Oscar Impact: Harold Russell

Harold Russell, who won two Oscars for “The Best Years of Our Lives,” got into pictures the hard way. On June 6, 1944, as an instructor in demolition at Camp Mackall, Sgt. Russell attached a defective fuse to half-pound charge of TNT, but it exploded in his grasp. When he regained consciousness some time later, in the emergency ward of the field hospital, Russell discovered that both his hands had been amputated at the wrist.

Russell plays the handless veteran in Goldwyn's Oscar-winning drama, “The Best Years of Our Lives,” a role that was written into the script expressly for him by Robert E. Sherwood. For his playing of the role, Russell won two of the coveted Oscars for himself, one legit Supporting Actor and one special.

Russell, however, cherishes no illusions concerning a career on screen. When the picture was finished, he returned to Boston to continue his college education. “The Best Years of Our Lives,” which stars Myrna Loy, Frederic March, Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright, Virginia Mayo and Hoagy Carmichael, marks Russell's second appearance in a motion picture. He was featured in an Army training film, “The Diary of a Sergeant,” a documentary account of how Russell overcame the handicap of his injuries. Stills from the film were reproduced in Life, a circumstance that brought Russell to the attention of Goldwyn, who ultimately offered him the role of Homer Parrish, a veteran handicapped as in his own case.

A chunky Irish type, with green eyes, black hair and an incandescent smile, Russell was born in Cambridge, Mass. and has lived his entire life, apart from his army career, within sight of the Charles River. He attended Rindge Technical High School, and after graduation went to work with First National Stores, first as counterman, then as meat cutter and finally as store manager. He enlisted in the parachute troops in February 1942, and had made 51 successful jumps (the average is about 5) when he was hospitalized. After his discharge, he enrolled in the School of Business Administration at Boston University. He hopes to get into advertising when he finishes his schooling.

Russell has been touring amputee wards in army and veteran hospitals throughout the country. His favorite story, illustrating the psychological as well as physical aid given the veterans, concerns one ex-GI who lost both legs in combat and is now serving as a national service officer of the Disabled American Veterans. Standing five-two on his artificial legs, this GI fell in love with, but didn't want to marry a girl two inches taller. He presented his problem to the doctors at the Veterans' Administration, who outfitted him with a new set of legs, which made him three inches taller than she was. The marriage came off, with the groom fondly looking down on his bride from the lofty superiority of one inch.

In private life, Russell has, like the character he portrays in the movie, married a childhood sweetheart. They are the parents of Jerry, a seven-year-old adopted son, and Adele Rita, their two-year-old daughter. He is the author of an inspiring autobiography, “Victory in My Hands,” which became a bestseller the year of its publication (1949).

Despite his youth, author-actor Russell is one of the outstanding personalities of the nation-wide rehabilitation program. Past national commander of AMVETS, he is one of the leaders of the World Veterans Federation, Vice-President of World Veterans Fund, he is actively concerned in its self-help program on an international scale.

Russell's return in his heart-warming role in the re-released film has added emphasis and interest to his numerous appearances on forums, over TV, on the lecture platform and before civic, military and educational groups. Tireless in his work of teaching the hopeful, inspiring the hopeless and teaching his pet theory that what a man has lost is not so important as the way he uses what he has left, Russell, both off and on the screen once more points up the drama of one man's quiet victory over circumstances.