The Gritty '70s Charles Bronson Performance That Inspired John Carpenter's Escape From New York

Chuck Norris may have countless memes dedicated to his toughness and manliness, but fellow action star Charles Bronson was the real deal. Not only was he just as tough in real life as the characters he played on screen, he was also such a double-hard bastard that "Britain's most notorious prisoner" also changed his name to Charles Bronson to make himself sound even tougher.

A man of deliberately few words, the original Charles Bronson was solitary, watchful, and cultivated his roughneck reputation, telling interviewers about his fistfights, arrests, and hobby of knife-throwing. Although it wasn't clear how much of it was fiction, Roger Ebert once said that Bronson was an actor who radiated a genuine sense of menace. His tough attitude came from an extremely hard upbringing, growing up dirt poor in a mining town. He worked down in the mines from an early age, and was paid a dollar for every ton of coal he hacked out of the rock. He later said he was delighted when he received the draft in World War II because it was the first time in his life he got three meals a day and clean clothes.

Bronson's career started in the early '50s before he landed high-profile roles in the likes of "The Great Escape" and "The Dirty Dozen, and became very popular in Europe after the success of "Once Upon a Time in the West." Largely, he became typecast thanks to his grizzled features and taciturn demeanor: He played ex-cons, gangsters, hitmen, gritty detectives, and other tough guy roles, even into his 70s.

One of his most famous action roles provided the inspiration for John Carpenter's "Escape From New York," although the character's job fell outside the usual remit of Charles Bronson characters: An architect, albeit a very deadly one.

How Charles Bronson inspired Escape from New York

In the distant future of 1997, Manhattan has been turned into a maximum security prison where a sentence is a one-way ticket. It's absolutely the worst place for Air Force One to crash as the President travels to a crucial summit meeting to quell the threat of nuclear conflict. Former war hero turned bank robber Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is tasked with the rescue, with a micro-bomb implanted in his neck that will detonate in 24 hours if he doesn't return.

"Escape From New York" was released in 1981, but John Carpenter originally had the idea five years earlier when the United States was still mired in cynicism after the Watergate scandal. That was when he saw "Death Wish," starring Charles Bronson as Paul Kersey, an architect who becomes a vigilante after his wife and daughter are viciously attacked. The film struck a chord with Carpenter, although he didn't agree with its politics; while it was a hit, "Death Wish" was deplored for advocating vigilantism. He was also inspired by a Harry Harrison story (via It Came From...):

"There was this planet, the toughest, most evil place in the universe. So who're you going to choose to go in there and do something with some mission? The most evil guy in the universe. That idea stuck with me, and I thought of writing this kind of dystopian future story about New York as a prison and a guy has to go in to rescue the president."

Carpenter thought about Bronson playing the part, but no one wanted to make the movie at that stage of the director's career. His later success with "Halloween" and "The Fog" got the project over the hump, by which stage he cast a younger actor with a very different background to Bronson's.

The Disney kid who became Snake Plissken

Compared to Charles Bronson's bleak upbringing, Kurt Russell had a pretty normal suburban childhood growing up in California, where he played Little League, became a child actor, and once got to hang out with the Beach Boys. He signed a 10-year contract with The Walt Disney Company in 1966, starring in family fare like "The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes" and "Barefoot in the Park."

Due to the lightweight nature of Russell's early career, AVCO Embassy Pictures, the production company for "Escape From New York," expressed serious doubts about whether a fresh-faced Disney actor was right for the part of badass Snake Plissken. They wanted Bronson or Tommy Lee Jones, but Carpenter, who worked with Russell previously on "Elvis," had full faith in the actor's ability to pull off the tough guy role (via It Came From...):

"We had discussions about it. They were uncertain about Kurt as a hero. They said, 'Well, he's just this Disney kid.' I said, 'No, no, no. He can play this. He can play anything. Believe me, he can play anything. He played Elvis, he can play Snake Plissken.' So they relented."

Carpenter's instincts were spot on, and "Escape From New York" became the first of three classic collaborations between Carpenter and Russell, followed by "The Thing" and "Big Trouble in Little China." Although Russell occasionally leans into the Clint Eastwood drawl a bit too much, Snake Plissken is one of the most memorable anti-heroes in sci-fi, with an unforgettable look. Who else could pull off that combo of camouflage pants, sleeveless vest, vintage biker jacket, and eye patch other than Russell? Bronson may have inspired the character, but Russell made Plissken one of his signature roles.