Before winning two Oscars for playing Homer Parrish in “The Best Years of Our
Lives”(1946), Harold Russell had never acted a day in his life. And his life would be the only source material he would need to play that part.
The bombing of Pearl Harbor prompted Harold Russell to join the service. As an instructor for paratroopers, Harold Russell would lose both of his hands in an accidental discharge from an explosive. His hands were replaced with two metal claws. Upon returning home, Russell participated in an educational film about disabled veterans titled "Diary of a Sergeant." Director William Wyler saw the film at the same time he was looking to cast a role in his new picture "The Best Years of Our Lives" (1946). Wyler originally slated Farley Granger to play the role of a shell-shocked veteran, but after seeing Russell in “Diary of a Sergeant,” he changed the role and soughtout Russell to play it.
Russell went on to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as Homer Parrish in “The Best Years of Our Lives,” beating out the very prestigious nominees in his category: Claude Rains ("Notorious"), Clifton Webb ("The Razor's Edge"), Charles Coburn ("The Green Years") and William Demarest ("The Jolston Story”). Russell would also make Academy history by being presented a Special Oscar by Shirley Temple for his inspiring portrayal of the disabled veteran. It was the only time an actor ever received an Oscar twice for the same role.
Russell loved the atmosphere of Hollywood, but William Wyler gave him some advice: "There aren't that many parts for a guy with no hands. You should go back to college, get your degree." Russell did just that. In 1949, he graduated with a Business Degree from Boston University. Russell did not appear in another significant film role after. He did, however, appear in a few small television parts. Russell devoted most of his life to disabled veterans and the handicapped around the country. He founded and ran the Harold Russell Institute, a non-profit organization specializing in finding jobs for people with disabilities. In 1961, Russell became Vice Chairman of the President’s Committee on the Employment of People with Disabilities during President Kennedy’s administration, and he continued to serve on the committee for the next four U.S. Presidents. The annual award which the committee presents is named The Harold Russell Medal, a testament to the significance of his contribution.
In 1992, Russell made Oscar history again. Finding it difficult to pay his wife’s medical bills, he made a decision to sell his coveted Oscar, an act others film colleagues and the Academy deemed blasphemous. "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." When the Academy found out, Russell was repeatedly contacted by Karl Madden, the President at the time, offering him $20,000 dollars not to sell it. He had to auction it off anyway. It brought over $60,000. It was this event that led the Academy to invoke a policy by which each recipient of an Oscar must sign an agreement prohibiting the sale of the statuette at any time for any reason.