Born in 1954, Rene Marie Russo grew up on the wrong side of the tracks in Burbank, a Los Angeles suburb. Her father, a sculptor and mechanic, left the family when Rene was just two, leaving her mother, Shirley, as a single mom with two daughters. (Rene has one sister, named Toni). In Junior High School, Rene was plagued with scoliosis and had to wear a back brace for four years, making her look unusually skinny to her classmates. She was already a tall girl, which earned her the nickname “Jolly Green Giant” from her classmates.
She entered John Burroughs High School, along with classmate Ron Howard, and even though her brace had been removed, she was still somewhat of a loner. Unable to deal with academics and the school social scene, Rene dropped out of school in the tenth grade. Since money was tight, she began to take a variety of part-time jobs over the next 18 months, many for the free benefits. She sold refreshments at a movie theater, worked as a restaurant hostess, and worked as a store cashier at Disneyland, where she had free admission. She often had two jobs at one time. Her last job, which was solely for the paycheck, was a full-time job at an eyeglass factory, inspecting contact lenses.
In 1972, the 17 year old was attending a Rolling Stones concert when she was approached by John Crosby, a scout and manager from International Creative Management. He told her she should be a model and had test photos made of her. Within a few months, Rene signed a contract with Ford Modeling Agency and within a year had become a successful print and photographers model.
Soon her modeling breakthrough came when she graced the cover of Vogue. By 1975, she had appeared on numerous magazine covers, was one of the most successful models in America, and was also starting to be seen in several TV commercials through the 1980’s. She would define what a top fashion model was for years to come. By her 30th birthday, demand for her began to dwindle, as it did for most models at that age. She did a few more commercials and then turned her back on modeling and show business for a while.
Financially secure for the next several years, she began an intense period of literature and Christian theology. She also began to study theater and acting, and began appearing in theater roles at small regional theaters in Los Angeles and elsewhere in California.
Russo made her television series debut in 1987, with a supporting role in the TV series Sable. Two years later, she made her debut in film as the girlfriend of the Tom Berenger character in Major League. Her breakthrough role is generally considered to be her part as martial arts-practicing internal affairs detective Lorna Cole in Lethal Weapon 3 (and again in Lethal Weapon 4) opposite Mel Gibson.
Throughout the 1990s, Russo appeared in a number of high-profile thrillers that were hugely successful at the box office, including In the Line of Fire with Clint Eastwood, Outbreak with Dustin Hoffman, Ransom (directed by high school classmate Howard) and The Thomas Crown Affair starring Pierce Brosnan.
She also tried her hand at comedy in Tin Cup with Kevin Costner, Get Shorty with John Travolta and as the cartoonish Russian spy Natasha in the live-action film version of The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle. She starred in at least one major studio film per year from 1992 to 2002.
Russo more recently co-starred with Al Pacino in Two for the Money and with Dennis Quaid in Yours, Mine and Ours. But she has not appeared in a film since 2005.
Russo has been married to screenwriter Dan Gilroy since 1992. They have one daughter, Rose (born August 31, 1993), and the family currently lives in Brentwood, Los Angeles, California. Her sister Toni was married to lyricist Bernie Taupin in the 1980s, and Rene appeared alongside her sister in the 1987 video for Taupin’s solo song, “Citizen Jane.”