Harold Russell

Harold John Avery Russell[1][2] (January 14, 1914 – January 29, 2002) was a Canadian-born American World War II veteran who became one of only two non-professional actors to win an Academy Award for acting (the other being Haing S. Ngor). Russell also has the distinction of being the only performer to sell his Oscar award at auction.

Harold Russell
Russell in 1946
Harold John Russell

(1914-01-14)January 14, 1914
DiedJanuary 29, 2002(2002-01-29) (aged 88)
Rita Russell-Nixon
(m. 1944; died 1978)

Betty Marshalsea
(m. 1981)


Harold Russell was born in North Sydney, Nova Scotia, Canada and moved to Massachusetts with his family in 1921,[3] after his father's death in 1920.[4]

At the time of the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, he was living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, working at a food market. In his 1949 autobiography, Victory In My Hands, he wrote that he rushed to enlist in the United States Army "not out of patriotism but because I thought of myself a failure."[5]

On June 6, 1944, while he was an Army instructor, teaching demolition work with the U.S. 13th Airborne Division at Camp Mackall, North Carolina, a defective fuse detonated TNT explosives he was handling.[6] As a result, he lost both hands and was given two hooks to serve as hands. After his recovery, and while attending Boston University as a full-time student, Russell was featured in Diary of a Sergeant, an Army film about rehabilitating war veterans.

The Best Years of Our Lives

When film director William Wyler saw the film on Russell, he cast him in The Best Years of Our Lives with Fredric March and Dana Andrews. Russell played the role of Homer Parrish, a United States Navy sailor who lost both hands during the war.

For his role as Parrish, Russell won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1947. Earlier in the ceremony, he was awarded an honorary Oscar for "bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans." The special award had been created because the Board of Governors very much wanted to salute Russell, a non-professional actor, but assumed he had little chance for a competitive win. It was the only time in Oscar history that the Academy has awarded two Oscars for the same performance.

Upon completion of the film, Wyler told Russell to return to school since there "weren't many roles for actors without hands." Russell returned to Boston University and graduated with a business degree in 1949.

Russell authored two autobiographies, Victory in My Hands (1949) and The Best Years of My Life (1981).

Later years

Russell appeared in only two other films after his debut, Inside Moves in 1980 and Dogtown in 1997. He also appeared in an episode of Trapper John, M.D. in 1981 and a two-part episode of the television series China Beach in 1989.

Russell became active in AMVETS, serving three terms as National Commander. As such, he wrote to President Truman in 1951, supporting his decision to dismiss General MacArthur. In his letter, Russell wrote: "The issue is whether the ultimate civil authority of the United States can tolerate actions in contempt of constitutional lines of authority. Any lessening of civil power over military power must inevitably lead away from democracy."

From the early 1960s to the late 1980s, Russell served as the Chairman of the President's Commission on Employment of the Handicapped, an unpaid position.

In 1992, in a controversial decision, Russell consigned his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor to Herman Darvick Autograph Auctions, and on August 6, 1992, in New York City, the Oscar sold to a private collector for $60,500 ($108,000 today). Claiming he needed money for his wife's medical expenses, Russell defended his action, saying, "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."[5] However, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which objects to the selling of its awards, disputed that motivation, stating that in actuality his new wife (they had been married 11 years at the time) merely "wanted to take a cruise".[7] The Academy has required all Oscar recipients since 1950 to sign an agreement forbidding them from selling their award unless they first offered it and any other Oscar memorabilia back to the Academy for $1.00 and 30 days for the Academy to respond; as a pre-1950 winner, Russell was exempt from this provision.

Russell died of a heart attack on January 29, 2002, 15 days after his 88th birthday, and is buried in Lakeview Cemetery in Wayland, Massachusetts.[5]


Year Title Role Notes
1946 The Best Years of Our Lives Homer Parrish Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor
Honorary Academy Award
Golden Globes - Special Award for Non-professional acting
1980 Inside Moves Wings
1981 Trapper John, M.D. Leo Hopkins TV episode - "The Days of Wine and Leo"
aka: "Harold Russell Story"
1989 China Beach Uncle Conal TV episodes - "The World, Pts. 1 & 2"
1997 Dogtown Blessed William (final film role)


  1. Cameron Rollins, Beth. "Nova Scotia Historical Vital Statistics". Nova Scotia Genealogy.
  2. Cameron Rollins, Beth. "1930 US Census". Ancestry .com.
  3. Cameron Rollins, Beth. "Nova Scotia Historical Vital Statistics". Nova Scotia Genealogy.
  4. Bergan, Ronald (2002-02-06). "Harold Russell; Brave actor whose artificial hands helped him win two Oscars". The Guardian. Retrieved 2008-02-05.
  5. Severo, Richard (February 1, 2002). "Harold Russell Dies at 88; Veteran and Oscar Winner". The New York Times.
  6. Rothman, Heathcliff (2006-02-16). "I'd Really Like to Thank My Pal at the Auction House". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-02-05.
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