'Best Years' Oscar winner, World War II vet

Harold Russell, the disabled World War II veteran who garnered two Oscars for his single performance in the 1946 Acad best picture “The Best Years of Our Lives,” died of a heart attack Jan. 29 in Needham, Mass. He was 88.

Russell’s two statuettes, one for best supporting actor and a special award from the academy’s governors, made him the only actor in Oscar history to win two awards for the same role.

The film, depicting returning World War II vets and their assimilation back into American society, brought Russell fame and an outpuring of affection from the public, but he would seldom act professionally again. And because he earned less than $10,000 for his role and had no rights concerning residual profits, he controversially sold one of his Oscars in a 1993 auction.

Born in Nova Scotia, Russell was raised near Cambridge, Mass., and joined the U.S. Army the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor. While in training as a paratrooper and explosives expert, a defective fuse causes TNT to detonate. The explosion so damaged his hands that they had to be amputated and he was fitted with hooks.

He was then cast in an Army training film, “Diary of a Sergeant,” which chronicled an amputee’s rehabilitation. Director William Wyler saw the film and subsequently cast him as Homer Parrish in “Best Years.” Russell surprised everyone with his heartfelt, convincing portrayal of a returning disabled veteran. He was nominated for best supporting actor in a tough field that included William Demarest (“The Jolson Story”), Claude Rains (“Notorious”), Clifton Webb (“The Razor’s Edge”) and Charles Coburn (“The Green Years”).

After the heady days of the Oscars, he took Wyler’s advice and went to school, attended Boston U., wrote an autobiography, “Victory in My Hands,” and later started a public relations company. The thread that ran throughout his adult life, however, was helping the disabled. In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson named Russell chairman of the President’s Committee on Hiring the Handicapped.

In later years, he appeared infrequently in a handful of films including “Inside Moves” and “Dogstown.” He also essayed roles on several TV series including “China Beach” and “Trapper John, M.D.”

He is survived by a son, a daughter, four grandchildren, and seven great grandchildren.

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