–The Best Years of His Life

By Roderick MacDonald


haroldrussell_2011In late 1944, as the Second World War was struggling to a close, the legendary film producer Samuel Goldwyn was inspired to make a movie that would tell the story of returning service veterans trying to adjust to civilian life. Goldwyn hired former war correspondent MacKinlay Kantor to write a screenplay, but with unpredictable results. Kantor’s work was published as a novella named Glory for Me, which he wrote in blank verse. Goldwyn then turned to screenwriter Robert Sherwood to adopt Kantor’s work into a screenplay and hired veteran combat photographer William Wyler to direct the film.

Filming on the movie began in April 1946 and was released later that year as  The Best Years of Our Lives. Kantor was reportedly incensed over the renaming of the script, however the film went on to earn seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor and in a stunning upset, the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor was awarded to a disabled Army veteran with no previous acting experience.

This is the remarkable and often tragic story of a young man from North Sydney, Nova Scotia, and how he became part of film industry lore.

Harold John Russell was born in North Sydney on January 14, 1914. When he was 19, he moved with his family to Massachusetts. In 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Russell, now 27, was profoundly affected by the attack on his adopted homeland and enlisted in the U.S. Army the next day.

In 1944 Sergeant Russell was stationed as an army instructor with the U.S. 13th Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. On June 6th, 1944 (D-Day), while training other soldiers in the use of explosive devices, a defective fuse detonated an explosive in his hands. He lost both hands and was given two hooks as crude prosthetics.

After the war and his subsequent recovery, Russell attended Boston University on the GI Bill. While a student there, he participated in the making of a documentary film called Diary of a Sergeant about rehabilitating war veterans. As fate would have it, Wyler happened to see the film and immediately cast Russell as one of the three main characters in his new movie, alongside Frederic March and Dana Andrews. In fact, Wyler had Sherwood rewrite the script to adopt Russell’s character of Homer Parrish, a Navy seaman who had lost both hands in the war and was fearful that his childhood sweetheart would reject him.

During the making of the movie, Russell was extremely nervous about his demanding role, which required him at one point to perform a piano duet. However, the other cast members were touched by his quiet and self- effacing manner and they went out of their way to provide support. The evident on- screen chemistry between the main characters deeply moved theatre audiences everywhere and does to this day still.

As a result, the film swept the Academy Award presentations in 1947, winning every major award. Although Russell was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, few members of the Academy’s Board of Governors gave him much hope of winning. They created a special award that was given out early in the ceremony to Russell for “bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans.” When the winner of the Best Supporting Actor award was announced, the audience erupted in applause, many in tears. To this day, Russell holds the distinction of being the only actor to win two awards for the same role, and one of only two non-professional actors to win. (The other was Haing S. Ngor for his role as Dith Pran in The Killing Fields.)

After the awards ceremony, Wyler advised Russell to go back to school “since there were not many roles for an actor without hands.” Russell returned to Boston University, where he graduated with a business degree in 1949. That same year the first of his two autobiographies, “Victory in My Hands,” was published. Russell went on to become a driving force for veteran’s rights. He served three terms as National Commander of AMVETS, and in 1964 was appointed by President Johnson as Chairman of the President’s Commission on Employment for the Handicapped, a position he held until the late 80s. He was often asked about his dexterity with the prosthetic hooks and would quip, “I can pick up anything but the dinner check!”

However tragedy and controversy dogged his later life.

In 1978, Russell’s first wife Rita died suddenly at the young age of 34. In 1982 his son Gerald, an Eastern Airlines pilot was convicted of murder in the Florida shooting death of another Eastern pilot over a reported love triangle involving the other pilot’s wife. In September 2007, his application for parole was denied and he remains incarcerated.

In 1992, Russell ignited a storm of controversy over his decision to put his Best Supporting Actor award up for auction. Remarried at the time to, Russell stated that he needed the money to pay his wife’s medical bills.  He defended his action, saying: “I don’t know why anybody would be critical. My wife’s health is much more important than sentimental reasons.”

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has required all Oscar recipients since 1950 to sign an agreement forbidding them from selling their award. As a pre-1950 winner, Russell was exempt from this provision. Despite the efforts of the Academy, the statuette sold for approximately $60,000 and reportedly sold to the late Hollywood mogul Lew Wasserman, who returned it to the Academy. While the relatives and friends of other recipients have successfully sold their awards posthumously, Russell holds the dubious distinction of being the only living recipient to sell his academy award.

Russell died of a heart attack on January 29, 2002 and is buried in Wayland, Massachusetts.

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