Happy Birthday, Harold Russell

Army veteran and character actor Harold Russell was born today in 1914. His best known role was as the disabled Homer Parrish in William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives, for which he won two Academy Awards. Russell is the only actor to win two Oscars for the same role. (continued)

In 1944, when Russell lost both hands in a TNT explosion during army training in North Carolina, his hands were replaced by metal hooks. Though unable to fight in combat, Russell served the army by appearing in short films about soldiers adjusting to their handicaps. Producer Samuel Goldwyn saw one of those films, and he and director William Wyler asked Russell to appear in The Best Years of Our Lives. The film is not only classic but classy; its poignant depiction of the hardships veterans face in adjusting to civilian life after war is still relevant today. The cinematography by the legendary Gregg Toland makes subtle use of the deep focus photography that made him famous, while Wyler opts for a naturalistic style to bring the emotionally charged material down to earth. It’s realistic, not melodramatic.

But, it is Russell who received most of the attention in 1946 when The Best Years of Our Lives was released. In the film, Russell shows the realities of living without his limbs without sentiment. He needs help to perform simple tasks we take for granted, but he can pick up the tiniest object with his hooks. We sympathize with Homer Parrish but we do not pity him because he overcomes his initial self-doubt and self-pity over his bad break in life and moves forward—a lesson for us all.

The Best Years of Our Lives was a huge hit, winning Academy Awards for best picture, best director, and best actor (Frederic March). Russell was given a special Academy Award for “bringing aid and comfort to disabled veterans,” and then, to everyone’s surprise, he won the year’s Oscar as best supporting actor. He did not really make much of a career as an actor, but he made an enormous impact on veterans suffering from the anxieties of returning home from war. Russell died in 2002.

Dedicated to Harold Russell on his birthday and to soldiers everywhere who only want to come home.

–Susan Doll

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