Freedom Filmmaker: After Decades in the Music and Motion Picture Industry, Aaron Russo Found His Calling as a Full-Time Activist for Freedom

By Grigg, William Norman | The New American, June 12, 2006 | Go to article overview
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Freedom Filmmaker: After Decades in the Music and Motion Picture Industry, Aaron Russo Found His Calling as a Full-Time Activist for Freedom


Grigg, William Norman, The New American


One of Aaron Russo's "few regrets" in life, he confided during a lengthy interview with THE NEW AMERICAN, was his impetuous decision not to pursue a career in Major League Baseball.

"I was drafted by the Yankees right out of high school," he recalls. "I was a catcher in our Babe Ruth league on Long Island, and my last year I had a batting average of .489. Baseball was something I loved as a kid. Back in the 1950s, New York was the center of the baseball universe. You had Willie Mays playing with the Giants, Duke Snider with the Dodgers, and Mickey Mantle with the Yankees. It was a time of great rivalries."

"Back then," he continued, "baseball was played on real grass in ballparks that weren't named after corporations. And most of the big stars stayed with their teams for their entire careers, rather than becoming free agent mercenaries and playing for the highest bidder. Like every other boy my age, I dreamed of being a Big League ballplayer--but I actually had a shot."

If he had the shot so many coveted, why didn't he take it?

"Well, as a testosterone-fueled teenager, I had the athletic skills, but no discipline," he replied, wry amusement coloring his husky voice. "For me at the time, springtime wasn't for Spring Training--it was for fast convertibles. I was more interested in hot cars and hot girls than I was in the daily grind of a baseball career. So I passed on the opportunity of a lifetime. I've had a good life with very few regrets--but passing up a chance to play with the Yankees...." As his voice trailed off, it was easy to imagine Russo, as a wise and experienced 63-year-old, offering a smile and a shrug as he thinks of the foolish priorities that governed him at age 18.

Born in Brooklyn in 1943 and raised, largely by grandparents, in Long Island, Russo has fond memories of an America most people living today know only through the movies. In fact, Russo has crafted depictions of his memories in film, leaving a mark as a producer and director.

"We were taught the value of a dollar and the importance of hard work," he recalls. "I remember being told over and over again by my grandparents, 'neither a borrower nor a lender be.' My friends and I loved our old neighborhood, but we wanted to make something of ourselves on the larger stage."

Music and Movies

In the late 1960s, following a brief stint as a college student and member of the Coast Guard Reserve, Russo became owner and manager of the Kinetic Playground, a Chicago psychedelic music club that hosted concerts by now-legendary acts, including Jefferson Airplane, The Who, and Led Zeppelin. At the time, he recounts, "I was aware of the Vietnam War protest movement, and I was involved in a very modest way. But I was too busy building a career to be really involved in politics."

In the 1970s, Russo branched out into record production and talent management, helping to create the vocal jazz group Manhattan Transfer in 1972 and managing singer/actress Bette Midler. He produced an Emmy-winning television special for Midler in 1978, and began yet another phase of his entertainment career by producing her feature film The Rose. (He was awarded a Gold Record for producing the film's soundtrack album.) He went on to produce several other films, including the 1982 standout comedy Trading Places featuring Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd, and directed the 1989 comedy Rude Awakening.

In examining the plotlines of those two films, one is tempted to see a foreshadowing of Russo's own political awakening. Trading Places involves a cruel, whimsical scheme by two elitist money managers who conspire to destroy the career of a rising blue-blooded commodities trader (Aykroyd) and engineer his replacement by a streetwise huckster (Murphy). Rude Awakening chronicles the experiences of two 1960s-era hippies who return to the U.S.A. in the late 1980s after two decades in Central American exile.

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