Intoxicating Facts About Gail Russell, Hollywood’s Most Reluctant Star

August 17, 2023 | Byron Fast

Intoxicating Facts About Gail Russell, Hollywood’s Most Reluctant Star

Thrust into show business by her domineering mother, Gail Russell was a chronically shy teenager terrified of acting. To fight off her debilitating stage fright, she turned to the bottle...and then the bottle turned on her. This train wreck actress just couldn't cope with her own anxieties and her downward spiral was one of Old Hollywood's most tragic stories.

1. She Was Under Pressure

Gail Russell’s mother, Gladys, had always wanted to be a Hollywood star, but her dreams didn't come true. However, when she gave birth to a baby girl on September 21, 1924, a whole new world of opportunity opened up to her: Her daughter could be the star that Gladys herself had failed to become. Unfortunately, one huge problem stood in her way. 

2. She Was An Oddball

Gladys and her husband started noticing something odd about their daughter. Even though they lived in Chicago, young Gail Russell had an agonizing fear of big cities. In fact, she didn’t seem to like being around people at all. I mean, what five-year-old takes up the solitary hobby of charcoal drawing? Russell craved solitude.

She was terribly shy—a born introvert—and more than anything, she just wanted to be left alone. Gail's timid nature begged one question: How would she ever make it in Hollywood?

Gail Russell FactsGetty Images

3. Her Dream Didn’t Matter

As you can guess, Russell was content just sitting and drawing independently, and planned to be a commercial artist when she got older. Russell’s mother, however, didn’t care what her daughter wanted. Gladys still clung to her dream of being the parent of a Hollywood star—even though her daughter was deathly afraid of being caught in the spotlight.

By the time Russell hit her teens, her parents were ready to take drastic measures. Above all, they wanted to see their daughter shine on center stage.

Gail Russell FactsWikimedia Commons

4. They Made A Move

Russell’s mother probably knew that nothing was going to come of her daughter’s acting career while they were living in Chicago. So, when Russell turned 14, the family abruptly packed up their life and moved to Los Angeles to be near Hollywood. Gladys Russell's plan was becoming an obsession, and she was going to make it happen—whether Russell wanted it or not.

Sadly, Gladys’ next move was to put her daughter directly in the line of fire.

Gail Russell FactsGetty Images

5. She Paid A Visit

During her high school vacation, Russell's mother arranged for her to visit Paramount Studios. Perhaps her mother was just hoping to inspire her and get her excited about the prospect of an acting career—but it led to so much more. When Russell and her friends visited the studio, something happened that exceeded even Gladys' wildest dreams.

Jerry Seinfeld FactsFlickr

6. She Lived A Dream

Russell and her friends were walking through Paramount’s studio when something amazing happened. In a stroke of pure luck, she caught the eye of William Meiklejohn, a talent scout for the studio. He took one look at the young and pretty Gail Russell and knew she had something special. Without hesitation, he approached her about getting into acting. But that wasn't all.

Meiklejohn was ready to offer her a contract right then and there. This was everything Russell's mother had ever wanted...Or so you’d think.

Gail Russell FactsGetty Images 


7. She Slept On The Floor

The truth was, the Russell family was not doing well in LA. They were so poor that Russell was actually sleeping on newspapers on the living floor. They needed the money from Paramount big time, but Gladys had doubts and wondered whether her daughter was still too young to be in films. She was at a loss: Isn’t this what she'd wanted for her daughter all along?

Both mom and dad decided to make a risky decision: They asked Paramount Pictures to wait until Russell finished high school. Surprisingly, the studio agreed.

Gail Russell FactsGetty Images

8. She Played Dress Up

Russell still had no interest in becoming a movie star, so we can assume she was doing something virtually no other teenage girl would do—absolutely dreading her 18th birthday. To get her ready for her movie star career, her mother insisted that Russell put on evening gowns and wear makeup just to parade around the house.

To Russell, it was all a ridiculous joke. In her heart of hearts, she knew she wasn’t movie star material. And considering the horror show to come, she may have been right all along... 

Gail Russell FactsGetty Images

9. She Signed On The Dotted Line

When Russell finished high school, her parents dragged her out to Paramount Studios to sign her contract. It was for seven years and paid $50 a week. Likely, Russell’s thoughts were back at home with her drawing equipment, but here she was facing her biggest fear. Despite this, Paramount had big plans for her. The studio, however, had no idea just how difficult Russell could be.

Gail Russell FactsGetty Images

10. She Couldn’t Do It

Russell landed a small role in the 1943 comedy Henry Aldrich Gets Glamor. But once she got on set, her shyness was glaringly obvious. Gossip shot like lightning between her co-stars. They said it was clear she couldn’t act, and that she’d gotten the job based solely on her looks. It was clear that Paramount had made a huge mistake, but they weren’t about to count their losses—at least not yet.

Gail Russell FactsHenry Aldrich Gets Glamour (1943), Paramount Pictures

11. She Got Personal Training

Russell failed miserably on her first film and Paramount knew it. So, they did what they had to do and hired her a personal acting coach. The coach worked tirelessly on Russell’s stage fright but could do nothing to make her feel comfortable in front of the camera. Somehow, Russell got through her first picture, and probably hoped that was the end of her career. But Paramount wasn’t through with her yet.

Gail Russell FactsGetty Images

12. She Sang For Her Supper

Paramount Pictures likely saw Russell as an investment. They’d signed her on, hired her a private tutor, and now she’d bring in the money. They gave her another small role—this time in 1944’s Lady in the Dark—to see what she could do in a musical. Her co-star was none other than the illustrious screen legend, Ginger Rogers. How would the timid Russell fare next to the dynamo that was Ginger Rogers? I’d guess not too well.

But something happened during Lady in the Dark that would push Russell even further into her career—a career she didn’t even want.

Ginger Rogers factsFlickr, danceonair1986

13. She Didn’t Have To Try

It was true that Russell failed to shine against the star power of Ginger Rogers, but Lady in the Dark ended up being a commercial and critical success: The film went on to receive three Oscar nominations. So, even though Russell didn’t excite critics or audiences, just being in it propelled her career forward. Most young stars have to work like dogs to get ahead, but not Russell. She got there without even trying.

Gail Russell FactsGetty Images

14. She Was A Double

If Russell wasn’t standing out as an actor, what was making her stand out at all? It was two things: her beauty and her likeness to another famous actress. Critics and audiences were starting to notice that, not only was she gorgeous, but she also resembled Hedy Lamarr. But Lamarr was an outgoing actor—and inventor—and Russell was…well, someone who was constantly looking for a place to hide.

Paramount thought her looks would be enough, so they kept casting her in films—even though Russell wanted nothing to do with Hollywood or motion pictures.

Hedy Lamarr FactsGetty Images

15. She Didn’t Read The Fine Print

Maybe Russell and her parents hadn’t read her contract with Paramount Pictures closely enough, but Russell was soon faced with a shocking fact: The studio expected her to appear in about two to three films per year. Most actors would be over the moon for steady work and a decent paycheck, but for someone as shy and afraid of attention as Russell was, it was like a prison sentence.

Gail Russell FactsGetty Images

16. She Made A Switch

Paramount had set up Russell in another Henry Aldrich serial film called Henry Aldrich Haunts a House. However, when news of the nominations for Lady in the Dark came out, Paramount realized that Russell had the potential to become a huge name. They yanked her from the low-budget scary comedy and, to Russell’s horror, put her in a real horror movie: The Uninvited...It was a recipe for disaster.

Gail Russell FactsThe Uninvited (1944), Paramount Pictures

17. She Broke Down

The horror of The Uninvited started, for Russell anyway, on the first day of filming. Instead of getting better, Russell’s stage fright was actually getting worse. It got so bad that Russell would break down in tears after every five or six lines of dialogue. Of course, this made the filming of the movie slow to a snail’s pace, and it did something even worse: Russell alienated the cast and crew.

There was, however, one friendly face in the crowd.

Gail Russell FactsThe Uninvited (1944), Paramount Pictures

18. She Had A Friend

Actor Ray Milland had worked with Russell in Lady in the Dark, so he knew that she struggled with crippling shyness. The Lost Weekend actor could have added to Russell’s misery by gossiping like the rest of the cast and crew, but instead, Milland did something chivalrous: he took Russell aside between takes and helped her with her lines.

However, this was the least of her worries. Russell's struggles went far beyond delivering her lines.

Gail Russell FactsWikimedia Commons 

19. She Had A Costume Meltdown

Allegedly, on one occasion, Russell had a full-blown crying fit over something she had to wear. Director Lewis Allen wanted her to wear a particular hat for a scene and, apparently, Russell didn’t fancy it. Instead of telling the truth and saying she didn’t like the hat, Russell told her mother she had a sore throat and refused to work. Much crying ensued and again they wasted valuable film time on the actress's antics. However, her troubles didn't end there.

Gail Russell FactsGetty Images

20. She Was A Handicap

The daily rushes for The Uninvited were in, and the results were bad. Charles Brackett, one of the producers, said that Russell came across as “amateur and adenoidal.” The writer of the film, Dodie Smith, didn't have anything better to say about Russell’s acting. The ugly truth was undeniable: Paramount had hired Russell for her looks, and now the film was in serious trouble.

Gloria Grahame FactsFlickr, Marco Verch

21. She Stressed Them Out

Tensions on the set of The Uninvited were running high, and it was all because of Russell. The truth of the matter was that she literally didn’t want to be there—but because of her contract, she had to stay. Yes, her co-star, Milland, was helping on the sidelines, but still, Russell suffered terribly. They needed a solution immediately. Unfortunately, when they finally landed on a solution, it turned everything into an even bigger mess.

Gail Russell FactsGetty Images

22. She Received Some Bad Advice

Someone came up with a cure for Russell’s stage fright—but no one seems to know who it was. Maybe that’s because the idea was incredibly unethical. Russell was instructed to use booze to help calm her nerves. Until that fateful moment, she had always been completely sober, never indulging in alcohol. Sadly, with no other alternative in sight, she decided to give it a try.

Gail Russell FactsGetty Images

23. The Source Is A Mystery

This piece of terrible advice seems to have no owner. Some reports say it was a co-star, others blame it on the head of the make-up department. Some biographers decided to pinpoint the advisor specifically, and the name they came up with was actor John Wayne. So why wasn’t anyone owning up to giving her the advice? Well, we’ll soon see how this recommendation was the beginning of the end for poor Gail Russell.

Merle Oberon FactsFlickr

24. She Radiated Terror

It wasn’t just Russell’s association with the hit film The Uninvited that moved her forward in Hollywood, critics actually applauded her acting. But let’s take the praise from critics and read between the lines. They said that she “radiates the terror that besets her.” So, was she acting, or was she just terrified at being in front of the camera?

Whichever it was, her performance in The Uninvited would lead this reluctant star to more and more Hollywood roles.

Interview With The Vampire FactsShutterstock

25. She Was Extremely Private

The rest of the 1940s saw Russell's career in bloom. Somehow, in spite of her crippling shyness, Russell managed to land role after role. However, there was one other thing about Hollywood that Russell despised—scandal. She wanted nothing to do with the entertainment world's vicious gossip mill and was desperate to keep her private life private.

Russell managed to steer clear of publicity, that is until they paired her with Western superstar, John Wayne.

Gail Russell FactsFlickr

26. She Had A Crush

Besides being a gifted actor, John Wayne had become a producer at Republic. His first film for them was 1947’s The Angel and the Badman and his co-star was none other than Gail Russell. Wayne was kind to Russell. He helped her with her shyness and even lent her money to buy a car. Unfortunately, Russell took his kindness for something else.

The naive Russell fell hard for the already married Wayne, and worse yet, she hoped he might feel the same.

Gail Russell FactsWikimedia Commons

27. She Got Told

When Wayne realized that Russell had a thing for him, he had to act fast. But this didn’t mean he actually had a discussion with her about it. What he did was much more humiliating for Russell. Instead of stepping up to the plate and ending things himself, he enlisted his secretary to do the dirty work for him. Russell absorbed the blow as best she could, but the press wasn’t about to let this friendship drop so easily.

Gail Russell FactsWikimedia Commons

28. There Were Rumors

Apparently, there was a reason Russell fell so hard for Wayne. You see, Wayne was spending a heck of a lot of time in Russell’s dressing room. He said he was helping her with her stage fright, but the press—and Wayne’s wife—thought otherwise. The rumor was out there and someone had to do something to stop it. Well, that job came down to Russell.

Gail Russell FactsWikimedia Commons 

29. She Tied A Knot

Russell—determined to put an end to the horrible rumors—did something rather drastic. She decided to get married. On August 1, 1949, Russell tied the knot with handsome TV actor, Guy Madison. However, if Madison was looking for a wild adventure with Russell by his side, he certainly didn't find it. After only six months, the hasty marriage had crashed and burned.

The relation had failed, and worse still, the rumors about Russell and Wayne were at an all-time high. Russell’s private life was getting more and more public and she despised every second of it.

Gail Russell FactsWikimedia Commons

30. She Returned To The Scene

The press wouldn’t seem to let it go when it came to Russell and Wayne, but Wayne wasn't doing anyone any favors. In 1948, he made the unwise decision of casting Gail Russell in his next film, Wake of the Red Witch. And yes, she played his love interest. Weren’t Wayne and Russell supposed to be cooling the rumors? It was becoming pretty clear that something was happening between them, and Wayne’s hot-tempered wife finally woke up and smelled the coffee.

John Wayne FactsWikimedia Commons

31. She Partied All Night

The final cast party for Wake of the Red Witch was a full-on bash with Wayne and Russell partying hard—but it ended in infamy. When Wayne returned home, he found his wife, Esperanza Baur in a wild state. She'd been drinking, and more terrifying still, she was holding a firearm. Bauer took aim at Wayne and accused him of having an affair with Russell.

The next thing Wayne heard was a loud blast.

Gail Russell FactsWikimedia Commons

32. She Caused A Scene

The bullet came screaming out of Baur’s firearm and narrowly missed Wayne’s head. Baur had had enough of being jealous about Wayne and Russell; she wanted that pesky little actress out of her husband’s life forever. Next, she broke down crying, probably hoping that between the filming and her tears she’d get what she wanted. To Baur's dismay, however, the opposite happened.

John Wayne FactsGetty Images

33. She Had Her Chance

In 1953, Wayne filed for divorce from Baur. And what about the rumors about there being something more between Russell and Wayne? Well, once Wayne was a single man, the two finally had their chance and I’m sure there were more than a few Hollywood gossip columns waiting to see if a romance between the two friends would blossom.

Well, it didn’t happen, and there’s even a court document to prove it.

John Wayne And Esperanza BaurGetty Images

34. She Testified

During the divorce trial of Wayne and Baur, Baur continually brought up the fact that her husband and Russell were having an affair. Russell, who’d gotten back together with her ex, Madison, had to testify at the trial. She gave her testimony without a hitch, but there were consequences. Russell’s dirty laundry had been aired for all to see, and this fact led her down a dark and dangerous path.

Gail Russell FactsGetty Images

35. She Felt Exposed

The intensely private Russell now had to live with the fact that the public knew about her personal life. It came out in the trial that she’d had a crush on Wayne and, worse still, that she drank to calm her nerves on set. Ironically, this fact caused her to drink even more. Two weeks after she’d testified in court, something happened that pushed her into the spotlight of the public's scrutiny.

Gail Russell FactsGetty Images

36. She Got Pulled Over

In November 1953, officers stopped Russell’s car because they suspected she’d been drinking. As it turned out, she was well over the limit to drive, and the officers didn’t feel that letting her off with a warning was enough—so they threw the book at her. This meant the worst for Russell, and she had no choice but to spend a night behind bars.

Time spent in a dirty cell was certainly a wake-up call for Russell, but what she did in the morning light wasn’t what you might expect.

Joanna of Castile FactsShutterstock

37. She Came Apart

Instead of seeing this tragedy as a reason to sober up, Russell saw it as a reason to break things off with her current beau. At this point, Russell instigated her second separation from Madison. Maybe Russell saw Madison as her enabler and thought that getting rid of him would help her sober up. Well, what happened next proved this theory absolutely false.

Gail Russell FactsWikimedia Commons

38. Her Punishment Was Severe

Just two months after spending a night in the slammer, Russell was out on the town again. She was so inebriated that she got taken to court for it. The judge in Santa Monica gave her a fine of $150 instead of sending her to prison. But the court didn’t stop there. They went straight for the jugular and gave her a two-year ban: no drinking, no substances, and no nightclubs.

It looked like the party was over—but this spiraling actress had so much farther to fall.

Gail Russell FactsGetty Images

39. She Had To Listen

In May 1954, Russell finalized her divorce from Madison. Of course, the proceedings were all over the media, and the fallout was excruciating. Russell had to sit on the sidelines and listen as her husband made various claims against her. What Madison had on her wasn’t very damaging though. In fact, he was downright petty, claiming she didn’t keep a clean house or entertain visitors.

While the allegations weren’t very scandalous, Russell suffered just knowing that her private life was being made available to the public. She was losing control of her life, and there was nothing she could do to get it back.

Dinah Washington FactsPixabay

40. She Collided

In February 1955, Russell had yet another car accident. This time, however, the situation was far more dangerous: The car she hit contained a young couple and their baby. While the family wasn’t seriously injured, Russell received yet another fine. However, the driver of the other car wasn’t about to let Russell get off without paying her dues.

He decided to sue her, and the sum he wanted was $30,000. Russell quickly settled out of court, but now she had a big bill to pay and only one way to pay it.

Gail Russell FactsGetty Images

41. She Made A Comeback

Russell needed work, but who would hire her? Luckily, Russell had remained friends with her old "flame" John Wayne and, as luck would have it, he had a movie in the works. The film was 7 Men from Now and he agreed to cast Russell opposite Randolph Scott. The big question was: would Russell resort to her old trick of drinking to calm her nerves? Well, her behavior on the set definitely raised some serious red flags.

Gail Russell FactsWikimedia Commons

42. She Did A Nosedive

In 7 Men From Now, there's a scene where Russell’s character appears to be drenched in mud. The director was adamant that she looked authentically dirty—not like the make-up people had just lightly dabbed her costume. Russell came up with the solution. She asked the crew to step aside and took a running dive straight into a huge mud puddle.

Was this outrageous behavior evidence of her sobriety or her return to the bottle? Only time would tell.

Gail Russell Facts7 Men From Now (1956), Warner Bros.

43. She Thrived

Russell continued on with her career and seemed to have her life in order. She worked in television on the anthology series Studio 57 and made a film noir, The Tattered Dress, with Jeff Chandler in 1957. There were no reports of any problems on set with Russell. Could it be that she had conquered her stage fright and given up drinking for good? Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth.

Gail Russell FactsGetty Images

44. She Drove Through

Gail Russell's most infamous mistake had near-fatal consequences. Completely inebriated, she drove her car straight into a coffee shop. Again authorities took Russell into custody. There was, however, something worse here...Her speeding car had run over a janitor who was working the night shift—and it unleashed unprecedented chaos.

Gail Russell FactsGetty Images

45. She Had A Date

The LA authorities charged the out-of-control actress, but her problems were far from over. You see, the janitor she'd run over wasn't just going to walk away from this mess empty-handed: He filed a suit against her for a whopping $75,000. However, when her day in court arrived, she made another cringeworthy blunder.

Divorce Screwed client factsShutterstock

46. They Found Her

Instead of appearing in court, Gail Russell was at home quietly drinking herself into oblivion. They eventually went to her house and found her passed out on the floor. The verdict from the courthouse came swiftly: a fine of $420, a suspended sentence of 30 days, and three years’ probation. Surely this was the end of her career. Who would hire such damaged goods?

Gail Russell FactsGetty Images

47. She Called It Quits

After this humiliating ordeal, Russell surprisingly still found work. Wayne hired her again, this time for 1958's No Place to Land and she appeared in two television shows: The Rebel and Manhunt. Her final film was the 1961 low-budget dog drama, The Silent Call. After this film, Russell finally called it quits, bought a small house, and prepared to live out her final years in total isolation.

Gail Russell FactsManhunt, Screen Gems

48. She Flew Solo

Gail Russell didn’t do well on her own. She fluctuated between inebriation and sobriety and, at one point, even had to check herself into the hospital. In August of 1961, some neighbors became worried. They hadn’t seen Russell for several days and wanted to make sure she was okay. When they entered her house, they were met with a devastating sight.

James Brown FactsShutterstock

49. She Clutched A Bottle

The concerned neighbors entered Russell’s home and found her lifeless body inside. There was an empty booze bottle beside her, and a huge number of other empties littering the house. The autopsy stated the heartbreaking reason for her passing: liver damage, malnutrition, and choking on the contents of her stomach. Her solution to stage fright had ultimately caught up with her, but the sad fact was—she was only 36 years old.

Gail Russell FactsGetty Images

50. She Was A Sad Inspiration

In 1986, when Jane Fonda scored a role as a promising actress who overindulged in drinking, her first thought was Gail Russell. Fonda researched Russell’s sad life and used it to make her character in The Morning After more believable. Russell was obviously great source material, and Fonda’s performance earned her an Academy Award nomination for best actress.

Gail Russell FactsThe Morning After (1986), 20th Century Fox

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

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