Veteran who won two Oscars for 'Best Years' dies

Saturday, February 2, 2002

Harold Russell, a disabled World War II veteran who won two Oscars for his role in "The Best Years of Our Lives" before becoming an advocate for the rights of the disabled, has died. He was 88.

Russell, who lost both his hands in the war, rarely acted again. He died of a heart attack Tuesday at a nursing home in Needham, Mass., his family said Thursday.

Russell joined the U.S. Army on Dec. 8, 1941, the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, as an instructor in the parachute corps.

He was working as an explosives expert in 1944 when a defective fuse exploded a charge of TNT he was holding as he instructed a demolition squad at Camp Mackall, N.C. Both hands were amputated.

Russell, who had hooks to replace his hands, was featured in an Army documentary, "Diary of a Sergeant," on the rehabilitation of an amputee.

Though Russell didn't say a word in the film, producer Sam Goldwyn saw it and wanted Russell to play Homer Parrish in "The Best Years of Our Lives."

The 1946 film won seven Academy Awards, including best picture, best director for William Wyler and best actor for Fredric March. It also starred Myrna Loy. The film depicted how WWII veterans coped with the aftermath of the war and their return to changed families and community.

'Not what you have lost'

Russell actually received two Oscars for the film: one as best supporting actor, and a second, special Oscar for "bringing aid and comfort to disabled veterans through the medium of motion pictures."

"It is not what you have lost but what you have left that counts," he wrote in his 1949 autobiography, "Victory in My Hands." It told of his struggle to recover physically and psychologically from his wounds, and to use the hooks that replaced his hands. He became so adept in their use that he liked to joke he could do anything but pick up a dinner check.

Russell spent his life working as an advocate for the disabled, helping establish the veteran's advocacy group AMVETS and creating a consulting business that helped the handicapped get jobs. He said it was his life's work to show disabled people that life could still be great, and he was good-natured about his own handicap.

"He was a humanitarian," his daughter, Adele Russell, said Thursday. "He dedicated his life to the handicapped. ... a wonderful person to everyone he met. He touched everyone in some shape or form."

Russell made few other movie appearances. His first role after "The Best Years of Our Lives" was 1980's "Inside Moves." He also appeared in the Vietnam War television series "China Beach." His last film role was in 1997's "Dogtown."

Sold Oscar to pay bills

In August 1992, Russell sold his supporting-actor Oscar, saying he needed the money to pay his wife's medical bills and other expenses. An anonymous buyer paid $60,500, including a 10 percent commission for the auctioneer, an autograph dealer.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences opposed the sale and offered to loan money to Russell. Then-Academy president Karl Malden said the statuettes "should not become objects of mere commerce."

The academy said it was aware of no previous instance in which an Oscar had been sold by its original recipient at public auction. Several Oscars have been auctioned since, most posthumously.

Russell responded: "I don't know why anybody would be critical. My wife's health is much more important than sentimental reasons." He was paid $10,000 for his role in the movie and received no residuals.

"The movie will be here, even if Oscar isn't," he said.

Russell was born in 1914 in Nova Scotia, Canada, and the family later moved to Cambridge, Mass. He got a business degree from Boston University after the war.

His survivors include his daughter; a son, Gerald Russell; four grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

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