Harold Russell claimed both Oscars for playing a disabled sailor in the 1946 movie, “The Best Years of Our Lives.” One of the coveted gold statuettes was for best supporting actor. The other was a special Academy Award “for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans” by appearing in the movie.
Russell lost both hands in a World War II training accident. He was fitted with metal hooks.
“The Best Years of Our Lives” earned seven Academy Awards. Director William Wyler said Russell’” gave the finest performance I have ever seen on the screen,” according to Richard Severo’s New York Times story about Russell’s death.
Russell died in 2002 at age 88. He spent most of his life as an advocate for the disabled, but he also acted in three other movies and in two television shows.
Russell was born in Nova Scotia but grew up in Cambridge, Mass. He joined the Army on Dec. 8, 1941, the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor plunged the United States into World War II.
Russell claimed “he made a rush to the recruiting office” not from patriotism, but because he thought he was a failure. He was working at a grocery at that time, Severo wrote.
Russell joined the paratroopers and became a demolitions instructor.
“On June 6, 1944, while some of the men he trained were involved in the D-Day landing, Mr. Russell was teaching demolition work at Camp Mackall in North Carolina and a defective fuse detonated TNT that he was holding,” Severo wrote. “The next day what was left of his hands were amputated three inches above the wrists.”
Russell ended up at Walter Reed Army eHospital in Washington, D.C., where doctors gave him a choice: steel hooks or plastic hands.
“He chose the hooks, proved unusually adept at mastering them and eventually made a training film for soldiers who had lost both hands,” Severo wrote. “The film, ‘Diary of a Sergeant,’ showed Mr. Russell in daily activities.”
Wyler saw the film and wanted Russell for “The Best Years of Our Lives.” He ultimately cast Russell as Petty Officer 2nd Class Homer Parish, a star high school athlete engaged to the girl next door. The movie is about how Parish and two other combat veterans — a banker turned Army infantry sergeant and an Army Air Force captain and bombardier who had been a soda jerk — readjust to civilian life after they come home from World War II.
Russell was studying business administration at Boston University when Hollywood called. He had never acted before.
Producer Samuel Goldwyn wanted Russell to take acting classes, according to Russell’s obituary in the London Independent written by Tom Vallance. Wyler said no.
“We got lucky with Harold Russell,” Vallance quoted him, “because he was an absolute natural.”
“The Best Years of Our Lives” is a Hollywood classic. The movie ranks 37th on the American Film Institute’s list of the best 100 films.
The film “…has many memorable moments, but Russell’s scenes are among the most touching, his integrity compensating for any lack of technique in such scenes as the one in which, attempting to shock his fiancée into breaking their engagement, he removes the hooks and reveals just how totally helpless he is without them,” Vallance wrote.
“In other scenes, he displays amazing dexterity, and he later stated that at one point Fredric March [the sergeant character] told him, ‘When I say my lines, keep those … hooks down! Don’t lift that bottle of beer, because I want people listening to what I’m saying, not watching you drink beer.’”
Most critics acclaimed “The Best Years of Our Lives.” But Russell faced tough competition from veteran screen stars in the best supporting actor category of the Academy Awards. The board of directors of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the organization that awards the Oscars, feared Russell had only a slim chance to win. So the board voted to give him the special Academy Award, according to Vallance.
Russell made Hollywood history when he took home two Oscars. Only one other non-professional actor has won an Academy Award. Cambodian Haing S. Ngor, MD earned a best supporting actor Oscar for playing a Cambodian journalist and refugee in 1984 movie, “The Killing Fields.”
Russell received offers to play in other movies. But he said Wyler advised him he would have a hard time finding steady work as an actor. The director urged him to finish his degree at Boston University, which he did, Vallance wrote.
Russell’s autobiography – written with Victor Rosen – was published in 1949. Titled “Victory in My Hands,” it was translated into 20 languages, according to Vallance. Russell wrote a second memoir, “The Best Years of My Life,” which was published in 1981.
In “Victory in My Hands,” Russell said, “It isn’t what you have lost but what you have left that counts.”
Vallance said Russell liked to joke that with his hook-hands he could “do anything except pick up the dinner check” and claimed his friends said he was “the best no-handed pool player in the United States.”
Russell joined Amvets, a veterans’ organization, and served three terms as its national commander. He also helped start the World Veterans Foundation in 1950.
In addition, Russell headed Tag-a-Bag, a company that employed many disabled people and worked with federal rehabilitation agencies.
“He was also an outspoken critic of racial discrimination,” Vallance said.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy named Russell vice chairman of the President’s Committee on Employment of the Handicapped, Severo wrote. Three years later, President Lyndon B. Johnson named Russell to chairman, and President Richard M. Nixon reappointed him to chair the committee, Vallance wrote.
Russell returned to acting for the 1980 movie “Inside Moves.” He played the character “Wings.” Russell also was a police officer in “Payback,” released in 1988. His last movie was “Dogtown,” which came out in 1997. In addition, Russell was a guest star on “Trapper John MD” in 1981 and “China Beach,” in 1989.
Three years later, he needed money to help pay for his wife’s eye operation. Russell decided to auction off his best supporting actor Oscar.
“Karl Malden, then the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, tried to talk Mr. Russell out of it, and offered him a $20,000 interest-free loan if he would return the Oscar to the Academy,” Severo wrote.
Russell turned down Malden’s request. An “unidentified admirer” bought the Academy Award for $65,500, according to Severo.
Meanwhile, Russell remained friends with the top stars of “The Best Years of Our Lives” – March, Dana Andrews and Virginia Mayo, all of whom assisted him in his work on behalf of the disabled.
“I had nothing but love from the top down,” Vallance quoted him.