A 25-year devotion to the Kennedy assassination is paying off

November 15, 1993|By David Williams | David Williams,Contributing Writer

Catonsville resident Gus Russo's interest in the assassination of John F. Kennedy has led him to prominence this month. He'll be interviewed by Dan Rather and his work featured on PBS's "Frontline."

With the 30th anniversary of Kennedy's assassination, Mr. Russo has found himself in demand by the media as they scramble to untangle the knot of conflicting theories surrounding the country's most classic mystery. Mr. Russo's resistance to entrenching himself behind any single theory or conclusion has earned him a growing reputation for level-headed insight on the most controversial details of the case -- Dan Rather's producer called him "the voice of reason among thousands" of arguing experts.

Mr. Russo plays an influential role as a reporter in a three-hour "Frontline" program airing tomorrow that introduces new physical evidence linking Lee Harvey Oswald to the assassin's rifle, testimony from witnesses who until now have refused to comment and a lineup of former KGB agents. Mr. Russo also will appear as a case expert Friday in a CBS special report on the assassination by Mr. Rather. On Nov. 22, the actual anniversary, Mr. Russo will join Norman Mailer and other speakers at a national symposium on JFK in -- where else? -- Dallas.

Mr. Russo has devoted almost 25 years of work to the Kennedy case, including a stint as a researcher on Oliver Stone's film, "JFK." Most recently, he signed a book contract with Simon & Schuster.

It was only five years ago that he took the risk of pursuing the trail full time. At the time he was a musician in Lake George, N.Y. He played in several groups that took him traveling around the country and gave private lessons for piano and guitar. He even wrote musical scores for two full-length films.

"I felt that I had reached a plateau in my life," says Mr. Russo. "I was asking myself, what next? What do I know enough about that I could use to make a living?"

The answer lay in his passion for the Kennedy assassination. So, hereturned to Catonsville where he'd been raised, took an apartment and for two years lived off credit cards while typing out a proposal for a documentary and fictional screenplay on the assassination he titled "The Gemstone File." Months after mailing them away, just as he was about to declare personal bankruptcy, he got phone calls from both Hollywood and PBS.

Backed by a PBS grant, Mr. Russo traveled around the country with producer Harry Moses, a 15-year veteran of "60 Minutes," interviewing a wide variety of people related to the case. Although the documentary eventually was shelved, Mr. Russo's knowledge of the case and his network of contacts expanded quickly, resulting in his role with the recent "Frontline" program, "Who Was Lee Harvey Oswald?"

A phone call from Hollywood led to a meeting with Oliver Stone in Dallas, where the director was preparing his movie version of the Kennedy assassination. He had read Mr. Russo's screenplay and wanted his view on the many conspiracy theories. Mr. Stone was determined to use the New Orleans District Attorney Jim rTC Garrison as the heroic character who would assess the evidence and reveal the various theories. But, Mr. Russo stressed that in reality Mr. Garrison's role was too controversial and that the director would face severe criticism by historians and the media if he took such liberty with the facts.

Mr. Stone remained adamant but hired Mr. Russo to serve as a technical adviser and to footnote the published screenplay. Upon its release, the film received the heat from historians and the media that Mr. Russo had predicted.

But the film does bear Mr. Russo's distinctive fingerprint -- an understated footnote that appears at the movie's conclusion stating that many of the pertinent records related to the case would remain closed by the U.S. government until the year 2038. Public opinion, aroused in the wake of the film's release, played a direct role in having the files opened earlier this year.

"That's the thing that I'm most proud of," says Mr. Russo. "At the end of the movie you see that statement about the records, which Stone didn't even know about until I told him. The message got on there, a bill was written and the files were released. A million pages are out right now and there's a few hundred thousand more coming. Every government agency, including the CIA and FBI, had to kowtow to that movie."

Mr. Russo continues to advise Mr. Stone occasionally on issues related to the case by phone from his home in Catonsville, where he works full time with author George Feifer on a book for Simon & Schuster. Tentatively titled "Private Demons, Public Deceit: The Full Tragedy of the Kennedy Assassination," the book is expected to look beyond Oswald as the killer and focus attention on what might have influenced him.

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