He Shoots, He Scores

updated 02/16/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/16/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

Maybe grandfatherhood hasn't quite hit home for Kurt Russell. "I keep seeing Kate on her tricycle," he says of stepdaughter Kate Hudson, 24, who gave birth to Ryder Russell Robinson on Jan. 7. "I guess there is something in me that doesn't connect the dots. But it seems right that she's having her own children. It just feels good." His part-namesake is "a good eater," reports Russell, beaming. "He has got quite a name to live up to, that little guy."

He certainly does. In addition to his new offscreen role, Russell is enjoying a plum one onscreen: In the new drama Miracle, he plays legendary hockey coach Herb Brooks, who led the 1980 U.S. Olympic team to a stunning 4-3 victory over the Soviet Union. "It's pretty fabulous," says Russell, 52—who hit the movie's premiere alongside Hudson and Goldie Hawn, 58, his love of 21 years—of his good fortune. "Life is amazing, isn't it?"

To play the hard-driving Brooks, Russell—who caught the famous U.S.-Soviet face-off during son Boston's delivery (to his then wife, actress Season Hubley)—adopted a Minnesota accent, dyed his hair and distanced himself from the other actors to replicate Brooks's calculatedly standoffish relationship with his players. His performance impressed Brooks's real-life charges. "He portrays Herb and his mannerisms perfectly," says Olympic goalie Jim Craig. "He captured more of Herb than people ever knew."

Yet it wasn't until shortly after shooting wrapped that Russell realized just how personal the role had been. Piloting his twin turboprop Cessna Conquest last August en route to his vacation home in Colorado, Russell heard a radio report that Brooks, 66, had died in a car crash in Minnesota. "It was shocking," says Russell, whose father, actor Bing Russell, had died of cancer at 76 in April. "I realized how close these men were to each other [in personality], and how much of my dad was in the movie. It hit me very hard."

While mourning their deaths, Russell found solace in Ryder's arrival. "That baby is wonderful. I can't wait to see what he turns into," says Russell. "Goldie and I are already lamenting not being able to spend enough time with them." Hudson has picked up parenting tips from the man she calls Pa. (Russell raised Kate and Oliver, 27, Hawn's kids with second husband Bill Hudson, from the time they were tots.) "I learned from growing up with them to do your job the best you can," Kate told the New York Daily News last year, "and go home and concern yourself with your home life."

Ever the dedicated dad, Russell lives part-time in Vancouver with Hawn so their son Wyatt, 17, could train to become a hockey goalie. "Up there he's a regular hockey dad," says Robbie MacGregor, a teammate of Wyatt's who also appears in Miracle. "He's hootin' and hollerin', really fun to be around."

His relationship with Hawn is still going strong. Still, the never-wed couple, who will celebrate their anniversary this month in Hawaii, have their share of hardships. ("I don't think Kurt sexually only has eyes for me," Hawn famously told Vanity Fair in 1997.) "I make mistakes," he says. "Goldie makes mistakes. I don't assume that Goldie will be there tomorrow, because she might not be."

The actor has spent his whole life living in the moment. Following in the footsteps of dad Bing, who played Bonanza's deputy sheriff, the Springfield, Mass.-born Russell spent his childhood acting in Disney films like 1970's The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. He learned about the business from Walt Disney himself: "Sometimes we played Ping-Pong together at lunch." Russell's real passion was for baseball, but after tearing his shoulder muscle in 1973 while playing second base in the minor leagues, he returned to acting, landing the lead in the 1979 ABC biopic Elvis. The Emmy-nominated role helped relaunch Russell's film career, an eclectic mix including 1981's Escape from New York, 1983's Silkwood and 1997's Breakdown. "He's got a Spencer Tracy quality that is more apparent the older he gets," says Ron Shelton, who directed him in last year's Dark Blue. "His best years are ahead of him."

Perhaps, but with no other film roles lined up, Russell is content to shed the 15 lbs. he gained to play Brooks and work on his golf swing. "I quit for a while. I thought golf was a game for older men," says the new grandfather. "And guess what...."

Jason Lynch. Michael Fleeman, Brenda Rodriguez and Sean Daly in Los Angeles

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