Films to check out, Star Profiles

Harold Russell: Hero and Screen Legend

As much as I could say about The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and all of the wonderful performances in it, I want to zone in mainly on one of the cast members: Harold Russell, a man who should be more well-known than he is today.

In a publicity still for "The Best Years of Our Lives", 1946 (courtesy of commons.wikimedia.com
In a publicity still for “The Best Years of Our Lives”, 1946 (courtesy of commons.wikimedia.org)

Harold Russell was born in North Sydney, Nova Scotia in 1914 and moved with his remaining family to Cambridge, MA after his father died when Harold was a young boy. He started working odd jobs before he was a teenager.

When Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7th, 1941 Russell–in his own words– “made a rush to the recruiting office” apparently because he felt that he was a failure. He volunteered to become a paratrooper after basic training was completed. After he learned to be a paratrooper and learned demolition, the United States Army decided to make him an instructor. It was after he became an instructor that his life would be changed forever.

On June 6th, 1944 Russell was at a camp in North Carolina teaching demolition to a group when a defective fuse caused TNT that he was holding in his hands to explode. As a result, the remaining parts of his hands were amputated three inches above his wrists. He was given two choices for prosthetic hands: steel hooks or plastic hands. He chose the hooks. Proving to be a fast learner, he adapted to using the hooks quite well and he was featured in a short training film in 1945 called Diary of a Sergeant for soldiers like him, showing his various struggles and how he had re-learned everyday tasks using his hooks.

His work in this short film caught the attention of director William Wyler, who was set to direct The Best Years of Our Lives, a drama centered around three men who return to civilian life from World War II and come home to their loved ones. It’s a movie filled with many dramatic, tear-inducing scenes but it also has romantic and hopeful moments. Wyler asked Samuel Goldwyn to hire Russell, and after some reluctance, Russell finally agreed to join the cast as the character Homer Parrish, a recently disabled sailor. The film also starred Fredric March, Dana Andrews, Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright, and Virginia Mayo. According to IMDb, his total salary for the film was roughly $10,000. Russell had never had any training in acting. Watching him onscreen shows that he had tremendous natural talent. He was that good. The fact that he had lost both hands in real life made his performance as a young man returning home from World War II to his family and girlfriend (Cathy O’Donnell-who plays the part with beautiful sensitivity) with a new disability that much more emotional.

Harold Russell proved to be a great actor in The Best Years of Our Lives. All of the actors in the movie were top-notch and gave phenomenal performances, but Harold Russell really stood out to me. There were several scenes that really hit me emotionally and most, if not all of them, were scenes in which he appeared. After I watched this movie all the way through for the first time, I was drawn to him; I wanted to learn his back-story. He went on to win two Oscars for his performance: the first for Best Supporting Actor and his second was an honorary Oscar given to him for “bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans”. According to his page on Wikipedia, the Board of Governors decided to create this award in honor of Harold Russell because they wanted to salute him for his heroism. As he was a non-professional actor, they believed there was little chance of him winning the competitive Oscar. But he did, making him the only person in the history of the Academy Awards to win two Oscars for a single performance. And it was very well deserved.

The Best Years of Our Lives won a total of eight Oscars, including Russell’s honorary Oscar. It was a smash hit for 1946, beating out It’s a Wonderful Life, among others, as the winner of Best Picture. Not only is the acting top-notch; the writing, directing, musical score, and every other aspect are fantastic. I personally love the score, which was composed by Hugo Friedhofer, and won the Oscar for Best Original Score. It’s emotionally charged in a subtle but powerful and haunting style. It fully elevates the emotions viewers feel while watching the story unfold. You can find the score on YouTube.

Harold Russell (standing on the left side with his back facing the camera) in a scene from "The Best Years of Our Lives" with Fredric March, Myrna Loy, and Dana Andrews (photo courtesy of doctormacro.com)
Harold Russell (far right) in a scene from “The Best Years of Our Lives” with (counterclockwise) Hoagy Carmichael, Fredric March, Myrna Loy, & Dana Andrews (courtesy of doctormacro.com) *click on photo to view full sized & high quality*
Promotional poster for "The Best Years of Our Lives", 1946 (courtesy of flickr.com/newhousedesign)
Promotional poster for “The Best Years of Our Lives”, 1946 (courtesy of flickr.com/newhousedesign)

Harold Russell acted very little after the film, with occasional roles on television and in just a couple of films later on in his life. He decided to dedicate a lot of his time to organizations dedicated to war veterans by the late 1940s. He became active in organizations for veterans, including AMVETS and World Veterans Foundation, which he helped establish in 1950. In 1961 he was appointed vice chairman of the President’s Committee on Employment of the Handicapped by President Kennedy. In 1964 President Johnson made him the chairman and President Nixon reappointed him. He wrote two autobiographies in his lifetime. The first was Victory in My Hands, published in 1949 and The Best Years of My Life, published in 1981. Upon learning that he had written these autobiographies, I searched online to see if I could find copies of them. I was fortunate to find copies of both books on an online library that I can access through school. So naturally, I ordered both. I can’t wait to read them.

In 1992 he auctioned off his Best Supporting Actor Oscar (met with objections from the Academy) and it was sold to an anonymous fan for $60,500. He said that financial security and his wife’s health and well-being was most important to him. He still kept his cherished honorary Oscar.

Harold Russell died on January 29th, 2002 just after he turned 88. I hope his legacy is remembered many years from now because he was not only an amazing actor; he was a humble, strong, and kindhearted human, most importantly. I wish I could have had the chance to meet him or write to him. I was pretty young when he died and had no idea who he was before his death. I wish I could have thanked him for being so inspirational and I wish I could have just talked to him about life. But this is the closest that I can get to doing that. I’d like to write more about Harold Russell and this movie in the future and I plan on doing so. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: This is a movie that I believe everyone should watch at least once. It’s just that powerful. Just be sure to bring a box of tissues to place beside you. You’ll need them.

 

 

 

 

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4 thoughts on “Harold Russell: Hero and Screen Legend”

  1. Wonderful post! He is amazing and I am equally wowed by his and dana Andrews magnificent performances in the film. I would love to happen upon copies of his books! Can’t wait to hear how you like them.

  2. Not bad for a person with a disability won two Oscars and the only actor in known history won in the same role. He was a Bluenose and the British Subject (no such thing as an Canadian Citizen prior to 1947). Well done, Hal!

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