Though perhaps best-known internationally for playing tough-guy roles in Romper Stomper (1993), L.A. Confidential (1997), and Gladiator (2000), New Zealand-born actor Russell Crowe has proven himself equally capable of playing gentler roles in films such as Proof (1991) and The Sum of Us (1992). No matter what kind of characters he plays, Crowe's weather-beaten handsomeness and gruff charisma combine to make him constantly watchable: his one-time Hollywood mentor Sharon Stone has called him "the sexiest guy working in movies today."
Born in Wellington, New Zealand, on April 7, 1964, Crowe was raised in Australia from the age of four. His parents made their living by catering movie shoots, and often brought Crowe with them to work; it was while hanging around the various sets that he developed a passion for acting. After making his professional debut in an episode of the television series Spyforce when he was six, Crowe took a 12-year break from professional acting, netting his next gig when he was 18. In film, he had his first major roles in such dramas as The Crossing (1990) and Jocelyn Moorhouse's widely praised Proof (1991) (for which he won an Australian Film Institute award). He then went on to gain international recognition for his intense, multi-layered portrayal of a Melbourne skinhead in Geoffrey Wright's controversial Romper Stomper (1992), winning another AFI award, as well as an Australian Film Critics award.
It was Sharon Stone who helped bring Crowe to Hollywood to play a gunfighter-turned-preacher opposite her in Sam Raimi's The Quick and the Dead (1995). Though the film was not a huge box-office success, it did open Hollywood doors for Crowe, who subsequently split his time between the U.S. and Australia. In 1997, the actor had his largest success to date playing volatile cop Bud White in Curtis Hanson's L.A. Confidential (1997). Following the praise surrounding both the film and his performance in it, Crowe found himself working steadily in Hollywood, starring in two films released in 1999: Mystery, Alaska and The Insider. In the latter, he gave an Oscar-nominated lead performance as Jeffrey Wigand, a real-life tobacco industry employee whose personal life was dragged through the mud when he chose to blow the whistle on his former company's questionable business practices.
In 2000, however, Crowe finally crossed over into the public's consciousness with, literally, a tour de force performance in Ridley Scott's glossy Roman epic Gladiator. The Dreamworks/Universal co-production was a major gamble from the outset, devoting more than 100 million dollars to an unfinished script (involving the efforts of at least half a dozen writers), an untested star (stepping into a role originally intended for Mel Gibson), and an all-but-dead genre (the sword-and-sandals adventure). Thanks to an aggressive marketing campaign and mostly positive notices, however, the public turned out in droves the first weekend of the film's release, and kept coming back long into the summer for Gladiator's potent blend of action, grandeur, and melodrama -- all anchored by Crowe's passionate man-of-few-words performance.
Anticipation was high, then, for the actor's second 2000 showing, the hostage drama Proof of Life. Despite -- or perhaps because of -- the widely publicized affair between Crowe and his co-star Meg Ryan, the film failed to generate much heat during the holiday box-office season, and attention turned once again to the actor's star-making role some six months prior. In an Oscar year devoid of conventionally spectacular epics, Gladiator netted 12 nominations in February 2001, including one for its lead performer. While many wags viewed the film's eventual Best Picture victory as a fluke, the same could not be said for Crowe's Best Actor victory: nudging past such stiff competition as Tom Hanks and Ed Harris, Crowe finally nabbed a statue, affirming for Hollywood the talent that critics had first noticed almost ten years earlier.
Crowe's 2001 role as real-life Nobel Prize-winning schizophrenic mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr. brought the actor back into the Oscar arena. The film vaulted past the 100-million-dollar mark as it took home Golden Globes for Best Picture, Supporting Actress, Screenplay, and Actor and racked up eight Oscar nominations, including a Best Actor nod for Crowe. The film cemented Crowe as a top-tier leading man, and he would spend the following years proving this again and again, with landmark roles in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Cinderella Man, A Good Year, 3:10 to Yuma, Robin Hood, and State of Play.