How Kurt Russell made his film debut by kicking Elvis Presley, and later played the King himself

21 February 2024, 12:45

Kurt Russell with and as Elvis
Kurt Russell with and as Elvis. Picture: MGM/Getty

By Tom Eames

Kurt Russell's journey in Hollywood is a remarkable tale of talent, perseverance, and a touch of serendipity.

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One of the most intriguing chapters in his career involves his association with the legendary Elvis Presley, a connection that not only marked his film debut but also led him to portray the iconic musician in a biopic years later.

Russell's foray into the world of cinema began at a young age when he was discovered by a talent agent while working as a child actor in television series such as The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters and Lost in Space.

However, it was his encounter with the King of Rock and Roll that would shape his early career in unforeseen ways.

In 1963, at the tender age of 12, Kurt Russell landed a role in the film It Happened at the World's Fair, starring none other than Elvis Presley himself. Although Russell's part was relatively small, playing a kid who kicks Presley's character in the shin, it marked the beginning of a unique connection between the two.

Kurt Russell makes his movie debut by kicking Elvis Presley

Fast forward to the late 1960s, and Kurt Russell's career was steadily gaining momentum. He appeared in various television shows and films, showcasing his versatility as an actor. However, it was his portrayal of Elvis Presley in the 1979 TV movie Elvis that truly solidified his place in Hollywood history.

Directed by John Carpenter, Elvis offered Russell the opportunity to delve into the complexities of portraying a cultural icon. Despite initial scepticism from some quarters about his ability to capture the essence of Presley, Russell delivered a mesmerizing performance that earned him widespread acclaim.

Kurt Russell Appearing In 'Elvis'
Kurt Russell Appearing In 'Elvis'. Picture: Getty

Russell's portrayal of Presley was nuanced and heartfelt, capturing not only the electrifying stage presence but also the vulnerabilities and insecurities that lurked beneath the surface of the superstar.

His dedication to the role was evident in every scene, from the swaggering charisma to the moments of introspection and self-doubt.

What made Russell's portrayal particularly poignant was the personal connection he shared with Presley. Having crossed paths with him early in his career, Russell had a unique insight into the man behind the legend. This intimate understanding allowed him to breathe life into the character in a way that resonated with audiences worldwide.

Elvis not only showcased Russell's acting prowess but also marked a turning point in his career. It cemented his reputation as a versatile actor capable of easily tackling complex roles. In the years that followed, Russell would go on to star in a diverse range of films, spanning multiple genres and earning him a legion of fans.

Looking back on his experience of playing Elvis Presley, Kurt Russell has often spoken fondly of the role and the impact it had on his career. In interviews, he has reflected on the challenges of embodying such an iconic figure and the satisfaction of rising to the occasion.

Kurt Russell as Elvis | Elvis Movie trailer | Official Teaser Elvis The Movie

"It was my first brush with a real celebrity. I've never seen anything having to do with a real celebrity before," he was quoted as saying. "I didn't really know who Elvis Presley was. I was a 10-year-old kid. I knew Elvis Presley was a name that everybody knew. If I'd seen him, I didn't know it. I wasn't into music and I didn't listen to music that much.

"So the first time he came on the set, a car went on the set, round hundreds of women just broke through there and jumped on his car. We were all staring and I was thinking what's going on there. This guy says 'Well that's Elvis. We won't be able to get him in on this round'.

Kurt Russell as Elvis in Elvis the Movie
Kurt Russell as Elvis in Elvis the Movie. Picture: Getty

"They backed the car up, it was just watching them attack the car. Wow. To a 10-year-old kid it's like 'What are they doing? What are they thinking?' He came out later, through a different way, and he's just this really nice guy. I was just this kid and I asked him 'What's the deal with all those girls jumping on your car?'

"He could see that I was just this innocent kid and responded with 'Ah they get crazy'. I told him 'You should never come in that way again, you know'. So I remember that. I remembered him having his car completely jumped up with girls'."

He later said on The Graham Norton Show: "He was great. He was really a nice man."

It wasn't the only time Kurt Russell had a movie connection with Elvis. He voiced the King in a short scene in Forrest Gump starring Tom Hanks, and later played an Elvis impersonator in the film 3,000 Miles to Graceland opposite Kevin Costner.

Kurt Russell's journey from sharing the screen with Elvis Presley in his film debut to portraying him in a biopic is a testament to his talent and versatility as an actor. His portrayal of Presley remains etched in the annals of cinematic history, a fitting tribute to the enduring legacy of the King of Rock and Roll.