Harold Russell is an anomaly in film history. When Russell was cast in the classic film, The Best Years of Our Lives, he had practically no acting experience. Despite being the only person to win two Academy Awards for the same performance, Russell had no desire to be an actor. Moreover, Russell’s rise to stardom came in spite of two iron hooks that substituted for hands. In fact, his cinematic success was because of them.
On June 6, 1944, as thousands of U.S. troops stormed the beaches of Normandy, Sergeant Harold Russell was stationed in Mackall, North Carolina. While performing a routine demonstration, a faulty fuse caused a brick of TNT to explode prematurely. Russell lost both hands in the blast. He was given the option of choosing plastic hands or iron hook prostheses. For practicality purposes, he chose the latter.
Russell was equipped with a figure-eight harness; the mechanism allowed him to open his right hook by moving his left shoulder and left hook by moving his right shoulder. Russell endured a rigorous course of occupational therapy at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Through therapy and perseverance, Russell relearned daily life skills such as buttoning a shirt, opening a door, and drinking from a glass. He joked that he could pick up everything but a dinner check.
Army officials were so impressed by Russell’s progress that they recruited him to be in a film about disabled veterans. The film was intended to inspire the 671,000 wounded American soldiers returning home from war. More specifically, the army targeted the 15,000 American soldiers who had lost a limb. The finished film, Diary of a Sergeant, followed Russell as he performed a wide range of everyday tasks and assimilated back into normal life.
Diary of a Sergeant was well-received. The film was entered into the International Exhibition of Cinematographic Art in Venice, Italy and shown by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The film was also used by the Department of Treasury for a War Loan Drive, and played at hospitals around the country. Yet the film’s most influential patrons were Hollywood director, William Wyler, and film producer, Samuel Goldwyn.
Wyler and Goldwyn were looking to make a film about veterans coming home from war. Unlike many war films, they wanted to show the grim realities that would soon be commonplace around the country. Yet the movie makers were also aware that a severely disabled character could instill a sense of anxiety in filmgoers that was uncomfortably familiar. They found their lead actor in Diary of a Sergeant.
Russell’s dexterous hooks, coupled with his boyish charm made him the perfect fit for the role. Although he occasionally struggled to stay in character when he exchanged lines with his favorite actors, Russell ultimately gave an inspiring performance. In 1947, Russell won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. He was given another Oscar for bringing aid and comfort to disabled veterans through the medium of motion pictures.
Russell did little acting after The Best Years of Our Lives. He graduated from Boston University with a degree in business and established a consulting firm that helped veterans with disabilities. In 1961 President John F. Kennedy appointed Russell to vice chairman of the President’s Committee on Employment of the Handicapped. In 1964 President Lyndon B. Johnson made him the chairman, and Richard M. Nixon reappointed him.
Russell died of a heart attack in 2002. His inspiration both on and off film continues today.
NOTE: Diary of a Sergeant is now preserved at the National Archives and Records Administration as part of Record Group 111, Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, 1860-1985. The film that Russell and the other veterans watch, Meet McGonegal, is also preserved at NARA and available to view here.