Back before we had Hollywood icon Kurt Russell, we had his father, Bing Russell. Bing had a lengthy career in entertainment and paved the way for his son Kurt to follow in his footsteps. Though Bing and his wife Louise Julia Crone had four children during their long marriage, Kurt was the only one to follow his father's example in show biz. Though he's best known for his role in the iconic television series Bonanza, Bing appeared in countless films and TV shows throughout his career.
Neil Oliver Russell "Bing" was born in Brattleboro, Vermont in 1926, but grew up around the spring training camp for the New York Yankees in St. Petersburg, Florida. He even became an unofficial mascot for the team while they were in town and became friends with some of the team's most notable Major League Baseball players like Joe Dimaggio and Lefty Gomez. Though he had already established a love of acting at his local high school, Bing also really loved baseball as a result of his close proximity to the Yankees every year. In fact, after he graduated with his business degree from Dartmouth, Bing even played minor league baseball before moving out to Hollywood.
Bing's acting career kicked off in the film Cavalry Patrol. Though he had numerous uncredited roles throughout the 50s, he ended the decade by booking the role of "Deputy Clem Foster" in the beloved western Bonanza. The actor's fame he received playing the deputy (and later sheriff) on the popular western series led to numerous more roles in the Old West. He appeared on all of the iconic classics -- Rawhide, Gunsmoke, The Big Valley, The Virginian, The Rifleman, Wagon Train, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, The Untouchables, and even Little House On The Prairie. He also appeared on some of the other popular shows on the air like The Andy Griffith Show, I Dream Of Jeannie, The Munsters, The Monkees, Highway Patrol, The Donna Reed Show, The Twilight Zone, and The Rockford Files. He was even in the TV adaptation of The Fugitive. The man was definitely kept busy.
His ability to expertly play cowboy characters also translated into major films. You probably remember Bing's role as Robert in The Magnificent Seven. He was the traveling companion of Henry (Val Avery). He also appeared in the Don Knotts classic The Apple Dumpling Gang. Longtime fans of Kurt Russell may fondly remember that he began his acting career as a child. He appeared opposite his father in the Disney film The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes and later in the TV movie about Elvis Presley's life, Elvis. Kurt played the titular character and Bing played his onscreen father, Vernon Presley.
It seems that later in life, Bing just couldn't shake that love of baseball and decided to do something about it. In the 70s, he owned the Portland Mavericks, the only independent team in the Class A Northwest League. Unlike the typical professional baseball team, Bing's motto was "fun." He even went so far to keep things fun that he kept all corporate sponsorships outside of the gate so that the ballpark was fully focused on the game on the inside. As a result, they had the highest attendance in minor league history. But Bing didn't stop there. He also hired the first female general manager in minor league baseball (Lanny Moss). He made history just doing things his own way. His son Kurt even played for the team in their inaugural season in 1973. Unfortunately, after five seasons, Portland bought the team from Bing in order to upgrade the Class AAA Portland Beavers to minor league status. There was even a documentary about the team made in 2014, The Battered Bastards of Baseball and Kurt makes an appearance talking about the team and his experience. Check it out on Netflix!
Bing Russell passed away in his home of Thousand Oaks, California in 2003 after losing a battle to cancer. Throughout his life, Bing made a name for himself as a beloved television actor but his impact on minor league baseball and love of the game will also always be remembered.
This article was originally published in October of 2020.