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Today's film audiences probably associate Kurt Russell with action roles teeming with machismo, like Snake Plissken in Escape from New York (1981) or "Bull" McCaffrey in Backdraft (1991). But Russell's break into movies came from a decidedly different source: Walt Disney. After signing a 10-year contract with the family-friendly production company, Russell made several films with the Mouse House, including a popular run as Dexter Reilly, the college kid who manages to get into one shenanigan after another in The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969), Now You See Him, Now You Don't (1972), and The Strongest Man in the World (1975). In 1971, Russell starred in The Barefoot Executive as Steven Post, an eager mailroom clerk desperate to impress his production company bosses with his winning programming skills. When his girlfriend (Heather North) agrees to baby-sit her neighbor's pet chimpanzee, Post quickly discovers that the beer-swilling, raspberry-blowing simian is a television junkie with a keen eye for ratings. . . and Steven's secret weapon!
The Barefoot Executive provided the film debut of John Ritter as Roger, the scheming nephew of the boss, played by Joe Flynn. Ritter would soon move on to the small screen in the highly successful television comedy Three's Company (1977-84) as Jack Tripper, a role for which he won both an Emmy and a Golden Globe. Ritter enjoyed a prolific career on TV and films up until his sudden and tragic death due to a fatal heart condition in 2003. As the prickly programming head Wilbanks, Flynn may remind audiences of his most famous character, that of Captain Binghamton from the popular sit-com McHale's Navy (1962-6). Flynn also made several movies with Disney, beginning with The Love Bug (1968) and reprising his role as Dean Higgins in the three Dexter Reilly films with Russell.
Harry Morgan plays the network president Crampton, but he is best remembered for his pivotal roles in the revived version of Dragnet (1967-70), as Officer Bill Gannon, and as Colonel Potter in M.A.S.H. (1974-83). The inveterate character actor Wally Cox plays Merton the chauffeur-his timid, bespectacled persona earned him popularity on the sitcom Mister Peepers (1952-5), and he will be forever identified as the voice of Underdog (1964-3) on the animated TV series. Cox also had an unlikely lifetime friendship with Marlon Brando; upon Cox's death, Brando disobeyed his widow's wishes to scatter his ashes over his friend's favorite hiking spot. Instead, Brando kept the ashes until his death in 2004, when the remains of both men were sprinkled over Death Valley.
Russell did some voice work, too; after a long hiatus from Disney, he provided the voice of the dog Copper from the popular animated film The Fox and the Hound (1981). He returned to the studio for a live-action film over twenty years later with Sky High (2005). In an interview promoting that film, Russell mused about his close relationship with Walt Disney: "He spent a tremendous amount of time talking to me about movies, how to make them, and so on. Whenever I worked there, and that was quite often, we'd play ping-pong together at lunch, and then when I had an afternoon off he'd say, 'Do you want to go to the animation department and learn some of that?' And he'd take me down there and show me the process. We had great times." In 1998, Russell was inducted as a Disney Legend in recognition for his contribution to the Disney entertainment values; he remarked, "The Disney years were my education in the film business. I was fortunate to work there consistently."
The Barefoot Executive was remade as a TV movie in 1995 starring Green Acres' Eddie Albert and a surprising number of known actors in the supporting cast, from The Munsters' Yvonne De Carlo to comedians Chris Elliott, Jay Mohr, and Kathy Griffin.
Producer: Bill Anderson
Director: Robert Butler
Screenplay: Lila Garrett, Bernie Kahn, Stewart C. Billett, Joseph L. McEveety
Cinematography: Charles F. Wheeler
Film Editing: Robert Stafford
Art Direction: Ed Graves, John B. Mansbridge
Music: Bruce Belland, Robert F. Brunner
Cast: Kurt Russell (Steven Post), Joe Flynn (Francis Wilbanks), Harry Morgan (E.J. Wilbanks), Wally Cox (Mertons), Heather North (Jennifer Scott), Alan Hewitt (Farnsworth).
by Eleanor Quin