Childhood & Early Life
Russ was born Russell Albion Meyer, on March 21, 1922, in San Leandro, California. His father, William Arthur Meyer, was a police officer in Oakland. Russ was raised single-handedly by his mother, Lydia Lucinda (Hauck), as his parents had divorced shortly after his birth. Both his parents were of German descent. Russ’s mother had married six times, and he had a half-sister named Lucinda.
At the age of 14, Russ’s mother bought him an 8mm film camera, which he later used to create many amateur films. His passion for filmmaking led him to work for '166th Signal Photo Company,' and during World War II, he joined the ‘US Army’ as the company’s combat cameraman. Russ was later moved up to the rank of staff sergeant. His World War II works were released as newsreels.
After completing his services in the army, Russ began working as a still photographer and later became a well-known glamor photographer. He was roped in for 'Playboy' magazine. Russ, however, soon began his full-fledged career as a cinematographer.
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Russ began his career as the cinematographer for the 1950 short film 'French Peep Show.' He worked as a still photographer for the 1956 western film 'Giant.' In 1959, Russ made his directorial debut with 'The Immoral Mr. Teas.' Known for depicting excessive nudity, the naughty comedy feature is regarded as Russ’s first commercial success.
The huge success of the film earned Russ the potential to be a producer. He thus began financing his upcoming ventures. Additionally, he wrote, directed, edited, photographed, and distributed all his upcoming films. In 1960, he released his second “nudie cutie,” 'Eve and the Handyman.' He then released 'Erotica' and 'Wild Gals of the Naked West.'
Russ realized the potential downfall of the “nudie-cutie” market. Hence, he decided to focus on different genres. He then made a documentary titled 'Europe in the Raw' and a comedy titled 'Heavenly Bodies!,' both of which released in 1963. The following year, Russ made the independent film 'Lorna,' which is memorable for its black-and-white cinematography.
In 1965, Russ directed three films, namely, 'Mudhoney,' 'Motorpsycho!,' and 'Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!’ He regarded it as his "Gothic" period. Of these, only 'Motorpsycho!’ was a commercial success, while 'Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!’ later became a cult classic.
In the following years, Russ experimented with color melodramas. His first color film was the 1966 mockumentary 'Mondo Topless' (1966). He then worked on 'Common Law Cabin' (1967) and ‘Good Morning and... Goodbye! ' (1967). In 1968, Russ made the controversial film 'Vixen!' The film grossed millions and was a bold attempt for the era, as it depicted lesbian relationships.
Russ’s talent and money-making skills earned him a contract with '20th Century Fox.' He made the 'Valley of the Dolls' sequel, 'Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.' Released in 1970, the film fulfilled Russ’s wish to work with a premier Hollywood production house. After an initial controversy, the film was eventually a success. Russ then made three more films with 'Fox,' namely, 'The Seven Minutes' (1971), 'Everything in the Garden,' and 'The Final Steal.'
Russ realized that working with a studio hampered his creativity. He then returned to making movies of the sexploitation genre and decided to never work with any studio again. Russ returned to the genre with the 1973 blaxploitation film 'Black Snake.' The film was, however, panned by critics. He released the sexploitation film 'Supervixens' 2 years later.
After working on the 1976 softcore sex comedy 'Up!' and the 1979 sexploitation film 'Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens,' Russ retired from filmmaking, as the softcore market was being overtaken by pornography. Some of his final creations were regarded as Russ’s most sexually graphic films and are still remembered for their extensive use of color, pop art settings, and cartoonish characters.
Russ returned to filmmaking in 2001, with the mockumentary 'Pandora Peaks.' The same year, he also participated in the 'Playboy' production 'Voluptuous Vixens II.' During the 1980s and the 1990s, he sold his films in the DVD market. Many of his films were bought by revival movie houses to be shown in midnight movie marathons. In 1982, the 'British Film Institute' featured Russ’s works as part of its retrospective. He was honored by the 'Chicago Film Festival' in 1985.
Personal & Family Life
Russ had married thrice. After he divorced his first wife, Betty Valdovinos, Russ married one of his softcore actors, Eve Meyer. Russ’s third wife, Edy Williams, too, was one of the actors he had directed. He never had any children, as he thought he was too selfish to have one.
Russ also had some serious affairs. He dated Melissa Mounds who, in 1999, was accused of physical abusing him. He was also said to have been in a relationship with Kitten Natividad, who had starred in his last two films.
In 2000, Russ published his three-volume autobiography, 'A Clean Breast.' Shortly after its release, Russ was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. On September 18, 2004, he died of pneumonia at his Hollywood Hills home. His body was cremated at 'Stockton Rural Cemetery' in San Joaquin County, California. A major portion of his wealth was donated to the 'Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center' in honor of his deceased mother.