One of Hollywood's most prolific character actors, James Russo specialized in playing thugs, gangsters and villains in everything from straight-to-video thrillers to major studio films. Following small but memorable turns in movies like "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" (1982), Russo gained notoriety in the Eddie Murphy action-comedy, "Beverly Hills Cop" (1984), and the adaptation of the off-Broadway play "Extremities" (1986) opposite Farrah Fawcett. Following character parts in "My Own Private Idaho" (1991) and "Bad Girls, he gained well-deserved critical acclaim for his role as the vicious, street-wizened gangster Paulie in the award-winning film "Donnie Brasco" (1997) starring Al Pacino and Johnny Depp, while increasingly making more appearances on popular TV shows like "Without a Trace" (CBS, 2002-09) and "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" (CBS, 2000-15). After joining Kevin Costner for "Open Range" (2003) and Robert Duvall for "Broken Trail" (AMC, 2006), Russo reunited with Depp in the epic gangster movie "Public Enemies" (2009), in which he had a small but pivotal role in the movie's jarring opening sequence. While Russo did not gain the mainstream recognition that other supporting players received, his reputation as a dependable tough guy performer was well known within the industry for the duration of his long and venerable career.
Born on April 23, 1953 in New York City, Russo first began his rise to stardom while attending New York University, where he wrote and starred in the prize-winning short film, "The Candy Store." Before he became an actor, Russo worked as a cab driver and a professional gravedigger, the latter perhaps being a harbinger of the many dark and sinister roles that he would eventually play. Russo made his acting debut in the made-for-television drama, "Chicago Story" (NBC, 1981), which followed the lives of cops, lawyers and doctors, and starred Dennis Franz and Craig T. Nelson. From there, he landed his first big break in the cult classic comedy, "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" (1982) as a high-strung robber who sticks ups Judd Nelson at a convenience store. His first starring role was in the indie film "Vortex" (1982), by the filmmaking couple Scott B and Beth B. In the private-eye spoof, Russo played a foul-mouthed chauffeur who dealt with a variety of shady individuals, junkies, and a midget bartender who doubled as a hit man.
In 1984, Russo appeared in the action-comedy blockbuster "Beverly Hills Cop," starring Eddie Murphy Detroit cop Axel Foley, who travels to California to investigate and track down the killer of his best friend, Mikey Tandino (Russo). While he had little screen time in "Beverly Hills Cop," Russo's image as a hardline bad boy had started to emerge, leading to subsequent gangster roles in crime dramas such as "Once Upon a Time in America" (1984), in which he played small-time hood Bugsy. He also played Vince Hood in "The Cotton Club" (1984), Francis Ford Coppola's film about Harlem's legendary nightclub of the 1930s where only African-Americans performed to a strictly white audience. Critics were all over Russo's career-defining role in the Golden Globe-nominated film thriller, "Extremities" (1986), where he played Joe, a self-pitying psychopath who terrorizes Marjorie (Fawcett) in her home. The film was based on the controversial 1982 off-Broadway play by William Mastrosimone, which had also starred the twosome. Russo's performance in the movie as a sadistic aggressor was frighteningly convincing and was most effective and terrifying when he was tender to his victim.
After supporting turns in Abel Ferrara's "China Girl" (1987), a modern take on Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," Russo was a gangster named Reno in the forgettable crime movie "The Blue Iguana" (1988) before playing a former cop protecting the witness (Darlanne Fluegel) to a spree killing in "Freeway" (1988). From there, he had a supporting turn opposite Robert De Niro and Sean Penn in "We're No Angels" (1989) while putting his rough-and-tumble image to good use in the mystery thriller "A Kiss Before Dying" (1991), where he played a private investigator helping a woman (Sean Young) investigate the murder of her twin sister. He went on to co-star in Gus Van Sant's "My Own Private Idaho" (1991), playing the older brother of a gay street hustler (River Phoenix) who tells him the truth about their family. After appearing in several TV movies like "Intimate Stranger" (Showtime, 1991), "In the Shadow of a Killer" (NBC, 1992) and "Double Deception" (NBC, 1993), Russo turned to slasher movies to play a cop who tries to help a distraught teenage girl (Asia Argento) in Dario Argento's gory "Trauma" (1993).
Following a turn as Madonna's movie husband in Abel Ferrara's self-indulgent movie-within-a-movie "Dangerous Game" (1993), Russo was Kid Jarrett in the female-centric Western "Bad Girls"(1994) before appearing in a string of forgettable thrillers like "The Set-Up" (1995) and "Panther" (1995). He next joined Luke Perry, Eric Roberts and Jennifer Tilly for the "Pulp Fiction" knock-off, "American Strays" (1996). In 1997, he delivered a convincing performance as Idaho, the brutal sergeant of the fascist military group called the Holnist army in the post-apocalyptic film, "The Postman," starring Kevin Costner. That same year, critics praised Russo's powerful performance as the gangster Paulie in the crime thriller "Donnie Brasco," based on the true story of FBI agent Joe Pistone (Depp) as he infiltrated the Mafia in New York in the 1970s. At the same time, he began making more small screen appearances with episodes of the short-lived crime drama "Dellaventura" (CBS, 1997-98) and the FBI action drama "C-16" (ABC, 1997-98). He also revived his "Donnie Brasco" persona for an episode of the TV version, "Falcone" (CBS, 1999-2000).
Back on the big screen, Russo supported Johnny Depp in Roman Polanski's easily dismissed supernatural thriller "The Ninth Gate" (1999), and continued his string of forgettable straight-to-home-video movies like "Sonic Impact" (2000), "Deep Core" (2000), "The House Next Door" (2001) and "Shattered Lives" (2002). Meanwhile, he had a critically acclaimed cameo as Frank Sinatra in the mad caper, "Stealing Sinatra" (2003), starring David Arquette and William H. Macy. The film was based on a true story about a young man who enlisted his friends to kidnap Frank Sinatra's son. Russo next reunited with Costner for "Open Range" (2003), a classic Western film set in Montana, as Sheriff Poole, the corrupt town marshal who displays a strong aversion to open range cattlemen. Following episodes of "Without a Trace" (CBS, 2002-08), "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" (CBS, 2000-15) and "Joan of Arcadia" (CBS, 2003-05), Russo returned to his evil ways for "Target" (2004) with Stephen Baldwin, "Confessions of a Pit Fighter" (2005), and the graphic horror flick "Satanic" (2006). From there, he joined Robert Duvall and Thomas Haden Church with a small role in the Western miniseries, "Broken Trail" (AMC, 2006).
Finding more work on television, Russo logged guest shots on "Las Vegas" (NBC, 2003-08), "CSI: Miami" (CBS, 2002-2012) and "Numb3rs" (CBS, 2005-10), and had a minor role in the two-part miniseries "The Capture of the Green River Killer" (Lifetime, 2008). Staying true to his gangster roots, he portrayed Walter Dietrich, friend and mentor to notorious bank robber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) in Michael Mann's excellent crime drama, "Public Enemies" (2009), which also starred Christian Bale as dogged FBI agent Melvin Purvis. That same year, he starred in the based-on-real-events thriller "Dark Woods," which followed a couple who moved to an isolated cabin in the woods to cope with the wife's (Tracy Coogan) terminal illness. Russo gave a dark, layered performance as the husband who gets entangled in a dangerous and obsessive relationship with a local teenaged girl. Russo followed up with small indies like "Kings of the Evening (2009), "Boy Wonder" (2010) and "Miss Bala" (2011), while landing episodes of "Dark Blue" (TNT, 2009-2010) and "Hawaii Five-O" (CBS, 2010- ). After playing mobster Anthony "Red" Cervelli on "Vegas" (CBS, 2012-13), Russo was one of two ruthless killers - the other played by James Remar - being hunted down by a bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) and an escaped slave (Jamie Foxx) in Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained" (2012).
Cast (Feature Film)
Writer (Feature Film)
Producer (Feature Film)
Cast (TV Mini-Series)
Made film acting debut in "A Stranger Is Watching"
Breakthrough theater role, Raul in "Extremities"
Reprised stage role in the film version of "Extremities" opposite Farrah Fawcett
Co-starred with Deborah Harry in Showtime movie "Intimate Stranger"
Co-starred with Harvey Keitel and Madonna in "Dangerous Game"
Co-starred Al Pacino and Johnny Depp in "Donnie Brasco," and Kevin Costner in "The Postman"
Appeared opposite Depp in Roman Polanski's "The Ninth Gate"
Cast in featured role as a mobster on CBS drama "Falcone," adapted from the same source material as "Donnie Brasco"
Portrayed Frank Sinatra in "Stealing Sinatra"
Feature writing debut, "The Box"
Again acted with Depp in crime drama "Public Enemies"
Featured opposite Jamie Foxx in "Django Unchained," a Western drama set in Mississippi; film written and directed by Quentin Tarantino