Russell Crowe had a taste of fatherhood after taking charge of a young castmate on the set of his new movie MASTER + COMMANDER.

The star took a shine to 14-year-old British actor JACK RANDALL, and when the boy's mother had to head back to England to take care of family business, Crowe stepped in as his guardian.

The OSCAR winner, who will become a dad when his wife Danielle Spencer gives birth to a baby boy next year (04), says, "They were about to hire a professional chaperone and it came to my attention and I didn't want that energy on set.

"All the cast had family members and there were no outsiders, and I just thought the bringing in of a professional chaperone might adjust the rhythm.

"So we got the paperwork done and he became my ward, and he stayed in the same apartment building that I stayed in and I took him to work every day and we had dinner together every night."

He adds, "He's a very intelligent young boy but had never read a book, which I found to be just unbelievable. I was like, 'I'm very sorry mate, you're reading now. Here's your book and you've got three days to read it!' "

Crowe also became a hero when he introduced his charge to his Aussie pal Steve Irwin, the CROCODILE HUNTER.

He explains, "Jack was very much into reptiles, so I introduced him to Steve Irwin. Irwin offered Jack a summer apprenticeship at the Australia Zoo."

04/11/2003 09:18