Gene Simmons doesn’t do things by halves – or at least, he tries not to.
When the Kiss star signed up to appear in 1984 movie Runaway he was expecting to become a major supporting actor. And you couldn’t blame him for believing it was going to happen.
Written and directed by Westworld (and later Jurassic Park) creator Michael Crichton, it starred Tom Selleck and Kirstie Alley along with Cynthia Rhoades and Stan Shaw. The music was by Jerry Goldsmith and the budget was a reasonable but modest (for the time) $8 million.
Crichton believed he had an important point to make with his story, which was set in the very near future at a time when robots were commonplace. It followed Jack Ramsay (Selleck), an experienced cop with a big regret in his past who’s put out to pasture in the “runaway squad.” His new job is to chase down robots that malfunction, which is an easy ride until the first machine homicide takes place. Ramsay discovers the person responsible is Dr. Charles Luther (Simmons), a psychopath who aims to profit from selling chips that will cause more robots to kill.
“Runaway is a cop movie, good guys versus bad guys,” Crichton said on his website. “How can I put this? Courageous cop meets … let’s say, a very inventive villain. It’s about the introduction of smart weapons into civilian life – like the Exocet missile. The pilot who sunk the battleship Sheffield in the Falklands war never even saw the target. He just fired at it over the horizon. When people buy a coffeemaker these days, they expect it to have a microprocessor in it. What about when they buy a gun?”
Simmons had rejected a handful of movie roles before selecting Runaway as his first. “I wasn’t interested in musicals or comedy,” he said later. “I wanted to start out in something serious. I understand brooding characters more than I do splashy people.” He so impressed Crichton that he didn’t have to audition for the role. Furthermore, the director wasn’t trying to create an effects-heavy action movie, professing himself bored with the genre. Instead, he regarded it as a police procedural thriller; he wanted to focus on the character clash between Ramsay and Luther, which meant Simmons had an even greater chance of kicking off a large-scale movie career. “I didn’t see Luther as evil, but as a deadly animal who kills when someone gets in his way,” he said. “Crichton didn’t want me to memorize the script or talk to my acting coach. His direction was, ‘Don’t be afraid to try different things.’”
Regardless of Crichton’s intentions, however, Runaway stopped dead at the box office, taking only $1.1 million on its opening weekend on Dec. 14, 1984, and grossing a total of $6.8 million during its run. It seemed that theatergoers wanted the kind of science fiction that was served up by that year’s hits The Terminator, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and 2010: The Year We Make Contact – all of which carried elements of the ideas explored in Runaway, but all of which connected far better with viewers. Respected critic Roger Ebert praised both Simmons and Selleck for their acting, but felt that Crichton had become bogged down by the cliches he’d been trying to update – a cop with a dark secret that comes back to haunt him, a new, young, female partner who becomes a love interest, and an angry shouting boss who’s had enough of Ramsay’s corner-cutting ways.
“Runaway takes a plausible concept – that of ordinary household robots going awry – and weighs it down with cliches and moments of 80s excess,” Den of Geek reflected in 2015. “This isn’t to say that Runaway‘s a terrible film – far from it – but watching it again, there’s often the feeling that there’s a more intelligent thriller trying to get out.” The review added that Simmons “enlivened” proceedings greatly, continuing: “Not a natural actor by any stretch, Simmons is nevertheless terrifying and amusing in equal measure as the villain. Bringing some of his Kiss stage persona with him as Dr. Charles Luther, he snarls and glowers his way through the role, discharging his heat-seeking mini missiles and robot spiders with evident glee.”
“It was very futuristic, it had robots and all sorts of stuff, and it was a nice movie,” Selleck told A.V. Club that same year. “It was a good movie that I’m very proud of. It didn’t do very well, which was a great disappointment to Michael, who became a friend. And Gene Simmons was in it! Gene hadn’t been in a feature film before, but he was great. We had some great talks and good times.”
The film also featured technology that’s become mainstream, including cops using a camera drone to check over a house before they enter; and some that are at least on the way, such as a bullet that can be instructed to change direction in flight. And while it have been a disappointment all round, there’s at least one silver lining – Simmons got to do a double death scene that’s incredibly Simmonsesque: