Monday, January 14, 2008

January 14: Harold Russell (1914-2002)

Harold Russell, with two Oscars
Boy, you ought to see me open a bottle of beer.

--"Homer Parrish," as played by Harold Russell
Born on this date in 1914 in Nova Scotia, Harold Russell, pictured at right with the two Oscars he won in 1947 for a single role, in Best Years of Our Lives. Though he was Canadian-born and raised, he was living in the US and working as a meatcutter when Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941; he joined the Army the very next day. While making a training film in 1944, a defective fuse blew up and both hands had to be amputated. He used hooks thereafter, with a grace that, by all accounts, dispelled dubious onlookers' concerns.

Russell appeared in an Army documentary about rehabilitation, Diary of a Sergeant, while he was a student at Boston University. He was spotted by director William Wyler, and cast to play a disabled veteran in The Best Years of Our Lives. He won two Oscars for the role: one a "special" Oscar for "bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans," and one for Best Supporting Actor, as voted by the Academy. After the hubbub surrounding his Oscar wins, Russell returned to Boston University and finished a degree in business.

Russell published an autobiography, Victory in my Hands (1949). For many years he was National Commander of the American Veterans (AMVETS), and chaired the President's Commission on the Employment of the Handicapped.

9 comments: said...

Great film then & now--portrays difficulties veterans have in rejoining civilian life. Harold had a great sense of humor and loved to tell how he got the "special Oscar" because the Hollywood establishment assumed he wouldn't get the professional one. But his acting was superb, so he earned those votes...

saraarts said...

That is one of my favorite movies ever, ever, ever, and Russell did an amazing job. No trained actor could have done better, and an actor who was not also an amputee couldn't have done it at all. There is a delicacy to his performance, and the performance of the girl who played his fiancé, that offsets the polish of everybody else in the movie and makes the whole a very real and true work of collaborative art, not the usual heartlessly, calculatingly manipulative dreck.

Michael Leddy said...

I'm always amazed when people in cultural studies and film studies diss this movie as sentimental and trite. I think it's exactly the opposite, and I'm glad to find other people who see it that way. The scene between Homer and Wilma in Homer's bedroom (and consider how daring that kind of scene is for the mid-40s) is one of the most moving scenes I know. I can only imagine the emotional impact this film had for its first audiences.

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