Early Life

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Sometime on the 7th day of April 1964, Russell Ira Crowe was born in Wellington, New Zealand, and my bet is he was born with a roar and not a whimper.  Thank you Alex and Jocelyn for adding him to your family.  With Terry a toddler at home they now had two boys to finish off the family. Also in New Zealand and busily having boys of his own was Alex’s brother David. 

The genetic mix of these two families produced two test Cricket captains, David’s boys Martin and Jeff, and an Oscar award-winning actor. David would also prove to be a driving force in Russell’s life.

Russell has said of his cousins Martin and Jeff who are so talented at sports, that he didn’t get to know them until he was a teenager.  When asked by Ray Martin about the time of The Crossing if he was good at Cricket he said,

“Let me tell you mate. I’m hopeless (giggle). Why do you think I became an actor it would be far easier to walk around the sports field?”

His coaches from school have a slightly different version, they say he was not a great player but that he had what I would call heart.  He did his part and didn’t give up.  His coach seemed quite happy to have had him as a player.

Although Russell is a native of New Zealand, he was raised in Australia as well, moving back and forth a couple of times before he turned 22.  The first move happened before Russell started school (age 4) Sydney was their destination. 

Russell was exposed to the film business at an early age when his parents took a job as location caterers for a TV series called Spy Force, starring his future co-star Jack Thompson.  During the course of the shoot a need for extras for an episode provided Russell with his first film work at the age of 6. It has been said that when they started looking for extras he raised his hand immediately and they used him.  He understood at a very early age the difference between real life and acting. 

He said about this time:  “I knew from being on the set that the door led nowhere that it wasn’t real.”  

Russell did a few guest appearances in other shows in his pre-teen years including The Young Doctors.

He later laughingly talked about being a child who was a little different. 

At age 14 he was transplanted to New Zealand, where he went to school and by all accounts didn’t do any professional acting work until he had left school a few years later.

These years at school were spent working in the pubs and hotels his parents managed (as a short order cook and later a bouncer), squeaking through academically, and doing music. He had gotten his first guitar at 6 and started writing his own songs very early.  He had a band while he was in school and used to play at school assemblies. 

One of his teachers has said that when Russell performed at school he would be happy if 4 people and a fox terrier showed up, it didn’t matter to him at all, he would go right back up and do it again.  Nothing kept him from it, not a lack of audience, or a mediocre reception, he just kept performing. 

Shortly before he left school and right after, he looked for any job that involved the entertainment business, he worked as a bingo caller and a disc jockey.    

At 17 he left school to try his hand at the music business.  He had worked with a NZ band doing comedy intros (he said he learned much about comedic timing and delivery by telling these same old jokes that started out unsuccessful and eventually got better) and spinning records as a disc jockey.  He developed a connection with the musicians in a band led by Tom Sharplin, and eventually started to make records with their help as backup.   He said about his early time with Tom Sharplin,

“He was playing in my parents pub, and I used to prop open the kitchen order window so I could watch him perform.”

The band members used to ask people to move so that Russell could watch from the kitchen.  They talked about him coming to them later and telling them what he liked and how great this or that part was.  

Russell took on the name of Russ Le Roq and recorded a string of songs starting with “I Just Wanna be like Marlon Brando”  ( a song written about Tom Sharplin).  Much has been made of the title of this song. Some people have gone so far as to say he literally wanted to be Marlon Brando.  Russell says he had never even seen a Marlon Brando film when he wrote the song.  He originally wanted to call it “I Just Wanna Be Like Tom Sharplin”   

Russell, in his manifestation of Russ Le Roq was prone to wearing “stage” type clothes at all times; he was inclined to look quite the rocker. Several people who knew him in the New Zealand music days have commented about this.  What struck me was that it was said with great affection and a sense of humor.  No derision just a slightly amused description of a friend who was a little different, a man with his own sense of style. He continuedrecording as Russ Le Roq with the Romantics, the band decked out in gray satin jackets emblazoned with their names and the band’s name across the back.  J  

He did a stint with a company doing a theatre production of Grease and later joined a touring company of The Rocky Horror Show  

During one show he was on stage doing a song, and there were a couple of men in the audience who were jeering and making remarks at him. He told them that they would never make it as transvestites with those faces.  Later one of his cast mates told Russell these men were waiting for him in the bar. Russell went to meet them not knowing what to expect. Moments later he was enjoying a drink with the “bad faces” who were indeed transvestites.  J 

He had a business in New Zealand–a nightclub for under-aged youth. Russell wanted to provide a place where young people could hear the groups that were in the New Zealand music scene at the time. He somehow managed to get the best bands in New Zealand to perform at his club and, during this time he met Dean Cochran who had shown up for an audition with The Mockers.  It has been said that he ran the business very well, the only problem being a poor location, and a lack of the mark-up that is possible in an alcohol based business. Unfortunately it finally folded.

He and Dean formed a band called Roman Antix. They started making records including the almost hit Shattered Glass. Just when the song was gaining attention the band fell apart, two members quitting suddenly and moving away.  He and Dean decided a change of scene would be welcome for them as well, and took off for the bright lights of Sydney, Australia.  Russell was 21, Dean of a similar age.    

The guiding principle of Russell’s actions during his New Zealand period was determination, self-confidence and a never say die attitude.  He wasn’t afraid of being laughed at, he wasn’t concerned about what people thought, and he just kept going at what he wanted from any direction he could find.  He has said in many interviews that he gives his job 110% he started early by all accounts. He took his attitude with him, and it served him well in Australia also. 

Russell and Dean made a living for a while busking (street performers) in the King’s Cross area of Sydney.  Russell has said that he and Dean would stop traffic sometimes, and that a few times their guitar case was so full of coin it took them both to carry it.  But that is the happy side, he has also said he lived in a residential hotel full of older men many of them alcoholics and lived on $3.50 a day which bought him fried rice and cigarettes.  His step-grandmother talks of how they used to visit him and feed him up because he was so skinny.  About this he has said: 

“It was better then living off the dole.”  (welfare).

Russell ended up doing the Australian production of The Rocky Horror Show repeating the roles he had done in New Zealand.  (450 shows in total between his time in New Zealand and Australia).  He played primarily Eddie (Meatloaf’s Character) and Dr. Scott, although he also did a short stint as Franknfurter.  Later he had a starring role in a production of Blood Brothers.   He was also briefly involved in a production of The Blues Brothers.  

He did a few episodes of the Australian series Neighbors.  About this he has said two things: he made an amazing amount of money compared to whathe was making in the Rocky Horror Show, and that he couldn’t turn it down because in his last episode he got to hit Craig McClouglin, while Kylie Minogue was riding on his back.  He figured it would be footage to show his grand children.  

The director of The Crossing, George Ogilvie, saw Russell on stage and approached him about playing in his movie.  Russell got the role of Johnny.  But the movie was held up, and Russell has said, “I figured that was my luck, I finally got a movie role, and it would never be made.” .

While he was waiting, he went out and got a small part in Blood Oath/Prisoners of the Sun.   He decided the way to prepare for the role would be to write letters from the character to his family at home, he went to the audition with the letters, and the director gave him the role.  He is in the background through much of the movie, but if you watch it a funny thing happens, the camera finds him, he may be doing nothing but somehow you are drawn to him without looking for him, the camera loves him.  You can’t buy that, Marilyn Monroe had it, Gable had it, and a few others but to pull the camera is not that common.  

Russell was wrong about his luck, The Crossing was indeed made, a little late but made nonetheless.  Russell gives the director of The Crossing, much credit for teaching him something invaluable.  The actor turned director took Russell off by himself and told him he could not tell Russell what he wanted from him in a certain scene, so he was going to show him.  Russell said the sheer amount of knowledge and emotion coming from the man’s eyes was amazing.  I believe it enhanced how he perceived his craft, and he incorporated what he learned into his already considerable use of his talent. Russell is now known as an actor who can convey more in one look then most can manage in 5 pages of dialogue.   (Incidentally the same director paid to fix a broken front tooth Russell had carried with him for years.  If you look closely at the shot above of him in the RHS you can see the broken front tooth.)  

Danielle Spencer and Russell met on the set of The Crossing and though she was dating someone else at the time they became friends.  Danielle and he started dating about a year into their friendship and they were together for 5 years.  He would later say he had done a large number of roles while he was with Danielle and that it must have been hard for her never knowing who she was sleeping with. He and Danielle have always shared a love of music.  Since reuniting as a couple, Russell has directed a video of Tickle Me from Danielle’s White Monkey CD   You can learn more about Danielle’s music by visiting her official web sitewww.daniellespencer.com.au or going to a lovely site called www.daniellespencermusic.com Information is also available onwww.russellcrowetriad.com. Look for Danielle’s page under images. 

This film earned him his first award nomination for Australian Film Institute, Actor of the Year.

His part as Andy in Proof is considered by some to be one of his best performances ever.   I have heard people mention a certain scene in this movie as a perfect example of his developing talent of conveying intensity and information without dialogue. 

I also love the humor in this film, and Russell’s ready happy giggle.  Proof is so highly regarded in Australia that it is used in some year 11 and 12 English curriculums. (Junior and senior in High School)

In addition, this movie showcases the talents of Hugo Weaving (Matrix, The Interview, Lord of the Rings (Fellowship of the Ring).

For his role as Andy he was nominated for and won an award from the AFI for Supporting Actor

Somewhere in this time frame he did a guest appearance on an Australian TV show, Police Rescue.  When you watch this episode it is easy to see where he is going, he had something that made him stand out in the cast.  Some people call it star quality, but I think it is just what all-great performers have, an illusive something called stage presence.

He did a role next in a mini series called Brides of Christ, I found him astonishingly good as a young man in his last days before going off to the Viet Nam war.  He continued to grow in his performance in this, and it is well worth tracking down and watching. 

It seems during this period he was backing away from music and spending more time on his thespian skills. He has even said that for a short time he had decided not to perform music any more in hopes that he would be taken more seriously as an actor. Fortunately, this didn’t last and Thirty Odd Foot of Grunts appeared a couple of years later.  

He was given a role in a charming comedy, an Australian movie called Spotswood that was released under the title of The Efficiency Expert in the USHe played a ruthlessly ambitious character, and a bit of a wanker, but the bonus of this film was Sir Anthony Hopkins.  He played in a number of scenes with the master actor, and about him Hopkins has said, 

“He reminds me of an actor I knew many years ago, me.”  
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It was about this time that the press started branding Russell as difficult but most of his early interviews seemed to go well, the tabloid articles were mild or non-existent 

He was also developing a reputation as an actor who was not easy to direct, he was full of questions and suggestions, and was not patient with people who were not prepared, this attitude has served him well, but some directors were a little reticent to use him.

Jack Thompson has been quoted as saying “He doesn’t suffer fools gladly.” 

The role of East in Hammers over the Anvil—was given to him despite reservations by some of the production people.   It turned out to be a good choice in fact a person connected with the movie wrote to me about his performance.  He said,

“Russell brought more to the role of East then we had ever thought possible.”     

Love in Limbo was a funny little teenage coming of age movie.  Russell played a Welsh Baptist virgin.  He went to Wales on his own dime and spent time there getting the accent and mannerisms down.  To many, me included, this role marked the beginning of the chameleon like qualities of many of his roles. You couldn’t find anyone more unlike Russell’s persona then Arthur.    

Russell’s first important role came next (although to a lesser degree I would consider Proof in this category as well, but the world noticed Romper Stomper and still does).  This movie is about a neo-nazi gang, Russell played the leader, a very violent and magnetic character, Hando.  He spent months on this character, in his room at night instead of playing his usual collection of music he ran 3 cassettes only, Wagner, white noise, and a tape of soccer crowds in England.  He listened to them simultaneously.  He has said he figured people who visited him thought he was weird.   He had a shaved head and fake tattoos over most of his body during this period of time, he was harassed and arrested because of it.  In one incident his  producer had to come down to the jail and get him out. 

Russell’s role in this movie was instrumental in influencing Sharon Stone, the person who  brought him to America to star in The Quick and the Dead.  It has also been mentioned by a number of A-list directors as being one of the reasons they considered or indeed did cast him in roles, these include:  Ridley Scott, Curtis Hanson and Michael Mann.

Romper Stomper is an intense movie, and some of the things that went into its making are rather amazing.  While preparing for the role Russell was arrested, harassed and generally treated differently then he would have been in his normal life. The group of young men in this movie spent a good deal of time together building up the camaraderie needed for the film to work hanging out together as would a real skinhead gang and in doing so ignored the director’s instructions. He had harbored fears of violence if they were together in public. Russell did extensive physical training as well as immersing himself in the Nazi lifestyle, and the ideologies and writings of Adolph Hitler. He became an authority on Mien Kampf, steeped himself in German history from the time of Hitler’s reign, and tried to understand the attitudes that drove people to adopt the Nazi persuasion.  

His role as Hando won him the Australian Film Industry award for Best Actor. 

He was very convincing as the violent skinhead character of Hando.  But the most telling things he has said about this time are the following.  He would wake up in the morning and see the hate filled tattoos covering his body and become depressed.  Later when asked what the best thing about doing the movie was, he replied being done, having it finished.  He never bought into any of the racist notions the movie conveyed and indeed found the ideas repulsive. 

The Silver Brumby/Stallion was Russell’s next movie, a children’s movie, he shot for his niece Chelsea.  Russell was on horseback though much of the movie, and had a dog companion in it.  He so loved the dog he wanted to keep her but the owner said no. Later Russell received one of her puppies, his dog Chasen.  This movie showcases an almost dialogue free role for Russell, and features an intense relationship between his character and the animals that inhabit the movie.  If the movie were bad (which it isn’t), the scenery in it and the beauty of Australia would make it worth a watch. 

Russell had decided around the time he filmed The Silver Brumby that he was going to need to think about broadening his horizons. The Australian film industry was too small for the way he wanted to work.  He didn’t like to repeat his performances and found it increasingly difficult to find new and different material; he was going to need a wider spread of choices.  His Australian agent, Shirley Pearce, told him she would support him and help him in all ways if he chose to try the United States. (Shirley Pearce is still an active part of Russell’s career). It turned out that a short time later he got his chance to go to the US.   

Sharon Stone was getting ready to do her production of The Quick and the Dead when she saw Romper Stomper.  She decided Russell was the man to play the gunfighter turned preacher in her movie.  She stated he was the sexiest man working in film, and insisted the studio hire him for the role.  They were reluctant, but in the end Ms. Stone got her way. (Thank God).  

Russell was getting ready to start The Sum of Us in Australia, and was not going to be finished in time for the shooting schedule (of TQ&TD).  Sharon still insisted on using him and held up production until he was available.

The Sum of Us was a successful play in Los Angeles, and when the movie was cast It was originally the intension to cast American actor Tony Goldwyn who played the role of Jeff in the LA stage production.  But through some interesting happenstance Russell ended up taking his place and was reunited with Australian veteran actor Jack Thompson.  Jack Thompson however didn’t realize they were working together for a second time, he had no recollection of Russell as a child in Jack’s TV series Spy Force, but Russell was more than aware.  They had a wonderful chemistry in this movie and have a close friendship that is ongoing today.  In TSOU, Russell played a gay plumber looking for a mate, his father “helped” him too much.  Many people are put off when they learn it is about a gay man, but TSOU is one of the warmest, funniest movies I have seen. Jack Thompson has described the movie as not about a gay man in love, but about love, unconditional love of all types.  About the film Russell has said he did it right after Romper Stomper, and one of the side advantages was all the skin heads that had identified with him because of RS would go to the theater and see this movie.  He had a giggle about that. 

Russell wrote Sail Those Same Oceans about Danielle while filming The Sum of Us, but he dedicated it to Jack Thompson whom he calls “The Old Sailor”.

What Jack Thompson has to say about working with Russell:

“He came up there and we stayed together for 2 weeks. We talked the
script, and then we didn’t talk the script for hours and hours. We went
walking. We went riding, and my son, I suppose must have been 8 or 9 at
the time, so Russell related to him too. He was down on the floor, like,
playing Lego with him and seeing how he related to me. We literally
lived father and son stuff for that period of time.”

“I admire his success, and that’s not such a silly thing to say either.
I admire his success, because his success implies that an actor of that quality; of that heart; of that focus; of that sort of uncompromising search for quality, is vindicated, and seriously vindicated. And that you can be a really good actor, and a successful movie star, and you know that’s … I admire that enormously. I admire him as an actor, because he’s astute, he’s studied; and he’s instinctive at the same time, and that produces a very fine performance, and makes him a delight to work with. Acting is, of course, totally interactive, and it depends
on the quality of the other person on the other side of the net, to
extend the tennis metaphor, you know. And if the person on the other
side of the net is really good, and your kind of good yourself, you will
see some fantastic tennis. I think some of the scenes in The Sum of Us
between Russell and I, are some of the best acting in my 30 year career,
without a doubt.”

Russell played out his role in The Sum of Us and while he was busily filming in Australia the screen writer for The Quick and the Dead took the screenplay that Russell had read and was getting ready to play and rewrote it.  Most of the dialog spoken by Russell’s character was cut, leaving him with a role that would be very difficult for most actors. Fortunately, his capacity to convey information without dialogue was perfect for the situation, and he survived nicely, arguably turning in the best performance in the movie. 

The American press had no idea what they were getting into with him.  Russell Crowe was not what they expected or what they were used to.  He didn’t possess the sleek grace of a Pearce Bosnan, he hadn’t the New York feel of a Pacino or a Deniro, and he wasn’t a picture perfect pretty boy like Brad Pitt, either.  In fact he wasn’t really like anyone they had dealt with before at all.  He was a combination of rough masculinity and scholar, lady’s man and homebody, newcomer and old hand.  They came into interviews with him expecting to figuratively play checkers with an unknown from the outback, and found a man who pulled out a chess set and used words they had to look up in a dictionary.  He simply didn’t play the game. 

They left either feeling this intense, work driven actor would be someone to watch, or that this strangely frightening actor was someone to avoid.  But as is true today, they didn’t leave with a feeling of boredom, or a comfortable belief that they understood Russell Ira Crowe. Russell is not now nor ever has been about making people feel comfortable, and for the most part reporters were anything but comfortable with this new enigma they had encountered.  He was too smart, too testy, and too quick for their collective taste.  A few seem to see the heart of Crowe and they developed a healthy respect.  Many just avoided the issue, and still are today, writing nonsense that comes from a misunderstanding combined with laziness and fear.  

My favorite example of this was the story about his farm working being injured when he was gored by a berserk steer. Russell runs hornless cattle on his farm, one of his steers “goring”  his farm workers would be a little hard, he laughed about this a bit.  J  But unfortunately some of it is less amusing.  He talks about reportedly being in a strip club with 5 woman, when in fact he had spent the day on the farm working with cattle. 

His early interviews and even his current ones are loaded with moments of irony and a feeling of dichotomy–the man simply defies a clear-cut pigeonhole description.  (Interesting side note, the press who got on with him and treated him fairly are still people he does interviews with, the ones who weren’t he doesn’t.  An example of this was apparent in Austin Texas in 2001 when the world wanted interviews and he refused, but a local radio station disc jockey who had done a good interview with him during a press junket several years earlier got one).  Loyalty is a part of Russell’s basic make-up. 

Later many press people would claim he had been in a relationship with Sharon Stone, both parties deny this and if the truth be known TQATD was filmed during a time when Russell was losing a long-time relationship with Danielle Spencer through as he puts it “the tyranny of distance”.