tomahawk in interviews as a “halfway house” to Tarantino’s movie, which cost it a spot or two on the overall rankings, but make no mistake: it is the horror-Western hybridity of Bone Tomahawk, not the largely anticipated ensemble of The Hateful Eight, which proves the actor isn’t all beard, no bite.
3. “THE WALRUS”
Wyatt Earp (Tombstone)
Do a search for the character Wyatt Earp on IMDb and you will find more than 50 appearances in film and television, ranging from Randolph Scott’s performance in 1939’s Frontier Marshal to Blake Shelton’s (!?!) role in 2015’s The Ridiculous 6. Wyatt Earp and his infamous shootout isn’t exactly new territory for Hollywood – as we all know, even Tombstone was released only months before another blockbuster biopic starring Kevin Costner – but it did present Kurt Russell with the rare opportunity to play a historical character he both admired and resembled. “I grew a great huge handlebar mustache,” Russell told newspapers in 1993, “and I stood next to a picture of the real Wyatt Earp and we looked so much alike you couldn’t tell the difference.”
While many of the earlier films portrayed Wyatt Earp as someone who brought civilization to the wilderness, Tombstone paints a more complicated picture of the man. Russell’s Earp has retired from his civic duty and wants no more than to own a few parcels of land and get rich running a casino. He’s happily married, but not so happily married that he won’t be overly friendly with a visiting actress. As an actor, Russell does his best to place Earp within a historical context, making for a biopic in the more traditional sense. As the alleged director, though —- Russell claims to have handpicked George P. Cosmatos for his previous willingness to let Sylvester Stallone ghost-direct Rambo: First Blood Part II – Russell can’t help but let a few moments of extreme violence and style slip through.
Perhaps the film’s most charming bit of costuming is the way in which each actor’s facial hair stands in for their personality. Sam Elliott’s Virgil Earp is a lawman like his brother, but a lifetime of violence has left its mark in course hairs and patches of white. Val Kilmer’s pencil-thin mustache, by contrast, suggests a more refined upbringing than his compatriots but is also prone to lying limply on his face when Holliday’s fever is upon him. Michael Biehn’s mustache completely covers his top lip, turning everything that Johnny Ringo says into a sneer. Bill Paxton’s mustache is both thick and ill-maintained, hinting at his inexperience relative to his brothers. You could edit out each actor and leave only their mustache behind and audiences would likely anthropomorphize the facial hair the way the filmmakers intended. And at the center of it all would be Russell’s handlebar: bold and emphatic without being flashy, much like the lawman himself.
2. “THE SURVIVALIST”
R.J. MacReady (The Thing)
A year after Russell and Carpenter finished shooting Escape from New York, the pair once again came together for an adaptation of the John W. Campbell classic, Who Goes There? In their version of The Thing, which shares part of its title with the 1951 Howard Hawks adaptation but draws heavily on the early AIDS crisis, Russell plays R.J. MacReady, a helicopter pilot and Vietnam veteran stationed at a remote Antarctic research facility. When a shape-shifting alien infiltrates their group and threatens mankind, MacReady steps up to lead the survivors and flush out the invader. The Thing shocked contemporary audiences with its inventive creature design and visual effects and has endured as a Cold War classic built on paranoia and dread.
MacReady may be the film’s hero by virtue of his competence, but the role also continued Russell’s streak of subverting his own leading-man persona with Carpenter as his gleeful partner in crime. Excluding their made-for-TV Elvis Presley biopic, the characters that Russell and Carpenter created did not easily fit within Russell’s reputation as an up-and-coming Hollywood star. In rapid succession, Russell played a selfish killer (Plissken), a misanthrope (MacReady) and a buffoon (the clean-shaven Jack Burton of Big Trouble in Little China), allowing audiences to see the twisted character actor who lay underneath the actor’s Disney good looks. The Thing works as a horror film specifically because each character exists simultaneously as a survivor and the monster in disguise; it is Russell’s ability to be both hero and villain that moves the paranoia forward.
Much of MacReady’s personality is captured in Russell’s enormous beard. Beards were a common feature among Vietnam veterans who returned from service and struggled to integrate into the young counterculture. It may have fit the character, but growing it was no easy task: on the shared commentary track for the DVD release of The Thing, Russell admits that the beard took him almost a full year to grow. Russell’s shaggy look has even inspired its own imitators in Hollywood. During a 2012 interview for his political thriller Argo, Ben Affleck told newspapers that Escape from New York and The Thing became the template for Affleck’s Tony Mendez. “[H]e had that kind of shaggy mane, and I thought, this looks like a real dude from this time and I’m just going to go with it.” That’s two great beards for the price of one!
1. “THE KURT RUSSELL”
John Ruth (The Hateful Eight)
If John Carpenter helped redefine Russell’s relevance as a leading man, then it seems only fitting that it is Quentin Tarantino – a longtime admirer of Carpenter’s films and another pioneering genre director – who will help reintroduce Kurt Russell to audiences as an elder statesman of the trade. At the age of 64, Kurt Russell would be eligible to retire from most industries in only a year’s time; as an actor, though, Russell is entering a second phase of his career reserved for venerated actors whose new projects are in conversation with their body of work as a whole. Filmmakers who cut their teeth on Russell’s early films will now cast him based on both talent and precedent.
And one such film might be Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. While a screenplay for the film made the rounds early last year, most people remain happily ignorant of the film’s supposed twists and turns. The trailer, with its claustrophobic setting, paranoia and Morricone score, has already suggested a proper bookend to the similarly themed The Thing. Absent any real insight into the movie, though, one of the biggest selling points has been Kurt Russell’s history of incredible beards. The trailers show that Russell has both grown his mustache past the point of no return and teased it out even further; in a recent interview on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, the host referred to this look as giving Dr. Seuss’s Lorax character a run for his money. It’s the kind of beard that defies any easy categorization; if there were any justice in the world, this type of beard would be named after the actor himself.
Perhaps as a result of how long their relationship has lasted in the public spotlight, interviewers also seem to have no qualms asking Russell or his partner, Goldie Hawn, about how his facial hair is being received at home. This is not a new question for Russell; in 1993, the actor admitted that his mustache for Tombstone had made Hawn declare him unfit for kissing. Two decades later, Russell is again forced to admit that his partner hates his facial hair. Could Russell sneak in one more Western before he shaves his beard and starts over? Would audiences be willing to place extra strain on a longtime Hollywood romance if it meant squeaking out more great bearded performance by Kurt Russell? Do we even need to ask?