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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.

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. They are astonished by the gusto with which veterans of the hippie counterculture took to the "greed is good" ethic of yuppie materialism.

Russo, an ardent practitioner and defender of free-market capitalism, has never used the medium of film to denigrate honest entrepreneurship. He is an outspoken enemy of both materialistic hypocrisy and of the type of elitism that manifests itself in government control over the economy for the corrupt enrichment of powerful corporate and political interests.

Into the Political Arena

After directing Rude Awakening, "I left the U.S.A. for a little while and lived in Tahiti," Russo recounted to THE NEW AMERICAN. "This was during the first Bush administration, when I became aware that something was seriously wrong with our country, although I couldn't really put into words what it was. We came back in 1991 and I spent quite a while just traveling across the country with my kids, Max and Sam. It was a wonderful experience. We got to know our country very well, and I became aware for the first time that there were millions of Americans who shared my sense that something is terribly wrong, and who were eager to do something about it."

Russo's misgivings about our country's direction were fortified in 1993 by the "utterly horrible atrocities committed by the government at Ruby Ridge and Waco," as well as scores of similar outrages against individual rights--such as property seizures, businesses being driven into bankruptcy by federal regulators, the attack on our sovereignty through the UN and trade pacts like NAFTA, and escalating attacks on privacy and the right to keep and bear arms.

That growing sense of outrage coalesced into Aaron Russo's Mad as Hell, a 1995 pilot for a proposed television talk show. Russo relates that although his pilot didn't sell, his potential impact on the national scene was recognized by some very important people.

"Shortly after I made the pilot, I was approached by one of the younger members of the Rockefeller family," he told THE NEW AMERICAN. "He seemed to think that I had some potential and was offering to mentor me. He even discussed with me the possibility of arranging an invitation for me to join the Council on Foreign Relations. And he seemed to be very interested in my views about a number of subjects I hadn't really given much thought to." One specific subject of interest was the feminist movement.

"[The Rockefeller family member] asked me what I thought of the 'women's movement,' and I told him that I support equal opportunity," Russo continues. "He looked at me and said, 'You know, you're such an idiot in some ways. We'--meaning the people he works with--'created the women's movement, and we promote it. And it's not about equal opportunity. It's designed to get both parents out of the home and into the workforce, where they will pay taxes. And then we can decide how the children will be raised and educated.' That's how they control society--by removing the parents from the home and then raising the children as the elitists see fit."

Russo recalls conversations in 2000 with his Rockefeller acquaintance that, in hindsight, seemed to portend 9/11 and its aftermath.

"About a year before 9/11, this guy was telling me that there would be 'an event' in this country that would change it dramatically," declares Russo. "He was predicting a war in Afghanistan and in the Middle East to control the region's energy reserves, and at some points he was actually laughing about it."

"I know how evil these people are," Russo said grimly.

Although he was intermittently in touch with his "friend" from the Rockefeller family, Russo continued his new career as a political maverick. A 1998 bid for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in Nevada yielded 26 percent of the convention vote in a four-way race. Two years ago he briefly considered a presidential run as an independent, and then mounted an unsuccessful campaign for the Libertarian Party nomination. (After Michael Badnarik got the Libertarian Party's nod, Russo offered to produce television ads for the candidate.)

Challenges to Body and Spirit

For the past several years, amid his campaigns to promote the cause of individual liberty, Russo has been battling cancer, both of the bladder and the stomach. In both struggles, he has found strength in his maturing spiritual convictions. To wage his so-far successful battle against cancer, Russo has turned to holistic and nutritional therapy. In combating the social cancer of collectivism, he has exercised his abilities as a filmmaker. In both undertakings, prayer has played a central role.

"I believe deeply in God," Russo explains. "This has been the real source of my strength in fighting cancer--the hope that comes from understanding that God made me for a purpose, and the joy that comes in doing what I believe God made me to do, which is to fight for freedom. I know that someday we'll all cast off these shells we live in, but that we will continue to live. I've come to understand that each of us was made by God with talents and abilities that we are supposed to use in the struggle to promote what is good and right and true. And it's just as clear to me that we have a capacity for evil, and that evil is organized as well--which means that those of us who recognize what God has given us have to organize to defeat evil."

"I just wish the American people had more faith in themselves, and in God," Russo continues. "The top layers of our government and society support the idea of world government and the destruction of our freedom, but that's not true of most Americans. Too many have been intimidated into silence because of a lack of faith--both in God and their own God-given potential. I hope my film will help them look within themselves and find the strength I know is there, and inspire them to take action--now--to save our priceless gift of freedom."
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Article Details
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Author:Grigg, William Norman
Publication:The New American
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 12, 2006
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