Today: Harold Russell, an accidental movie star.
In 1946, “The Best Years of Our Lives” captured seven Academy Awards, including the Oscar for Best Picture. It is the story of three soldiers who come home from World War ll to begin their lives anew, lives dramatically changed by the war.
The movie was a huge box office hit, as their struggles touched audiences deeply. “Best Years” is today a classic among movie fans everywhere.
Starring as one of those three soldiers was Harold Russell, a non-actor, who had been an Army training instructor, when an explosive device blew-up in his hands, causing him nauseating pain and bringing him multiple surgical restructurings as his hands were replaced by hooks.
Harold struggled severely with his injury. But when he eventually recovered, he became a student at Boston University, learning to function with the hooks.
Meanwhile, the Army made a film with Harold, “Diary of a Sergeant” to help badly injured soldiers rebuild their lives despite the psychological and physical damage caused by severe injuries.
That’s when fate stepped in. “Best Years” director William Wyler saw the Army film and was so impressed with Harold he cast him as Homer Parrish, a sailor who lost his hands in the war and was now coping with life without them.
In “Best Years,” we see some of Homer’s struggles. He is no longer the athlete pictured on the wall of the family home, but instead we see him learning to use his hooks. We see what he can and can’t do such as needing others to button his shirt or to open a door or to put his hooks on.
Harold’s portrayal so touched audiences, he won the 1946 Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
He also won a special Oscar for “bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans,” making him the only Oscar winner in Hollywood history to win two Awards for the same role.
In real life, much like the fictional Homer Parrish, Harold married his sweetheart Rita in 1944, two years ahead of Homer marrying his sweetheart Wilma. The real life couple had two children, son Gerald and daughter Adele and would remain married for 34 years, divorcing in 1978.
In 1981, at the age of 67, Harold married Betty Marshallsee and the couple would remain married for the rest of his life.
Following “Best Years,” Harold returned to Boston University and earned a degree in business in 1949. He then made a career as a veterans disabled rights activist, often volunteering his time to help others.
From 1964 to the late 80s, Harold also served as the Chairman of the President’s Commission on Unemployment of the Handicapped, an important but unpaid job.
To provide for himself and his family, Harold built a business helping to place disabled veterans in jobs, which many disabled veterans desperately needed. While this was deeply satisfying it never made him wealthy.
In 1980, 34 years after “Best Years,” Harold returned to Hollywood for movie roles in “Inside Moves” and 1997’s “Dogtown.” He was also in a television episode of “Trapper John, M.D. in 1981 and in a two part series in “China Beach” in 1989.
But in 1992, Harold shocked Hollywood when he put his Best Supporting Actor Oscar up for sale to pay for his wife’s medical care. The Oscar sold for $60,500.
In response to the controversy that arose from the sale, he replied, “I don’t know why anybody would be critical. My wife’s health is much more important than sentimental reasons. The movie will be here, even if Oscar isn’t.”
The controversy was soon forgotten and 10 years later, after a lifetime of humanitarian service, on January 29, 2002, 88 year old Harold died of a heart attack. He is survived by Betty and his son and daughter and by four grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
But he is also survived by the millions of fans of “The Best Years of Our Lives,” a movie I would strongly recommend to you.
He is survived as well by the families of millions of handicapped veterans and by some of those veterans themselves, whose lives he made so much better.
Success Tip of the Week:
Whatever rough blow life has dealt you, don’t give-up. As Harold found, you never know what wonderful, life changing event may happen to you.
To learn more about Harold’s life, please see his two autobiographies, “Victory in My Hands” (1949) and “The Best Years of My Life” (1981).
In the next KazanToday:
A valuable lesson from a tortoise.