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Harold Russell's Best Years Never Ended

He's won Oscars and lived robustly, despite WWII training accident that cost him his hands

By M. R. Montgomery, Globe Staff

The Boston Globe July 31, 1998 page C1

Harold Russell of Hyannis has to be the happiest double amputee in North America, maybe the world. It's not that he wouldn't like his hands back (blown off in a training accident stateside, ironically on D-day), it's just that life is good. Sixty-five years ago, he graduated from Cambridge's Rindge Technical School in the middle of the Great Depression. Sixty years ago he was a meat cutter for a First National Store in Cambridge. Fifty-five years ago he was a paratrooper and instructor in explosives. And then something happened. Fifty years ago he was the toast of the movie business, promoting his 1946 Oscar-winning role as the sailor with no hands in "The Best Years of Our Lives."

Last month, his movie made the short list of 100 greatest American films, and Russell was back in the news. "I've sort of inherited 'Best Years'," he said reflectively. "I'm the last guy left. That's what happens when you live to 84."

What a bunch the other guys were: Fredric March (Oscar for best actor), Dana Andrews, William Wyler (Oscar for directing), and Sam Goldwyn (Oscar for best picture). The film also pulled down Oscars for screenplay, score, and editing. The quirkiest prize belongs to Russell: At the beginning of the 1946 Academy Awards, they passed out the "special contributions" Oscars and Russell got one, presented by Shirley Temple. (It wasn't bad company. Laurence Olivier got one for making Shakespeare's "Henry V" as a morale-building epic for the British.)

"I got my award for special contributions," Russell recalled, "and I'm hanging around backstage. I found out months later that when I was nominated for supporting actor, they figured I didn't have a chance, the other guys had too much background."

There's an understatement. The other nominees were Charles Coburn ("The Green Years"), William Demarest ("The Jolson Story"), Claude Rains ("Notorious"), and Clifton Webb ("The Razor's Edge").

"When they get to supporting actor," Russell continued, "they had to practically throw me out on the stage." That makes Russell the answer to the trivia question: "Who ever got two Oscars for the same role?" And another, more painful one: "What actor ever sold an Oscar statue?"

"I had to do it," Russell explained. "My first wife was dying, heart disease, and I didn't have the money. It caused a stink. The academy was all upset, and the Screen Actors Guild, too. Karl Malden was the academy president, and he must have called me five or six times, mad as hell, and they offered me $ 20,000 not to sell it. Well, it auctioned for $ 60,000 and I got $ 50,000 after the auction house got its cut, and I needed it.

"This year, when they had the reunion of all the Oscar winners, I see Malden, and I'm worrying about what he's gonna do, and he comes up to me, and says, 'Hi, Harold, delighted to see you here.' So that's that."

Meeting Harold Russell is an experience and has been since the 1940s, when he became chairman of the President's Commission on Hiring the Handicapped (now the "disabled" or "physically challenged"). You get within reach of Russell for the first time and he's got the hook out to shake your hand. "That's something I learned a long time ago," he said. "You got to break the ice, get over the hump."

How Russell got the role in "Best Years" is a story in itself, and one that says a lot about a happy man who can shake hooks with the best of them. It starts in South Carolina.

"I was an instructor in the parachute corps," he explained, "joined up the day after Pearl Harbor and in 1944, I'm still an instructor. I'll never forget how I got into airborne. I was getting $ 21 a month in the Army, which was a hell of a shock. One day these real sharp-looking guys show up, and they're recruiting for the paratroops. And one of them says, 'By the way, you get $ 50 a month extra.' I still remember that first $ 71 paycheck. I didn't want to be an instructor - that's what happens if you're good, you get stuck instructing. I wanted to go overseas. I'm not bragging, I just wanted to get in the fight.

"Finally, I get out of the training command and into a new outfit, the 13th Airborne Division, and, naturally, they make me an instructor again, while we're waiting to go overseas. I'm an explosives instructor. I don't know much about explosives, but I like them, and I learn," he reminisced.

"Well, June 6, 1944, we get called to a briefing. It's a chaplain and a couple of officers, and they tell us about D-day. Usually a briefing is less than an hour, but this one, with all the questions, goes more than two hours. When it's over, we've still got about a thousand troops to run through a live-ammo, live-explosives obstacle course. So I started helping the guys make up explosive charges. It's not my job, I'm supposed to be the boss, but it's late in the day and we have to hurry it up. What I didn't realize was those blasting caps had been sitting out in the sun, on a blanket, for two hours, and they were touchy. I put one in a quarter-pound of nitro-starch and that was it."

So now, it's the summer of 1944, and Russell is in Walter Reed Hospital near Washington, D.C., getting fixed up with his hooks. "I was one sorry sack," he reminded himself as much as the listener, "and if I'd had the guts, I would have killed myself.

"They showed us this little short movie one day: 'Meet McGonegal.' He's a World War I vet with no hands. Turns out he's also a millionaire, made it all selling real estate in Southern California after the war, and he was smart enough to cash it all in before the crash in '29.

"One day I hear McGonegal is coming to Walter Reed to talk to the vets, and I tell the doctor, 'I have to meet that man, this is like Santa Claus coming.'

"What do I ask him? I say, 'Charlie, this a personal question and I want a truthful answer. How do you live with those damn hooks?' And I never forgot what he said: 'It's not what you lost that's important, it's what you do with what you have left.'

"He was great. He told me that the reason he was such a success as a salesman was that no one ever forgot him. They might not buy something the first time, but he never had to introduce himself again. They remembered. And he's the one that taught me to put the hook out and shake hands, break the ice, get it over with. If people can't cope, you're better off finding out right away."

Harold Russell went back to the rehab room and started to learn how to use the hooks. A few months later, a very Hollywood thing happened. The government wanted to make an educational film about handicapped veterans. Someone remembered the old silent film "Meet McGonegal." And Hollywood called Walter Reed and asked if they had a vet with no hands. In their Hollywood way, they were playing it safe and making a sequel. This one was called "Diary of a Sergeant." Russell was the sergeant, someone did the voiceover, he never said a word on screen.

Then the plot thickens, or at least meanders. Out in Hollywood, Sam Goldwyn wanted to make a film about the problems of disabled veterans. He had William Wyler under contract for one more film, and he ordered Wyler to do it. They got a screenplay from McKinlay Kantor, who in a fit of something-or-other, turned in a blank-verse novella. Goldwyn hired Robert Sherwood (then a popular playwright) to do a treatment in regular English. And they tried to cast the movie. The most disabled character is a sailor with neurological damage that has made him spastic. A dozen actors tried and couldn't manage acting spastic, including Farley Granger, a consummate screen actor. So they killed the project for a while, shelved it, left it in the limbo of unfinished business.

"Now here's what happened," Russell said, picking up the narrative again: "My life is a series of things that just happen.

"They're having one last war bond drive, I mean the war's over, this is the last one to pay off the last stuff, and they decide to include 'Diary of a Sergeant' on the program. And somebody drags Willie Wyler to this war bond thing. He couldn't give a crap about war bonds. But he sees 'Diary' and the light bulb goes on. He says, 'Hey, we can make the spastic a double amputee!' And that's how you win an Oscar." Russell is being modest. He may be the best actor on the screen, utterly natural, perfectly believable. But for that, he credits Wyler's directorial skills.

"I finally had a beef with Willy," Russell recalled. "He was always doing 10, a dozen takes. And this one scene, all I do is come into my little sister's bedroom, she's asleep, and I take the hooks and move the blanket up over her and tuck her in. I must have done it 25 times, and I say: 'Willy, what the hell do you want me to do?' And he says: 'I don't know, but when I see it, I'll know.' "

Russell has very fond memories of all his co-stars:

"Freddy March, he was a great guy. He had one beef with me, we're shooting the first scene in the barroom, and he comes over and says: "Hey, Russell, when I speak my lines, keep those damn hooks out of sight.' Well, we're supposed to be in a barroom, right? And what do you do when you shut up and let the other guy talk? You take a sip of your beer, right?

"Hoagy Carmichael was terrific. He's my uncle in the movie. We have this great scene where I play the piano with him, and I keep screwing him up, wrong note, wrong time, and he's very kind, very generous, just great.

"Dana Andrews, he didn't hang around the set, you didn't know him. He does his scene, he's gone. One time - he used to drink, you know, he ended up making public service announcements about booze - he finishes, calls a cab, and they find him and the cab driver in San Francisco two days later. They dry him out and we go back to work.

"I loved it out there. One day I stopped by Wyler's office and said: 'Willy, I've got a contract with Mr. Goldwyn for three more pictures. What should I do? I want the truth.

"And this is what he says: 'You're not gonna like this, Harold, but there aren't that many parts for a guy with no hands. You should go back to college Boston University, get your degree.' Which I did."

And Harold Russell got a life, working for every president from Harry Truman to George Bush, traveling to every state and many foreign countries, lobbying for disabled veterans and other handicapped people. He says it all just happened, which is maybe true, as long as, like Russell, you ask people to tell you the truth, they do, and you listen.

© 1998 Globe Newspaper Company

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