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 Columbo left behind thousands of fans, including some emerging Latin singers/actors who considered him to be a role-model to follow.
The year World War II ended, Paramount Pictures considered casting Andy Rusell in a bio-picture about Russ Columbo. Andy Russell was born in Mexico as Andres Rabago. He received his stage name from orchestra leader Gus Arnheim, who had worked with Russ Columbo at the Cocoanut Grove. Arnheim was Andres Rabago’s legal guardian, as he was underage when he started working in the orchestra. The young Andres Rabago performed as a drummer and solo vocalist. Arnheim suggested Rabago change his name in order to draw a bigger audience and to avoid discrimination as a Latin. Arnheim told him, “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, Rabago’s name was changed to Andy Rusell. He, unfortunately, was not chosen.
Singer Perry Como had met Russ Columbo in Chicago at the Golden Pheasant Club in 1933, while Russ Columbo was performing there promoting songs for the motion pictures he was starring in. The experience of meeting his idol left a big impression on the young Perry Como and it was well-known that being a first-generation Italian-American himself, Como styled himself to be like Columbo.
Perry Como’s recording of Prisoner of Love, which Russ Columbo had co-written and made famous, went #1 on the Billboard Charts in 1946. Perry Como tried to take on the role of Columbo 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 Columbo’s biggest hits, “Guilty”, on his record label. Johnny Desmond, it was reported, had planned to make a musical out of The Russ Columbo Story and wanted to perform it on Broadway first, 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 Columbo’s life. Desmond, as late as 1975, still planned to do a musical motion picture about Columbo. 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 Columbo’s older brother). I’d like to do the voice over for Columbo (singing).” He never did. Desmond passed away in 1985, not having achieved his goal to portray Russ Columbo’s life.
Don Cornell had a smooth baritone voice like Russ’s and was born into a large Italian-American family in Bronx, NY, as Luigi Valaro. Cornell changed his name during World War II, Americanizing it. He made himself more acceptable to audiences in order not be booed off the stage due to anti- Mussollini sentiment when they said his name, an event which had previously occurred during one of his performances. He had several Billboard Charted 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 Charisse, 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. Martin went so far as to approach one of Russ Columbo’s sisters about the possibility of obtaining the rights to Columbo’s life story, but once again the production of another Russ Columbo Story fell through.
In the 1950’s, finding the perfect singer/actor to portray Russ Columbo was a bit like a casting call of the singers Hall of Fame. This included young teen-idol, the dreamboat Alan Dale. He had made a hit of the songs “Oh, Marie”, “Gentle and Sweet” (#10 Billboard) and “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White”. The teen was considered to be extremely talented and went by the moniker Prince of The Baritones. When he was still underage, he had his own TV show with Dumont and CBS Pictures (1948). Alan Dale recorded the hit song “Heart of My Heart” with fellow Russ Columbo wannabes Don Cornell and Johnny Desmond. The song was on the Billboard Chart at #10 in 1953. Alan Dale was well qualified to portray Columbo. He too came from an Italian-American family (bn: Alando Sigismondi) and was born in New York. His father had been a theater comedian and Alan Dale started performing onstage when he was nine years old. It was reported in a couple of sources that in 1955 he was approached by film producers who intended on making a motion picture of Russ Columbo’s life. It seemed like the singer was a “sure in” for the role, but for an unknown reason (most likely the copyrights) the motion picture was never made.
Movie actor Tony Curtis had also set his sights in the 1950’s on making a musical about Russ Columbo for NBC, which was to be aired for one hour on tv. The planned production went as far as rehearsals, but for various reasons, including a dispute with Johnny Desmond about the rights, the show fell apart and was not aired.
Comic Sid Caesar was a gifted linguist and musician. He performed on his own tv show with Benny Goodman, the big band orchestra leader, and drummer Gene Krupa, both of whom had worked for Russ Columbo when they were first starting out in the business. Contrary to what many biographers wrote, both Goodman and Krupa claimed on television that they had “enjoyed” working for Russ Columbo.
Caesar did a comic sketch titled: “Housewarming” for his television show. Housewarming Sid Caesar Show (click here to view show) Imogene Coca wears a fur wrap similar in style to the one Carole Lombard wore to Clifton Webb’s housewarming party (lighter in color). Her date, according to movie actor Clifton Webb in his biography, was Russ Columbo. Caesar is dressed in clothing identical to what Russ Columbo wore in the wedding scene from Broadway Thru a Keyhole, speaks in the same range of voice and could pass for Columbo’s double. The sketch is also loaded with well-known Carole Lombard-isms connected to her life. Caesar was trying to show in a comedic manner that there were ways to go around the copyrights issues plaguing productions in the 1950’s wanting to portray Russ Columbo’s life. And as you can see from the photo above (Wikipedia), the comic often dressed and looked like Columbo on his show. By the way, yes, I think he was making a bid for the role, but as he had his own show, Caesar successfully went ahead and honored Russ Columbo and his romance with Carole Lombard in his own unique manner. Bravo!
Skip ahead a couple of decades…
Tom Cruise and Michelle Pfeiffer were in the 1990’s at the top of their movie careers. Michelle Pfeiffer’s ethereal beauty and comedic timing were being compared in the newspaper and movie reviews to that of Carole Lombard’s. Michelle Pfeiffer and Tom Cruise both won Golden Globe Awards for their outstanding performances as actors in film at the same time. There begins a rumor that they should be paired together as a movie couple up on the screen. Michelle Pfeiffer as Carole Lombard, and Tom Cruise as her singing love interest (Russ Columbo). It would have made a great motion picture. A biopic, however, 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 Clooney’s favorite aunt was the well-known singer Rosemary Clooney. She had once 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 Clooney lived there with husband Jose Ferrer, raising her children. It was said Bing Crosby came one day to visit Rosemary and to discuss the radio show. Crosby, wrongly thinking that Russ had died in the house, refused to step into the den. He shouldn’t have worried. Russ Columbo had been shot and killed by his friend Lansing Brown in Brown’s parents’ home, not there.
Rosemary Clooney’s children, a bit frightened by the idea of a ghost haunting the house, used to call out as they went downstairs at night, “Hello Russ, we’re coming down!” Sadly, despite protests not to, the house was torn down in 2005. The other house, the one on Outpost Drive, which Russ Columbo owned and lived-in with his parents, still remains in existence today. Movie actress Melanie Griffith recently lived there.
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 Magazine, Bruno “warbled tunes associated with Russ Columbo,” and the album cover featured several pictures of Russ Columbo. For more information about Russ Columbo read my free blog: So how famous was Russ Columbo?