How war veteran Harold Russell made history at the Oscars
From Purple Hearts to Flying Crosses, veterans can hold any number of decorations, but few can boast the title of Oscar winner.
For his role as double amputee Homer Parrish in 1946's The Best Years of Our Lives, actual veteran Harold Russell earned unique distinction as the first non-professional actor to win an Oscar and the only one in history to win two Oscars for the same role (Supporting Actor and a Special Oscar for "bringing aid and comfort to disabled veterans through the medium of motion pictures").
Russell wasn't a star or even an aspiring actor when cast as Homer Parrish. After signing up to serve in the army, Russell was stationed at Camp Mackall in North Carolina where he trained army paratroopers. There, while demonstrating to his trainees, a defective fuse on a stick of TNT caused an explosion and Russell lost both of his hands. Russell opted for practical hooks — as seen in the film — over prosthetics because of their functionality (prosthetics have significantly improved since the 1940s).
Following his accident, Russell was recruited to appear in the day-in-the-life short Diary of a Sergeant. "It was basically to show the day in the life of a disabled veteran and to inspire other veterans that you can still live a normal, fruitful, happy life," says Jill Blake, writer and cohost of film podcast Criterion Now. Russell had no dialogue in the short, but instead went about his day underscored by voiceover narration.
But his performance got him noticed by government higher-ups, who recruited him to do appearances for the eighth war loan drive, a war bond campaign. At events around the country, they would screen Diary of a Sergeant and Russell would come out to speak about his own experiences.
At one of these events, The Best Years of Our Lives director William Wyler was in attendance — and he was struck by inspiration. The character that would become Homer Parrish was originally written to be suffering from a traumatic brain injury, but Wyler decided casting Russell and making the character a double amputee would serve the story better.
The 1946 film remains a paragon of depicting the challenges that soldiers face readjusting to life back home, in part because Russell's life was incorporated into Homer's story. "What makes this film unique is a person with a disability is playing a person with a disability," adds Blake. "The spirit of the film and that authenticity in Russell's performance is timeless."
Part of that authenticity was inspired by Russell's appearances in the bond drives. Looking to connect with people, he would find ways to break the ice and get people to focus on him as a person rather than his disability. These tactics included extended his hook to shake someone's hand, encouraging them to set aside any discomfort. Additionally, he'd light cigarettes with a match until it burned out, noting that he couldn't burn his fingers anymore. And he'd often joke that one thing he couldn't do was pick up the check. All these moments found their way into the Years script.
"He went through so much in his recovery," notes Blake. "But he chose to be optimistic and use it to his benefit and the benefit of the people around him. And I think that's what really drew Wyler to him."
Even parts of Homer's story that weren't entirely based on Russell's life resonated with the actor. While the storyline of Homer Parrish having a childhood sweetheart he still loves but doesn't want to saddle with his new injury was original to the script before he signed on, Russell had faced a similar challenge with his own sweetheart, Rita, who became his first wife.
All of this did not go unrecognized by the Academy. First, he was awarded the special Oscar for "bringing aid and comfort to disabled veterans through the medium of motion pictures." Russell was not informed in advance of the honor, and Shirley Temple took to the stage to present him with it. "The Academy members wanted to give him something to recognize how important the role was, the significance of it in that time, because they were convinced he wasn't going to win," Blake says. "And maybe it was their way of thanking veterans."
But the Academy needn't have worried. Russell did win for Best Supporting Actor, shocking nearly everyone including himself. Russell considered the double (and still unmatched) recognition a true honor, but surprisingly, it didn't spur him to attempt to continue a screen career. Instead, he used the visibility to become an activist, realizing that people were willing to listen to what he had to say and feeling a responsibility to put that power to good use.
"The two Oscars that he won and all of the accolades that came with it is what helped him devote essentially the rest of his life to disabled veterans and being an advocate and activist," notes Blake. "It gave him a much larger platform to reach people."
While he did seek counsel from Wyler on whether he should continue acting, Russell chose public service over Hollywood. He would chair the President's Committee on Employment of the Handicapped under four different administrations (Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter). He also served as World Veterans Fund Vice President, and cofounded advocacy org AMVETS, dedicating the best years of his life—and beyond—to his country.
A version of this story appears in the November issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands now and available to order here. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.