By Susan Wloszczyna | Thompson on Hollywood March 31, 2014 at 1:48PM
Signature line: “What we do in life echoes in eternity.” – Maximus Decimus Meridius in 2000’s "Gladiator"
The new millennium dawned with Russell Crowe hoisting his sword and shield as he established himself as a broodingly complex action hero -- all in the service of reviving Hollywood’s tradition of historical epics as the conflicted Roman general reduced to slavery in Ridley Scott’s "Gladiator." But as the quote from his Oscar-winning role implies, Crowe’s penchant for angry outbursts off screen would eventually overshadow his acting feats on film. His temper tantrums took a toll on his status both as an A-list leading man as well as a popular box-office draw. However, this past weekend’s healthy $44 million opening of "Noah" with Crowe as the ark builder not only revitalizes another genre – the biblical epic – but it could help re-establish the actor’s rep as a major player in the film industry.
Career peaks: Crowe was born April 7, 1964 in Wellington, New Zealand, to a pair of movie-set caterers who moved to Australia when he was 4. He made his acting debut soon after with a line of dialogue on the Aussie TV series "Spyforce," produced by his mother’s godfather. His career as a performer initially began as a musician with the stage name of “Russ Le Roq,” although songs like “I Just Want to Be Like Marlon Brando” gained little traction. His first major professional acting role was in an Australian stage production of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" in the late 1980s. TV show appearances and small films followed, along with a bit of street busking . But he found his stepping stone to global fame as Hando, the vicious leader of a ring of skinhead neo-Nazis in 1992’s "Romper Stomper." Variety described his character as “a brute with a veneer of charm whose bible is Mein Kampf.”
Hollywood soon came calling, casting him in the so-so techo thriller "Virtuosity" and the gunslinger yarn "The Quick and the Dead," both in 1995. But Crowe’s brutish tortured cop in 1997’s film noir "L.A. Confidential" -- The Washington Post praised his “ unique and sexy toughness … Mickey Rourke without the attitude” – ignited a hot streak as he went on to star in a string of other best-picture Oscar contenders: winners "Gladiator" and "A Beautiful Mind" (2001) along with "The Insider" (1999) and "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" (2003). But a cooling-off period began in 2005, when the boxing bio-pic "Cinderella Man" – his reunion with "A Beautiful Mind" director Ron Howard – under-performed at the box office after his bullying behavior off-screen started to interfere with the public’s perception of him.
Biggest asset: Anyone who witnessed a surfer-haired Brad Pitt’s stilted stab at playing Greek hero Achilles in 2004’s "Troy" realizes it isn’t easy to bring a larger-than-life legend down to Earth for modern audiences. Despite his career ups-and-downs, Crowe – much like Kirk Douglas or Burt Lancaster of yore – continues to excel in these roles, as his performance in "Noah" proves once again. He will never possess the easy-breeziness of a George Clooney (and Lord help us if he lumbers through another comedy like 2006’s "A Good Year") or the soulful agony of a Denzel Washington. But Crowe’s innate manliness and physicality can still provide a welcome anchor for audiences in the midst of emotional turbulence and CGI-produced spectacle. As The Guardian observes in its "Noah" review: “Russell Crowe is just about the only actor who could have pulled off the mixture of muttering, furrowed-brow intensity and slice-and-dice combat … that the role calls for. Crowe's commitment is entirely commendable, and he brings his A game: the furious singleness of purpose, the savage whispering, the unadorned machismo.”
Awards attention: Crowe won a best actor Oscar for "Gladiator" and was nominated for "The Insider" and "A Beautiful Mind." He is part of an elite club of seven performers who were nominated in the lead category for three consecutive years, joining Spencer Tracy, Gary Cooper, Gregory Peck, Richard Burton, Jack Nicholson and William Hurt. Marlon Brando holds the title with four – while Al Pacino had three best actor nods and one for supporting.