Volume III: Biographies


RUSSELL, William ***

Actor (1910-1913)

William Russell in a studio portrait. Courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (P-310)


Thanhouser Career Synopsis: William Russell was one of the most important players in the Thanhouser stock company from 1910 until 1914.

Biographical Notes: William Russell was born in the Bronx borough of New York City on April 12, 1886 (other accounts say 1884 or 1889), on East 75th Street, the son of Charles Russell, at various times a clergyman and professor (at Fordham University), and Clara Russell, a well-known stage actress. William Russell was educated at Fordham University in the Bronx, New York City, where he studied law, was involved in sports, was a member of the football team, and won a 220-yard swim meet. He then went to Bernarr MacFadden's Institute, where he received a degree. In an interview published in The Motion Picture Story Magazine, March 1913, Russell stated that he had been educated at Harvard. Apparently he studied law, for, following his parents' wishes, Russell hung out his shingle as an attorney in Pittsburgh. Fortunately for a later generation of moviegoers, few would-be plaintiffs or defendants noticed him, and before long he found himself involved in taking and placing racetrack bets. Around the same time he also taught boxing. At one time he was a lifeguard for the Chicago Beach Hotel.

None of these ventures put much money in his pockets, therefore he decided to investigate a stage career, having had considerable acting experience in his youth. William Russell was on the stage and appeared in vaudeville sketches and plays in New York City from the age of eight, when he earned $50 per week with Charles Hopper in Chimmie Fadden, never dreaming that someday he would make the stage his life's work. At the same age he also served as a water boy in A.M. Palmer's Theatre (later known as Wallack's) at 38th Street and Broadway and was seen on stage with Ethel Barrymore in Cousin Kate. For two seasons he appeared in St. Elmo. Over a period of time he appeared on stage with many players, including David Higgins, May Tully, John Stoddard, Catherine Countiss, Ezra Kendall, Chauncey Olcott, Julia Marlowe, Florence Bindley, Roselle Knott and Blanche Bates. He was the leading man in stock companies in St. Louis and St. Joseph, Missouri. For the Poli stock company he played in Philadelphia in St. Elmo and other productions. He also played stock in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and Seattle. His brother Albert also followed a career before the footlights.

Russell in Films: William Russell began his film career in 1910 with Biograph, where he stayed for nine months and played many minor parts. He later recalled that his first role with Biograph was in a film directed by D.W. Griffith, The Roman Slave. William Russell went to Thanhouser in 1910, after leaving Biograph. With the New Rochelle studio he achieved prominence and played leads in many films, becoming one of the best known Thanhouser actors of his time. In the summer of 1912 he was catcher for the Thanhouser Stars baseball team.

In her "From the Inside" column in the August 1913 issue of The Photoplay Magazine, Jean Darnell, who was also a Thanhouser player, wrote of Russell's athletic prowess: "Billie Russell, the big fellow, spends a great deal of time outside of work boxing with the different boys in training for bouts, or with his brother, Albert. They make a wonderful team, and for amateur boxing they head the list."

More on the same subject appeared in her December 1913 column in the same publication: "Billie Russell has taken handsome apartments in Pepperday Inn for the winter, instead of commuting daily from his home in New York. Mr. Russell is quite an athlete and has joined the New Rochelle Rowing Club, and is training every day. This winter, when the Sound is covered with ice, they will keep in practice with a stationary boat in the club house."

In the spring of 1913 the actor left Thanhouser and went back to American Biograph for a short time. The New Rochelle Pioneer, June 13, 1913, carried this item: "William Russell, former leading man at the Thanhouser Film Corporation Studio, but now playing the leads for the Biograph Company, will be the first subject of a series of bronze busts of popular photo players, which are soon to be made by a New York City art company." Shortly thereafter, he returned to Thanhouser for a brief period, and in the last week of August 1913 he went with other players to Cape May, New Jersey, to produce a series of pictures.

A 1913 Sketch: The Motion Picture Story Magazine, March 1913, carried this sketch: "'Here's the man who does the thriller,' said Mr. Adler, the publicity man of the Thanhouser Company, ushering in a big, broad-shouldered, breezy-looking man, who greeted me with a quiet cordiality that made it easy to begin asking the inevitable questions of the interviewer. 'I'm a New Yorker born and bred,' he said in answer to the first question, 'and I still live in the big city, but I was educated at Harvard.'

"I learnt next that Mr. Russell went under Bernarr MacFadden's instruction after he left the big university, and has been a successful teacher of boxing and athletics himself. It was natural that he should take up stage life - he comes from a theatrical family - and before he began his work in the pictures he starred with May Tully. 'You like the pictures better?' I asked. He considered a moment, and let me say right here that Mr. Russell is not the type of man who talks without thinking. He gives his opinions somewhat deliberately, and the hearer feels that whatever he says is absolutely genuine and sincere.

"'My point of view is purely commercial,' he replied, finally. 'This line of work means a good salary all the year 'round; absolute certainty of a good thing, that is. Then it means that a man can have a fixed habitation - a home. And that is what I am going to have. Yes, you are at liberty to state that I am going to be married - it may lessen the volume of my mail, but that doesn't matter!'

"'Shall you continue to live in New York after the happy event?' I asked. 'I want, ultimately, a home in the country,' he answered. 'I want it near New York, of course; a nice little farm and some time to experiment with my hobbies.' I was a bit surprised. I had seen Mr. Russell do such daring and exciting stunts in the films that I had pictured him as a man who would never yearn for the quiet life. He smiled, quietly, when I expressed this thought.

"'You can't tell what a man really cares for by his acting,' he laughed. 'I admit that I enjoy my parts. They are always heroic ones, but, as a rule, they are not actually jeopardizing. Still, once in a while we have a close call. Talk about the ease of this life - there's nothing to it! A month of one-night stands with a stock company isn't to be compared with some of the things we face.' Further questioning drew out the fact that this heroic actor had been injured recently when he was supposed to be rescuing a little girl from a railroad wreck. The child actually got caught in the burning wreckage, and, in protecting her from injury, he was obliged to drop, hurting his knees rather badly. Not long after, Mr. Russell, with Miss Florence LaBadie in his arms, was being pulled up by a rope from the fourth to the fifth story of a burning building. Suddenly he saw that his hand, which was grasping the rope, was about to be caught between the rope and a stone projection from the building.

"'It was a case of losing my fingers if I held on,' he said, 'but I didn't care to drop Miss LaBadie down four stories. I just hung on and yelled for them to stop pulling. They heard me just in the nick of time. My fingers were bruised, but that was all.' Just then a tiny, brown-haired girl came running into the office, and leaned against Mr. Russell's knee, looking at me from under a fringe of brown hair. The man's face lighted instantly as he lifted the child, and she smiled into his face with a look that told of perfect confidence. 'Here's the little girl who does all the stunts with me,' he explained: 'Her name's Marie Eline, and she's the bravest little girl in the country. After a little, we will show you a film [In Time of Peril] where I climb a seventy-five foot trestle and pull Marie off the track, and hang by one hand with her in my other arm, while a train goes over our heads. That was some stunt, wasn't it, Marie?'

"Marie nodded emphatically, but when I asked if she was not afraid, she only looked up into her partner's eyes and shook her head. 'He wouldn't let me fall,' she said, confidently. 'It seems dreadful,' I said, impulsively, 'not only risking your own life, but feeling that other lives are dependent upon you - and all for the sake of the public's amusement.'

"'In the midst of life we are in death,' he quoted, 'that's all there is to it. If it's time - we go! We don't go any quicker by doing our work, whatever it is.' 'How do you spend your leisure time?' I asked, turning from such serious topics. 'I'm extremely fond of swimming and all sports. Twice a year I train with prominent boxers at the Fairmount Athletic Club. We take no vacations, except an occasional off-day.' I had been studying the man as we talked, and my memory of him is a big man, a typical athlete, with brown eyes, a mass of rumpled, half curly hair, good features and a manner that fills one with instinctive confidence. Right living and fair dealing speak frankly from his face in real life as they do in his play life. But remember, girls, he is engaged! - The Inquisitor."

His Later Career: Later, he went to Klaw & Erlanger for about a year, Famous Players, Clipper (for whom he acted in the January 1916 release of The Smugglers of Santa Cruz), American Biograph once again (1916 release of Pique), and then to American, where he was in the famous 1915 serial, The Diamond from the Sky, which in later years was his best remembered role. During his stay with American he lived on a small ranch in Montecito, a suburb of Santa Barbara, where he raised dogs and horses. Although he was a smoker of cigarettes himself, he decreed that no woman could smoke in his house, nor could a woman touch alcoholic beverages there.

In view of work for many companies during the 1914-1916 years, it is probable that he was signed up for specific productions and was not a member of stock companies. Reel Life, September 4, 1915, printed a full-page biography, with several errors, including the statement that he was with Biograph for only "a few weeks." Directories published in 1916 and 1918 noted that he was 6'2" tall, weighed 203 pounds, had dark brown hair and eyes, was an all-around athlete, and was with the American studio in Santa Barbara, California. His thick, dark eyelashes were very distinctive, as was his rich, wavy hair. He was a Christian Scientist.

In 1917, following a courtship of two years' duration which began during the time both were acting in The Diamond From the Sky, he married film actress Charlotte Burton in a ceremony performed in Santa Ana, California. The union later ended in divorce. Among Russell's 1916-1920 American film releases (some later ones of which were released through Pathé) were Soul Mates, The Torch Bearer, The Thoroughbred, The Strength of Donald McKenzie, The Man Who Would Not Die, The Frame-Up, New York Luck, The Masked Heart, The Sequel to The Diamond from the Sky, In Bad, When a Man Rides Alone, Where the West Begins, A Sporting Chance, and The Valley of Tomorrow.

He acted in the William Russell Productions film, This Hero Stuff, directed by Henry King, released in August 1919 through Pathé. He then went to Fox, where he played in Eastward Ho! (1919), Shop with Fire (1920), and Leave It to Me (1920). In early 1920 he was with the Victor studios in New York City. At the time he told numerous interviewers that he did not like New York City at all, despite having spent his childhood there, and he longed to return to California. He continued in films with other companies through the late 1920s. He married Helen Ferguson (life dates: July 23, 1901 - March 14, 1977), who started her motion picture career with Essanay around 1914. William Russell died of pneumonia in Beverly Hills, California on February 18, 1929, and interment was at the Forest Lawn Mausoleum. He was survived by his widow, a brother, Albert Russell, and three sisters, Mrs.William Miller and Mrs. Nicholas Peterson, of New York City, and Mrs. Charles Schaffer, of Los Angeles. Some stills of his films were donated to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences by his wife, Helen, in 1948.

Thanhouser Filmography:

1910: John Halifax, Gentleman (12-2-1910), Looking Forward (12-20-1910), The Vicar of Wakefield (12-27-1910), Hypnotized (12-30-1910)

1911: The Pasha's Daughter (1-3-1911), Bertie's Brainstorm (1-17-1911), His Younger Brother (3-14-1911), The Charity of the Poor (4-4-1911), The Sinner (5-5-1911), The Colonel and the King (5-16-1911), The Stepmother (6-6-1911), Lorna Doone (6-30-1911), A Doll's House (7-28-1911), The Cross (8-22-1911), The Lie (9-19-1911), Young Lochinvar (9-26-1911), Little Em'ly and David Copperfield (10-24-1911), Their Burglar (11-3-1911), The Last of the Mohicans (11-10-1911), The Lady from the Sea (12-12-1911)

1912: The Twelfth Juror (1-12-1912), East Lynne (1-26-1912), The Trouble Maker (2-6-1912), The Silent Witness (2-13-1912), A Message From Niagara (2-23-1912), The Arab's Bride (3-1-1912), Extravagance (3-5-1912), Flying to Fortune (3-12-1912), For Sale-A Life (3-26-1912), The Girl of the Grove (4-5-1912), A Love of Long Ago (4-9-1912), Into the Desert (4-19-1912), Rejuvenation (4-23-1912), The Saleslady (5-7-1912), Jilted (5-14-1912), The Little Shut-In (5-17-1912), Jess, Part 1 - A Sister's Sacrifice (5-21-1912), The Ring of a Spanish Grandee (5-24-1912), Jess, Part 2 - Through the Boer Lines (5-28-1912), Jess, Part 3 - Jess, the Avenger (5-28-1912), On the Stroke of Five (6-11-1912), A Night Clerk's Nightmare (6-14-1912), Under Two Flags (7-7-1912), Pa's Medicine (7-9-1912), The Portrait of Lady Anne (7-23-1912), The Merchant of Venice (7-26-1912), Lucile, Parts 1 and 2 (8-27-1912), Lucile, Part 3 (8-30-1912), A Star Reborn (9-10-1912), Orator, Knight and Cow Charmer (9-15-1912), Undine (9-24-1912), Miss Robinson Crusoe (10-8-1912), When Mercy Tempers Justice (10-15-1912), For the Mikado (10-18-1912), Put Yourself in His Place (10-8-1912), The Little Girl Next Door (11-1-1912), Through the Flames 11-8-1912), In Time of Peril (11-15-1912), The Forest Rose (11-29-1912), The Repeater (12-22-1912), The Star of Bethlehem (12-24-1912)

1913: Some Fools There Were (2-14-1913), The Way to a Man's Heart (3-2-1913), An Honest Young Man (3-9-1913), Won at the Rodeo (3-21-1913), For Her Boy's Sake (3-25-1913), Cymbeline (3-28-1913), Retribution (4-18-1913), Rosie's Revenge (4-27-1913), Marble Heart (5-13-1913), Carmen (5-27-1913), The Caged Bird (6-6-1913), While Baby Slept (6-10-1913), A Modern Lochinvar (6-27-1913), King René's Daughter (7-1-1913), Tannhäuser (7-15-1913), Little Dorrit (7-29-1913), Oh! Such a Beautiful Ocean (8-10-1913), The Missing Witness (8-12-1913), Moths (Mutual 9-1913), Robin Hood, Parts 1 and 2 (Mutual 9-23-1913), Robin Hood, Parts 3 and 4 (Mutual 9-30-1913), A Deep Sea Liar (10-12-1913), A Peaceful Victory (10-17-1913), The Mystery of the Haunted Hotel (10-21-1913), A Twentieth Century Farmer (10-31-1913), The Water Cure (11-2-1913), Little Brother (11-7-1913), Curfew Shall Not Ring Tonight (11-28-1913), The Problem Love Solved (12-2-1913), Peggy's Invitation (12-16-1913), The Bush Leaguer's Dream (12-19-1913)

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