May 22, 2000 12:00 PM

Will success make a monster of Russell Crowe? The odds-on favorite someday to snatch Most Favored Australian status from Mel Gibson—with whom he shares a taste for practical jokes and a distaste for personal questions—thinks not. “Oh, mate,” the conquering hero of this summer’s first smash, Gladiator, recently told reporters, “I was a monster 10 years ago.”

A guy who first tried to make it in music under the name Rus Le Roc and titled his first single in the ’80s “I Want to Be Like Marlon Brando,” Crowe, 36, is off to a good start molding an image that looks like a series of outtakes from The Wild One. Motorcycles? Check. After shooting Gladiator, Crowe and 11 buddies took a 4,000-mile Harley-Davidson jaunt around Australia. Rude language? Check. Accompanying Jodie Foster, who is directing his forthcoming drama Flora Plum, to the Golden-Globes in January, he glowered at party guests and growled at Foster, “Stop being so f———popular.” Attitude? Check, check and check: On the Gladiator set in Morocco, he apparently left his rented villa in such a shambles that its caretaker complained, “He must leave! He is violating every tenet of the Koran!” Adds a source from the set: “Russell could act like a jerk, but he’s an artist. He’d have his little meltdown and stomp off for half an hour.”

Like Maximus, the hero of Gladiator, Crowe loves his farm—in his case, a 560-acre spread near Coffs Harbour, Australia, about 340 miles north of Sydney. The similarities don’t end there. Last November, Crowe turned a nearby bar into his own Colosseum. Local DJ Andrew White said Crowe greeted him with the words, “I have listened to your program, and it’s crap.” When White replied, “So are most of your movies,” White says Crowe “turned to my wife and said, ‘I’m going to belt the crap out of your husband.’ ”

Security cameras later showed Crowe starring in three fights (he even threw a punch at his older brother Terry, who lives on his farm) before channeling his inner Mike Tyson: “He was kicking, punching and biting like a wild man,” says one bar staffer. No charges were filed, but the damage to his reputation lingers. “Unfortunately, all it takes is one ant to ruin the picnic,” said bar co-owner Mark Potts (who has been charged with trying to extort money from Crowe in connection with the fight), “and he was the ant.”

So why do so many colleagues adore him? Besides the talent—Crowe kicked butt both onscreen and with critics as detective Bud White in 1997’s L.A. Confidential and led Gladiator to an imperial $35 million opening weekend—there’s a directness that inspires a lot of forgiving. Gladiator producer Walter Parkes says that even before production, Crowe had “many, many criticisms” and left the producers and director feeling “bruised.” But, Parkes says, Crowe came in the next day with some CDs he’d cut with his beloved band 30 Odd Foot of Grunts. “I laid waste to you guys yesterday,” Crowe said. “You can do the same to me today.” Gladiator fight arranger Nick Powell went a few rounds with him too; putting authenticity before safety, Crowe “wanted to use heavy metal swords,” Powell says, “in close proximity.”

Intensity Crowe has to spare, but it has come with a purpose ever since age 6, when Crowe (who moved with his parents from his native New Zealand to Australia as a toddler) broke into acting in the Australian TV show Spyforce—on which his mother, Jocelyn Crowe, worked as a caterer (dad Alex also catered; both parents now live on Crowe’s farm). “I was an embarrassment to my parents,” Crowe told Australia’s Woman’s Day. “My mum used to say, ‘Don’t worry about Russell. He’s a bit mental.’ ”

By age 16, Crowe had formed a band. He dropped out of high school to work as a waiter and bingo caller while landing parts in stage productions of Grease and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Australian movies like 1992’s Romper Stomper, in which he played a neo-Nazi, brought him to Hollywood, which gave him his first U.S. role in 1995’s The Quick and the Dead after costar Sharon Stone pleaded his case. “He is the sexiest guy working in movies,” she said.

Around that time he also parted from his girlfriend of five years, Australian actress Danielle Spencer. “It got to be six or seven months in another country,” Crowe said in 1995, lamenting his work schedule. “Danny’s a young woman, and there’s no way I can stand there and say, ‘You must waste your youth on me.’ ” He put it more romantically in his song “Danielle”: “My eyes get weary I feel like crying/I don’t often do/ Danielle, you know I love you.”

Pining or not, he is notoriously focused on his roles. For his Oscar-nominated turn in The Insider, Crowe swigged bourbon and gobbled down cheeseburgers to pile on 38 lbs., then re-buffed himself in just five months for Gladiator. For relaxation he spends time with longtime pals, including Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise (who attended the odd rugby match with Crowe while Down Under filming Mission: Impossible 2). Even on the grueling Gladiator shoot, Crowe threw dinner parties (“He was genuinely the most gracious and giving person,” says costar Joaquin Phoenix), and he recently took time off from his next film, Proof of Life, to return to Australia to visit an ailing uncle.

Hollywood is carving a bust for Crowe in the action-hero pantheon, but Crowe is keeping his distance. “I’d move to Los Angeles if Australia and New Zealand were swallowed up by a huge tidal wave,” he told Scotland’s Sunday Mail. As for his reputation, he recently told reporters that his main concern is whether his mood swings make him “worth hiring.” In Flora Plum, he pointed out with a smile, “the role I’m playing is a beast in a freak show—which I think is appropriate.”

Kyle Smith

Michael Fleeman, Elizabeth Leonard and Kelly Carter in Los Angeles, Pete Norman in London and Shelli-Anne Couch in Sydney

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