Hooked on Harold Russell

April 2008


Only one actor in the history of Hollywood has won two Academy Awards for the same role. It was the actor’s first film, he had no acting experience, and he had no hands.


Harold Russell was working as a butcher in Massachusetts the day Pearl Harbor was attacked. He enlisted in the army the following day. He was stationed at North Carolina’s Camp MacKall on D-Day when explosives he was handling unexpectedly detonated. Russell’s hands and wrists were destroyed. After surgery and recovery, Russell was fitted with prosthetic metal hooks and soon learned to perform tasks as delicate as striking a match and lighting a cigarette. During rehabilitation, Russell struggled with self-esteem, wondering if he could ever have a job, wife, or family.


While attending Boston University, Russell was asked by the army to be featured in a training film to help disabled veterans cope with their physical disabilities and accompanying mental challenges. In Diary of a Sergeant, Russell demonstrated daily tasks such as brushing one’s teeth, turning doorknobs, holding a coffee cup, using table utensils, and dialing a phone. Russell projected confidence and showed that mastering these daily tasks allowed a disabled vet to lead a normal life.


Meanwhile, Hollywood was getting ready to make The Best Years of Our Lives, a film about three returning serviceman assimilating back into their pre-war lives. Producer Sam Goldwyn had spotted Russell in his army film and asked him to portray one of the servicemen. The screenplay was rewritten to fit Russell’s disability.


In the film, Russell’s character, Homer Parrish, is happy and confident around his friends, but feels broken and self-conscious around his family and his girlfriend. At the end of the film, Parrish marries and skillfully places a tiny wedding ring on his new wife’s finger. In real life, Russell faced a similar crisis, but overcame and married his childhood sweetheart, Rita.


Russell won his two Academy Awards in 1947 for his role as Homer Parrish. The first award was for Best Actor in a Supporting Role and the second was an honorary award for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans. Russell received a couple more movie offers but turned them down and went back to school. Sam Goldwyn reminded Russell that a movie career would be short-lived because “there aren’t that many parts for a guy with no hands.”


Russell went on to become National Commander of AMVETS and influential in federal veterans programs. Russell wrote two books and in later life appeared in a few television and film roles.


Since that fateful day in 1944, Russell lived his words in everything he did, “It is not what you have lost but what you have left that counts.”