In 1992, the announcement that Harold Russell was selling his Oscar to raise money for family medical expenses sent shock waves through the motion picture industry. Harold Russell was the young soldier who won two Academy Awards for “The Best Years of Our Lives” in 1946, one for Best Supporting Actor, the other an honorary one for being an inspiration to disabled veterans. The movie also won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, William Wyler, and Best Actor, Fredric March.
Life for Harold John Russell started in North Sydney, Nova Scotia, Canada, where he was born on January 14, 1914. After his father’s death, the family moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he grew up. The day after Pearl Harbor, Russell enlisted with the army and it was during a training exercise in 1944, that some TNT exploded and he lost both his hands. He was fitted with hooks and these became his trademark for the rest of his life. After appearing in a training film, “The Diary of a Sergeant”, which was seen by director, William Wyler, he was cast as a returning sailor in the 1946 film, “The Best Years of Our Lives”. The story of returning veterans and their difficulties adjusting to life back home has become a classic. His efforts were recognized with the Oscars, and although he had no acting training, this role is a favorite with many. He only appeared in four motion pictures. In 1997, he appeared in the movie, “Dogtown” in which he played a cigar store owner. He made a few appearances in the television series, China Beach.
After the war, he headed to Boston University where he successfully completed a business degree. He married his childhood sweetheart and the couple had two children. During Russell’s life, he was an unflinching advocate for the disabled. He established and served three terms as commander of AMVETS. In 1964, he was appointed by President Lyndon Johnson as Chairman of the Presidential Committee on Hiring the Handicapped and the annual medal is named in his honor.
Russell did sell one of his Oscars at public auction for $60,500, much to the dismay of Academy officials. He kept the other one as a souvenir. He was quick to declare that his wife’s health was of more importance that the award.
Harold Russell wrote two autobiographies, “Victory in My Hands” (1947) and “The Best Years of My Life” (1981). To see an interesting collage of pictures from his life and career, visit Harold Russell Tribute on YouTube.