His film career began at Biograph in 1910 with "The Roman Slave", directed by D.W. Griffith. He stayed almost a year at Biograph, although he was used mostly in small parts. In 1910 he left Biograph for Thanhouser. There he became a star, and Thanhouser put him in quite a few of its productions. His brother Albert Russell also appeared in several of his films.
In 1913 Russell left Thanhouser to return to Biograph, but later that year he again left Biograph to go back to Thanhouser. He finally left Thanhouser and worked for a variety of studios, both major and minor, over the next several years. In 1917 he married actress Charlotte Burton, but it ended in divorce four years later. From 1916 to 1920 he worked for American Film Co., appearing in The Torch Bearer (1916), The Strength of Donald McKenzie (1916) and The Man Who Would Not Die (1916), among others. In 1919 he formed his own production company, William Russell Productions, and produced and appeared in This Hero Stuff (1919), directed by Henry King. He freelanced at studios as varied as Fox Films and Victor. In the 1920s he decided to move to Hollywood after having spent much of his life in New York City. He married actress Helen Ferguson, and that marriage lasted until his death in Beverly Hills, California, on February 18, 1929, from pneumonia.
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