How Kurt Russell Wound Up Facing Off With A Real Wrestler In Escape From New York

The premise of John Carpenter's 1981 science fiction film "Escape from New York" is the stuff of drive-in dreams. In the near future of 1997, crime will skyrocket and New York City will become so overrun with lawlessness that the government will simply wall off the entire island of Manhattan and turn it into a massive, no-rules penitentiary. When Air Force One is shot down by political dissidents (!), the President evacuates in an escape pod that lands right in the middle of New York Prison. In order to rescue him, the government (represented by Lee Van Cleef) hires a grizzled, indifferent badass named Snake (Kurt Russell) to infiltrate the prison, find the President (Donald Pleasance), and ... escape from New York. It's B-movie gold.

While traversing the ruined streets of a futuristic New York, Snake invariably runs afoul of the gangs and warlords who have risen to power on the inside. He eventually has to contend with the Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes) and his cronies. About halfway through the film, Snake is even forced to fight in a wrestling ring against the Duke's personal gladiator, a massive brute named Slag (Ox Baker). The much smaller Snake has only a club and a trash can lid to protect himself.

Before "Escape from New York" Baker was a professional wrestler who wrestled for the World Wide Wrestling Federation. He had also appeared in the Jackie Chan film "The Big Brawl" in 1980. Because his combat experience was largely with other wrestlers, Baker had trouble pulling his punches with Russell and with Russell's stunt double on the set of Carpenter's film. Russell, taking to Collider in 2013, recalled working with Baker and what he did to "get back" at the wrestler for his roughhousing.

Russell versus the amazing Ox Baker

According to Collider, Russell's stunt double, Dick Warlock (who played Michael Myers in "Halloween II") bore the brunt of Baker's beating, and his face was left so bruised that John Carpenter couldn't use him any longer. Russell, then, had to step in for the fight scenes, and some of them were scary to witness. Baker swung a club at Russell and some of his last-minute trash can lid blocks were genuine.

In the film, Snake Plissken eventually dispatches Slag by impaling the back of his skull with an outsize nail attached to a club. The club sticks in Slag's head and he staggers around for a moment before falling down dead. To achieve the effect, Russell had to swing a club into a block of wood that had been affixed to the back of Baker's head. It doesn't sound pleasant even if Russell hit the block dead on, but if he missed, he would thwack Baker in the head. Baker was incredibly nervous about the scene, perhaps sensing that Russell had had enough of his wrestling shenanigans. Luckily, Russell hit the block of wood with precision.

On the DVD commentary track for "Escape from New York," recorded in 2003, Russell revealed that he had an additional, somewhat aggressive way to keep Baker in line. Baker was being too rough and Russell repeatedly asked the lummox to get better about not hitting so hard. When Baker wouldn't listen, the 5'9" Russell found the best way to threaten a 6'6" wrestler. It involved a well-placed flick.

Russell gave Baker a little flick

Carpenter noted on the commentary that Ox Baker "took certain parts too seriously," and that he was "a true tough guy." He also recalled that Baker, on one take, cut his leg on something while climbing into the ring. When Carpenter asked if he needed the medic to look at anything, Baker replied, "Does what hurt?" Kurt Russell's struggle was so rough that he started to sweat off the fake cobra tattoo on his stomach. "He was half-crazed," Russell admitted.

Carpenter shared Russell's reaction. He recalled that his lead actor pulled Baker aside and "tapped him in a certain part of his anatomy." If Baker were to "tag" Russell (i.e. actually make contact with a bat or a fist) then there would be dire trauma to Baker's testicles. "He did the best he could," Russell added. "He was a very sweet guy. He was used to real contact. He didn't know movie contact very well." The fight scene took about two days to shoot, so one can imagine Russell, Warlock, and Carpenter's exhaustion with the scene. Perhaps they didn't heed Baker's professional in-ring slogan: "I like to hurt people!"

Baker made his wrestling debut in 1964 and enjoyed decades of career success. After "Escape from New York," he only appeared in one more scripted film: "Blood Circus" in 1985. He was also in a 2013 horror anthology series called "Chilling Visions: 5 Senses of Fear." He passed away in 2014 at the age of 80. Rest in peace, you wonderful man.