Rebecca Ascher-Walsh
February 13, 2004 AT 05:00 AM EST

In his 43-year career, Kurt Russell has earned money, a steady reputation, and more money. But for all the gigs (42 movies and counting) and all the multimillion-dollar paychecks, there’s one thing the 52-year-old actor hasn’t yet enjoyed: that Dennis Quaid post-Rookie moment when suddenly a respected actor proves he’s not just reliable — he’s remarkable.

That may change with the Disney biopic Miracle, in which Russell stars as 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team coach Herb Brooks. Directed by Gavin O’Connor (Tumbleweeds), costarring Patricia Clarkson as Brooks’ wife, and featuring real hockey players subbing as the team to win unlikely gold, Miracle rests almost entirely on Russell’s staunch shoulders. It’s the kind of role that could position the actor, he says with a laugh, as the ”new…Kurt Russell.”

Not that Russell is complaining about his current situation. There’s the luxe, country-club-like setting, replete with a roaring fireplace and a snoring bulldog before it, in the Vancouver home that he and his partner Goldie Hawn share with their 17-year-old son, Wyatt. There’s the fact that two decades into their relationship, Russell still can’t help patting Hawn’s backside as she strolls through the room. And then there’s the actor’s state of mind, so unusual that it may be worthy of biochemical study: Russell swears that he’s never experienced a moment of angst in his life.

”I’m not so sure that’s a good thing,” says the former child actor, with the kind of belly laugh that makes you want to pull up a stool and buy him a tequila shot. ”When you have that [tension], it leads you into playing the game correctly. I just didn’t care.”

Which might explain a career that looks designed recklessly if at all. For every critically acclaimed Silkwood, there’s been a Tango & Cash; high-grossing hits like Backdraft and Breakdown share resume space with flops like Captain Ron and 3000 Miles to Graceland. And while he earned a reported $15 million for 1998’s action thriller Soldier, Russell’s salary was far more memorable than the movie itself; his last project, Dark Blue, earned him some of his best notices ever, but was a financial dud.

”My career is all over the map. I can’t deny it, and I don’t want to deny it,” Russell says. ”But my ego is strong enough that I’ll bet I can get good work by having done a good job in the last thing I did.” And what about when he hasn’t? Responds Russell, who can say things like this and somehow not sound like an ass: ”I don’t think I’ve ever done a bad job. Have I done pictures people don’t like? Maybe,” he acknowledges. ”But I don’t think I’ve ever failed.”

Russell considers Miracle another personal success. Playing the late Brooks — he was killed in a car accident last summer — allowed the actor to draw upon the world he is inhabiting with Wyatt, who wants to play college hockey and is the reason Russell and Hawn have relocated from L.A. to Vancouver. (Russell has another son, 23-year-old Boston, from a previous marriage, and considers himself a father to Hawn’s children, 24-year-old actress Kate Hudson and 27-year-old actor Oliver Hudson.) Miracle also allowed Russell to use his experience as a former aspiring professional ballplayer — a dream that ended at 23 when he tore a rotator cuff. (In the late ’80s, Russell and Dark Blue director Ron Shelton had discussed making a baseball movie loosely based on Russell’s past; when Russell took a vacation, Shelton instead cast Kevin Costner in what would become Bull Durham.) But the idea that Miracle might finally make Russell a different kind of star could not be less interesting to him. ”I’ve been Hollywood’s ‘most underrated’ actor for 10, 15, 20 years,” he says. ”I don’t give a f — -.” Explains director O’Connor, ”He’s a blue-collar guy with a blue-collar work ethic.”

Russell nods in agreement. ”I have my own plane, but I fly it,” he offers by way of example, as if relying on a professional pilot would make him spoiled. ”I enjoy the big houses” — he and Hawn own a total of seven — ”but if I lived in a hovel, it’s all the same. I’m not going to thank God for what I have, I’m just going to be grateful. And if it all goes to s — -now, wow,” he says, grinning. ”What a lucky duck I was.”

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