Russell was born on June 21, 1921, in Bemidji, Minnesota She was the eldest child and only daughter of the five children of Geraldine (née Jacobi; 1891 – 1986) and Roy William Russell (1890 – 1937). Her brothers are Thomas (b. 1924), Kenneth (b. 1925), Jamie (b. 1927), and Wallace (b. 1929).

Her father had been a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army, and her mother an actress with a road troupe; her mother was also the subject of a portrait by Mary Bradish Titcomb, Portrait of Geraldine J., which achieved some notoriety when purchased by Woodrow Wilson. Russell’s parents lived in Edmonton, Canada until shortly before her birth and returned to that city nine days after her birth, where they lived for the first one or two years of her life. The family then moved to Southern California where her father worked as an office manager.

Russell’s mother arranged for her to take piano lessons. In addition to music, she was interested in drama and participated in stage productions at Van Nuys High School.Her early ambition was to be a designer of some kind, until the death of her father in his mid-40s, when she decided to work as a receptionist after graduation. She also modeled for photographers, and, at the urging of her mother, studied drama and acting with Max Reinhardt’s Theatrical Workshop and with acting coach Maria Ouspenskaya.