And the Oscar goes to: World War II vet among few non-actors to win acting accolade

Posted 3/2/18

The 90th Academy Awards ceremony will be held this weekend in Los Angeles.

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And the Oscar goes to: World War II vet among few non-actors to win acting accolade


The 90th Academy Awards ceremony will be held this weekend in Los Angeles.

In March 1947, a different group of stars gathered for the 19th Academy Awards. That night’s nominees were the royalty of Hollywood’s golden era with one notable exception.

Harold Russell, one of five men nominated for best supporting actor, was a longshot to win the coveted statuette.

Before director William Wyler plucked him from obscurity and cast him in “The Best Years of Our Lives,” Russell’s only acting job had been for an Army training film called “Diary of a Sergeant.”

The film showed how Russell had learned to master daily activities after the loss of both of his hands during World War II.

Russell had been teaching demolition work at North Carolina’s Camp Mackall on June 6, 1944 — D-Day — when some TNT he was holding exploded.

As a result of the accident, his hands were amputated three inches above the wrist.

A December 1946 Life magazine article described how Russell struggled to adapt to the hooks that replaced his hand.

“That first day was torture. Unable to make his new hands do anything, he was ready by evening to throw them out the window — and almost did,” according to the article. “Next day he tried again. When the regular ration of beer was served he announced with forced cheer, ‘This time, boys, come hell or high water I'm going to drink that beer without a straw.’ He grabbed the beer with the right hook, drew it up towards his mouth — and then spilled it all over the floor, the bed and himself.”

Three weeks later, a group of surgeons at Walter Reed Hospital who had heard how well Russell was doing walked in on him shooting dice.

In “The Best Years of Our Lives,” Russell is seen lighting matches and shooting a rifle. In the film’s emotional final scene, he places a weddng ring on his young bride’s finger.

After he became famous, Russell often joked that he could pick up anything but a dinner check.

Like his character, Homer Parrish, Russell had a high school sweetheart waiting for him when he returned home, and the two soon married.

The couple told the Life reporter in 1946 that Russell did all the normal husbandly chores around the house except drying the dishes. Rita Russell seemed skeptical that the only reason her husband wanted out of that chore was because he might break one.

Getting his girl to accept him was easier than convincing the people in his neighborhood that he was the same Harold who had gone off to war.

“My problem was to make the people I met feel at ease. I just acted myself and didn't sulk in corners hiding the hooks. When my neighborhood friends saw I was okay and laughing they said to themselves, ‘Why should we feel sorry for him? He's getting along better than we are,’” Russell said in the Life article.

Russell was attending business school at Boston University when he was hired for “The Best Years of Our Lives.”

The film, which depicted the struggles of three World War II veterans readjusting to life on the homefront, won seven Academy Awards in 1947.

William Wyler, himself a disabled veteran, won his third Best Director Oscar. Russell’s more famous co-star, Fredric March, won for Best Actor, and the film won Best Picture.

Russell took home two Oscars. He beat Charles Coburn, William Demarest, Claude Rains and Clifton Webb in the Best Supporting Actor category.

He also received an honorary Oscar for “bringing aid and comfort to disabled veterans through the medium of motion pictures,” making him the only person to receive two Oscars for the same performance.

Though he would not act again for over three decades, the film did provide opportunities for Russell to become an advocate for veterans and people with disabilities.

At President Harry Truman’s request, he became involved with the President’s Committee on Employment of the Handicapped.

He was appointed vice chairman of the committee by President John Kennedy in 1961 and chairman by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

Russell also served three terms as national commader of AMVETS, an organization that works on behalf of World War II veterans.

Russell died in 2002 at the age of 88.

Jennifer Cohron is the Daily Mountain Eagle’s features editor.