Russell Harty was the son of Fred and Myrtle Harty, a fruit and vegetable stallholder on the local market in Blackburn, Lancashire. He attended Queen Elizabeth’s Grammer School on West Park Road in Blackburn, where he enjoyed appearing in school plays and met, for the first time, the then English teacher Ronald Eyre who directed a number of the productions. Thereafter he studied at Exeter College, Oxford, where he obtained a degree in English literature.
On leaving university, he taught briefly at Blakey Moor Secondary Modern School in Blackburn, then became an English and Drama teacher at Giggleswick School. "I got a first-class degree, and was a hopeless teacher," Harty later said, however his friend and Oxford contemporary, the writer Alan Bennett commented in his 2016 memoir entitled Keeping on, Keeping on: 'Russell Harty got a third-class degree and taught brilliantly."
He began his broadcasting career in 1967 when he became a radio producer for the BBC Third Programme reviewing arts and literature.
He got his first break in 1970 presenting the arts programme Aquarius that was intended to be London Weekend Television’s response to the BBC’s Omnibus. One programme involving a "meeting of cultures" saw Harty travelling to Italy in 1974 to engineer an encounter between the entertainer Gracie Fields and the composer William Walton, two fellow Lancastrians now living on the neighbouring islands of Capri and Ischia.
In 1972 he interviewed Marc Bolan, who at that time was at the height of his fame as a teen idol and king of glam rock. During the interview Harty asked Bolan what he thought he would be doing when he was forty or sixty years old, Bolan replying that he didn't think he would live that long. (Bolan subsequently was killed in a car crash two weeks before his 30th birthday on 16 September 1977).
In 1972 he was given his own series, Russell Harty Plus (later simply titled Russell Harty), conducting lengthy celebrity interviews, on ITV, which placed him against the BBC's Parkinson. The show lasted until 1981 and some of his interviews included show business legends Tony Curtis, Danny Kaye, Rita Hayworth, Victoria Lake, David Carradine, John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson. Harty won a Pye Television Award for the Most Outstanding New Personality of the Year in 1973.
Sadly Russell died in St James' University Hospital on 8 June 1988 at the age of 53 from liver failure caused by hepatitis C.