by Beverly Adam (author of Two Lovers: the love story of Carole Lombard and Russ Columbo).
Who wanted to portray Russ Columbo either in a movie or in a television musical? George Clooney, Tom Cruise, Tony Curtis, Perry Como for starters… Some of Hollywood’s biggest movie stars and singers considered taking on the challenge of portraying the well-liked handsome singer, violin virtuoso, and gifted songwriter, who had been engaged to marry film actress Carole Lombard.
Russ Columbo left a big imprint on Hollywood upon his death in 1934, with his handsome good-looks, velvety smooth baritone voice, and wonderful romantic songs, which he had made famous on-stage, radio, and in the movies. Upon his death, Russ left behind thousands of fans, including some emerging Italian-American singers and Latin actors, who looked at him as a role-model to follow.
In 1945 Paramount Pictures considered casting Andy Rusell as Russ Columbo for a bio-picture about him. Andy was born in Mexico as Andres Rabago, and he received his stage name from orchestra leader Gus Arnheim, who had worked with Russ Columbo at the Cocoanut Grove. Gus was Andres’s legal guardian, as he was underage when he started working in the orchestra. The young Andres performed as a drummer and solo vocalist. Gus suggested Andres change his name in order to draw a bigger audience and to avoid discrimination as a Latin. Gus told Andres, “I used to have a singer, a famous singer fella that took Bing Crosby’s place years ago. His name was Russell Columbo, one of the famous singers of the era. I’m gonna call you Russell–Andy Russell.” (Wikipedia) And so, Andres’s name was changed to Andy Rusell. He, unfortunately, was not chosen for the star role in the movie.
Singer Perry Como had met Russ in Chicago at the Golden Pheasant Club in 1933, while Russ was performing there promoting songs for motion pictures he was co-starring in. The experience of meeting his idol left a big impression on the young Perry and it was well-known that being a first generation Italian-American himself, Perry styled himself to be like Russ.
In 1946 Perry Como’s recording of Prisoner of Love, which Russ had co-written and made famous, went #1 on the billboard charts. He tried to take on the role of a Russ in a bio-picture, but it did not come off.
1950’s Heartthrob Johnny Desmond (born: Giovanni Alfredo De Simone), the singer who had made a “White Suit Coat and a Pink Carnation” popular, had also recorded one of Russ’s biggest hits, “Guilty”, on his record label. Johnny, it was reported, had planned to make a musical out of The Russ Columbo Story and wanted to perform it on Broadway, and then turn it into a movie with a Hollywood production company. His plans fell apart when he disputed with NBC, who claimed the rights and were planning a TV series based on Russ’s life. Johnny as late as 1975 still planned to do a movie about Russ. He was interviewed by The Chicago Tribune at the Playboy Club’s living room and told the reporter, “I think the movie is going to be done. I had always planned to play Columbo, but now I think I should play his brother Fury. (He meant Fiore, Russ’s older brother). I’d like to do the voice over for Columbo (singing).” To my knowledge he never did. He passed away in 1985, not having achieved his goal to portray Russ’s life.
Don Cornell, who like Russ had a smooth baritone voice, was born into a large Italian-American family in Bronx, NY, as Luigi Valaro. Don changed his name during World War II, Americanizing it, so he would be more acceptable to audiences and in order not be booed off the stage due to anti- Mussollini sentiment when they said his name, which had previously occurred during his performances. Don had several billboard hits that went to the top of the charts in the 1950’s, and also was rumored to have been considered for The Russ Columbo Story.
Singer and actor Tony Martin, the husband of famous actress Cyd Cherisse, had his own television show during the 1950’s and a long musical film career to back his ambitions. One of them was to portray Russ Columbo in a biopic movie musical. Tony went so far as to approach one of Russ Columbo’s sisters about the possibility of obtaining the rights to Russ’s life story, but once again the production of another Russ Columbo Story fell through.
Movie actor Tony Curtis also had set his sights in the 1950’s on making a musical about Russ Columbo for NBC, which was to be aired for a one hour program on television. The planned production went as far as rehearsals, but once again for various reasons, including a dispute with Johnny Desmond about the rights, the show fell apart and was not aired.
Tony’s wife, actress Janet Leigh, who would gain legendary fame in Hitchcock’s Psycho, had appeared in the light musical movie Two Tickets for Broadway, with Tony Martin, and in the bio-picture Houdini, with her husband Tony. I think Janet would have made an excellent Carole Lombard.
In the early 1990’s Tom Cruise and Michelle Pfeiffer are at the top of their movie careers. Michelle Pfeiffer’s ethereal beauty and comedic timing is being compared in the newspaper movie reviews to that of legendary 1930’s comedian Carole Lombard. Michelle and Tom have both won Golden Globe Awards for their outstanding performances as actors in film. There begins a rumor that they should be paired together as a movie couple up on the screen. Michelle as Carole Lombard, and Tom as her singing love interest, Russ Columbo. It would have made a great motion picture, but a biopic does not develop and the idea is dropped.
George Clooney, the famously handsome actor/director, who owns a villa in Italy, had also considered making a movie about Russ Columbo based on the book Crooner Mystique by Dennis Penna.
George’s favorite aunt was the well-known singer Rosemary Clooney, who had lived in the same house Russ Columbo had rented on Roxbury Drive in Beverly Hills at the time of his death. The house had been built by actor Monte Blue in the 1920’s and had been lived-in by the song composer George Gershwin. Rosemary lived there with Jose Ferrer, raising her children, doing radio shows. It was said Bing Crosby, who was there to do a show with Rosemary, wrongly thinking that Russ had died in the house, refused to step a foot into the den. He shouldn’t have worried. Russ had been shot and killed by his friend Lansing Brown in Brown’s parents’ home.
Rosemary’s children, a bit frightened by the idea that someone had died in their house, used to call out as they went downstairs at night. “Hello Russ, we’re coming down!” In 2005 the house was torn down and George had by then moved on to other projects.
The only singer to complete a project and sing with the title: The Russ Columbo Story, was singer Paul Bruno, who released an album in 1960, where according to Billboard Chart, Paul “warbled tunes associated with Russ Columbo,” and the album cover featured several pictures of Russ. For more information about Russ Columbo read my free blog:So how famous was Russ Columbo?