My life is a series of things that just happen,” Harold Russell once shrugged to a reporter. The WWII veteran, actor, and advocate for the disabled died of a heart attack on Jan. 29, at 88, in a Massachusetts nursing home. Here’s what ”just happened” in his life:
Born in 1914, he enlisted in the Army the day after Pearl Harbor. On D-Day, he ”got into an argument with a block of TNT and lost.” His mangled hands were replaced with metal hooks, with which Russell became adept enough to be spotlighted in an Army documentary. This was seen by director William Wyler, who cast him as disabled soldier Homer Parrish in the 1946 returning-veterans hit The Best Years of Our Lives.
Russell was nominated for best supporting actor but was up against established actors like Claude Rains, so the Academy gave him a special Oscar as consolation. But Russell won the acting award, too, thus becoming the only performer ever to win two Oscars for the same role. He went back to college on Wyler’s advice, devoted his life to organizations for the disabled, and appeared in only two more movies, 1980’s Inside Moves and 1997’s Dogtown. When a reporter questioned the 34-year delay between Best and Inside, Russell deadpanned, ”Bad agent.”
In 1992, he auctioned off his acting Oscar to help pay his wife’s medical bills, a controversial act with which he was perfectly at peace. ”If I ever get lonely for it,” he said, ”I can watch the picture.”