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"All that stuff, this public persona of me - let's call him 'the wild man' - that is not helpful," Russell Crowe said. "It doesn't make me more of a box-office draw. It's the quality of my work that makes people want to go to my films." 

The quality of Crowe's work is not in question, but neither is his reputation as a "wild man." Not since Robert Mitchum has a movie star remained popular with audiences in spite of so much bad press for his off-screen activities. But unlike Mitchum, who had to wait several decades before being appreciated by critics and his peers, Crowe has a scrapbook full of glowing reviews and an Oscar to his credit.

Born April 7, 1964 in Wellington, North Island, New Zealand, Crowe moved with his family to Australia at age four. 

"I used to watch a lot of Elvis movies," he said as a way to explain his inspiration for wanting to act. He started working at age 6, mainly as an extra, but "I was learning and observing without pressure." He considered studying history in college, but with his father out of work and unable to afford tuition, Crowe pursued acting full-time, landing roles in repertory productions of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Grease.

At age 25, he got his first big break in the low-budget The Crossing. In The Sum of Us, he played a gay man whose father encourages rather than disapproves of his sexuality. But it was his appearance as a charismatic neo-Nazi skinhead in 1992's Romper Stomper that kick-started his career.

He made his American film debut as a reformed gunslinger in the 1995 Sharon Stone western, The Quick and the Dead. That same year, he appeared as Sid 6.7, a cyber serial killer hunted by Denzel Washington in Virtuosity. In The Washington Post, Hal Hinson made note of Crowe’s “immoral exuberance,” while The San Francisco Chronicle’s Mike LaSalle predicted it might be a "star-making performance."

But it wasn't until L.A. Confidential two years later that Crowe really began to attract public notice.

Author James Ellroy described his noirish novel as a "book for the whole family if your family is the Charles Manson family." Ellroy didn't think his book could be adapted to film, but director Curtis Hanson proved him wrong by streamlining Ellroy's story to focus on three detectives: the flamboyant Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), the ambitious, by-the-book Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce), and Wendell "Bud" White whom Exley regards as a "mindless thug."

Hanson cast Crowe as White on the strength of his performance in Romper Stomper.

It is White whom Captain Dudley (James Cromwell) calls on for extracurricular activities, such as beating a suspect senseless to elicit a confession, but White has a gentle, protective side that comes out in his affair with Kim Basinger's high class hooker. 

Set in the early 1950's, the complex tale of corruption in the Los Angeles Police Department emerged as 1997's most critically acclaimed film, winning best picture honors from the National Board of Review, the National Society of Film Critics, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the New York Film Critics Circle, and the Broadcast Film Critics Association. However, those kudos were not enough to sink Titanic at that year's Academy Awards. The film was also a box-office dud that only attracted a following after its release to home video and cable television.

Although Crowe would establish himself as one of the screen's most versatile actors, some of his off-screen exploits would suggest he had more in common with the primitive White than he'd care to admit. In 1999, he earned some ink in the gossip columns for a White-like scuffle at an Australian bar.

The fact that the incident saw print in America was proof that Crowe was on the radar, but he was still not popular enough to make Mystery, Alaska a success in 1999. The story of an amateur hockey team that gets a shot at playing against the New York Rangers, it was, in Roger Ebert's view, "sweet, pleasant, low-key, inoffensive and unnecessary." Crowe played a sheriff and hockey player in the film that co-starred former superstar Burt Reynolds.

"They're from two different tribes," Crowe said in explaining the conflict between Jeffrey Weingart, the tobacco industry whistle-blower he played in The Insider, and the 60 Minutes producer played by Al Pacino.

Of Weingart, Crowe said, "He's not a hero in any easy sense. He's not a man with a white hat. He's just a bloke." But as director Michael Mann said, "Jeffrey's a man you just don't push." In that respect, Crowe was perfectly cast. With his hair dyed gray and the hint of a paunch around his waist, Crowe moves slowly throughout like a man overwhelmed by the choice he must make. The film earned Crowe his first Oscar nomination and was a critical and popular hit. "Mann turns a moral issue into riveting suspense," wrote Peter Travers in Rolling Stone.

True stardom eluded him, however, until Gladiator opened in summer 2000. A spectacle that harked back to the earlier era of Ben-Hur and Spartacus, the Ridley Scott directed epic cast Crowe as Maximus, a Roman general in line to become emperor. Betrayed by the emperor's son, Maximus is sold into slavery, then emerges as a gladiator, a star with the bloodthirsty crowd.

Producer Douglas Wick, in describing the qualities Crowe brought to the part, said audiences had to "completely believe his ferocity of a warrior, but you also had to believe he was a man of great principle, of great character."

Crowe also impressed his co-stars. "I love him because he's grounded," Richard Harris said. "He doesn't carry that Hollywood star crap with him." Spencer Trent Clark found Crowe to be "relaxed and funny."

His co-stars also made an impression on Crowe, though not always favorably. Oliver Reed, the notoriously hard-drinking actor, died during production, and Crowe's comments were surprisingly unsympathetic considering his own sometimes scandalous behavior. "Mate, he did that to himself," Crowe said of Reed's early demise. "I have little time for the Oliver Reeds of this business."

Gladiator was one of the year's most popular films, though critics were divided on its artistic merits. The New York Post hailed it as "an exhilarating, sweeping epic," but The New York Times found it "grandiose and silly." Roger Ebert voted thumbs down on the film he called "Spartacus-Lite" and said that Crowe was merely "efficient as Maximus: bearded, taciturn, brooding."

Nonetheless, Gladiator was the film to beat at the Oscars where Crowe was nominated as best actor for the second year in a row. Throughout the show, Crowe could be glimpsed in the audience, looking surly, and struggling to smile at host Steve Martin's jokes. Having entered the race with more baggage than his competitors, he had reason to be glum.

A highly publicized affair with the married Meg Ryan, his Proof of Life co-star, made Crowe look like a home wrecker. Then there was the kidnapping threat that necessitated he attend the ceremony accompanied by a dozen bodyguards. Some took it as an act of hubris. "Who does he think he is?" Crowe asked, recalling the reaction. "Elvis?" Both the film and its star won Oscars that night, but Crowe ruffled more feathers when he skipped the official post Oscar party to celebrate privately with friends.   

But he was now a star in demand for the most prestigious projects.

A Beautiful Mind gave him his best opportunity yet to demonstrate his versatility. The story of John Nash, a Nobel Prize winning mathematician battling schizophrenia, it was light years away from the world of Gladiator.  

Director Ron Howard described Nash as "a scary character to take on, so I needed somebody with real courage." Crowe was chosen because Howard "saw a level of intelligence that whoever played Nash had to be able to display. You can't really act it. It's not a matter of just saying the words. That spark has to be there, and I saw it in spades." Producer Brian Grazer saw another reason why Crowe was ideal casting: "He is able to communicate without words."

The macho, even brutish looking actor gave a tour de force performance, presenting a believable portrait of a man whose most potent ally - his mind - becomes his greatest enemy. Crowe proved that he was, as Howard said, "a character actor at heart." He was also dedicated, "adamant about expressing himself and trying his ideas, and if you'd try to squelch them he'd resent the hell out of it."

A Beautiful Mind opened to mostly glowing reviews, but there was also controversy because the film skirted some homosexual issues in its subject's life. Crowe seemed poised to follow in the footsteps of Spencer Tracy and Tom Hanks, the only actors to win the top Oscar two years in a row. Unfortunately, the momentum was lost following his temper tantrum at the BAFTA ceremony. When his acceptance speech was cut off in mid-sentence on the BBC broadcast, Crowe, accompanied by his entourage, confronted the telecast's director. Words were exchanged, some scuffing allegedly occurred, and the perception that Crowe was a bully may have given a boost to Denzel Washington who took the prize for Training Day

The BAFTA blow-up was only the latest in a series of incidents that cast Crowe in an unfavorable light. There was a TV appearance in which he blew cigarette smoke in a reporter's face, and enough photos of him giving photographers the finger to fill a coffee table book. "Let me just do my work," he told Time. "I just do the work. I'll make movies, and you go to the cinema. Why can't we just keep it at that?"

He may have resented the price of fame, but he also enjoyed the benefits. His success as an actor gave a boost to his band, 30 Odd Foot of Grunts. The six man group, ostensibly a bar band, was invited to appear on PBS's Austin City Limits where Crowe showed himself to be a singer of some ability. Later, he would form a new band with an equally odd name: Ordinary Fear of God.   

On his birthday in 2003, Crowe married Australian singer and actress Danielle Spencer whom he met while filming The Crossing more than a decade earlier. That year, he also embarked on another ambitious project. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World was based on one in a series of books by the late Patrick O' Brian. In this naval saga set in the Napoleonic wars, Crowe played Captain Jack Aubrey who he described as "not always right, but always certain."

"The life was incredibly hard," director Peter Weir said. "I wanted all the actors to live their characters." This included intense training with weaponry, sailing on a ship, learning to fence, and even learning how to load a cannon. Crowe spent three weeks in training before the rest of the cast arrived. "Basically, everything they were about to learn, I went and learned, so if anybody came up and asked me a question, I would have some form of an answer." Crowe also learned to play violin and read dozens of books about naval history.

"I'm just inquisitive," he told Time in explaining the vast amount of research he conducted for each role.

"He was born to be a captain," Weir said. "He has a natural authority. He took command of that ship from the beginning."

When the epic film was released in November 2003, Crowe landed on the cover of Time. Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks were then the world's biggest box-office draws, but the news weekly quoted an agent as saying Crowe "gets offered everything - or everything good - first." The magazine declared that Crowe was "one of the world's biggest stars," but that his off-screen exploits meant he was also "perceived as one of the world's biggest jerks." Co-star James D'Arcy may have described Crowe more perceptively when he said "he has a danger quality. You never quite know what's gonna happen next." Those words would prove prophetic after his next film, Cinderella Man.

"Russell always wanted to do this movie," producer Penny Marshall said. The true story of James J. Braddock, a fighter whose surprise success inspired a country hit hard by the Depression, also attracted Renee Zellweger who coveted the role of Braddock's wife. Once again under the direction of Ron Howard, Crowe trained for the film with his usual dedication, impressing legendary boxing coach Angelo Dundee with his pugilistic skill. "He could have been a fighter," Dundee said. "He's got the greatest left hook I ever saw on a guy."

But it wasn't a left hook that landed him in trouble during a promotional tour for the film in New York. When Crowe tried to call his wife in Australia, he found that the hotel phone didn't work. That "danger quality" was evident when Crowe lost his temper, ripped the phone from the wall, and threw it at an innocent desk clerk. 

Crowe faced a possible seven year jail sentence for his actions, and he was suitably contrite when he released a statement to the press. "I'm at the bottom of a well," he said. "I can't communicate how dark my life is right now. I'm in a lot of trouble."

The headlines were nasty, and photos appeared showing a hand-cuffed Crowe, his eyes hidden behind sunglasses, being escorted away by police. To his credit, he still honored his commitment to appear on The Late Showwith David Letterman several nights later.

"Do you have trouble controlling your temper?" Letterman asked.

The audience laughed when Crowe said, "I have...yeah. I do. Yeah."

Although his appearance was intended to promote Cinderella Man, Crowe's personal troubles dominated the discussion. The film had opened to less than robust business even before the scandal, but Universal executives were quick to blame Crowe when critical acclaim failed to translate into box-office success. It's more likely that the depression era setting was too grim for summer, a season traditionally dominated by more light-hearted entertainment. Or maybe audiences had their fill of boxing with Million Dollar Baby, Clint Eastwood's Oscar winner from the previous year. Box-office dud or not, Cinderella Man was a winner from first frame to last.

Ironically, though James J. Braddock earned his fame with his fists, Cinderella Man gave Crowe the opportunity to display a gentle quality at odds with his off-screen exploits. He is eminently likable as he lectures his son on the importance of honesty, and elicits sympathy when he humbly seeks handouts to feed his family. It was a warm, compassionate performance, and one of Crowe's best.

As for the "incident," it carried a possible seven year prison sentence, but Crowe got off with a $160 fine. Settling a civil suit brought by the desk clerk was costlier, but what's $100,000 to a man who's paid $20 million per film?

After laying low for two years, Crowe returned to the movies by reuniting with Gladiator director Ridley Scott for A Good Year, released in the fall of 2006.

"There's no better person to play this part than Russell," Scott said. Crowe saw his character, Max Skinner, a ruthless businessman, as "a fellow who's got a successful life and has all the things that he thinks he needs." He learns differently when he inherits a vineyard in the south of France and begins to appreciate life's simpler pleasures. It provided the star with an opportunity to be gentler and more light-hearted than in his previous roles. "It's a lovely film, you know," Crowe said, but audiences didn't care, and A Good Year did not live up to its title for those involved. 

To promote the film, Crowe submitted to a 60 Minutes interview with reporter Steve Kroft. To no one's surprise, Kroft asked the star about his "reputation."

"I think my reputation is something that I'll probably try to spend the rest of my life living down, and it probably won't work, you know?"

He's probably right. The "wild man" label will likely endure, but so will his reputation as one of the world's greatest actors. This year, Crowe returns with a vengeance in two highly anticipated films. He'll appear as an outlaw opposite Christian Bale in a remake of the Glenn Ford western, 3:10 to Yuma. Later in 2007, he'll switch to the side of law and order as a detective on the trail of a drug kingpin (Denzel Washington) in Ridley Scott's American Gangster.  

"The older I get, the crotchetier I'm going to get about that integrity," he said. "If I ever stop being the guy that can answer your question straight and look you in the eye and give you my opinion, then I should stop making films."

--by Brian Fairbanks

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