Early in the upcoming film Inside Moves, somebody asks a group of barroom poker players if they could use another hand. “I could use two of ’em,” cracks Harold Russell, holding up the hooks strapped to his forearms. The new movie, directed by Richard (Superman) Donner, focuses on a group of handicapped pals who hang out together in a seedy Oakland tavern, and that dogged good humor is obviously updated dialogue from Russell’s last movie, 34 years ago. If Hollywood is a flash-in-the-pan battle zone, who had a flashier career? Cast in The Best Years of Our Lives as a handless veteran struggling mightily with postwar adjustment, Russell helped the 1946 film win a Best Picture Oscar while taking home two Academy Awards himself (Best Supporting Actor and another for Special Achievement). He followed his sudden stardom with a quick fade-out: He packed up his prizes and his new wife, served on government commissions, got into the insurance business and left Hollywood behind.
Over the years “I’ve had a couple chances to do some other films, but they really weren’t what I thought was a good story,” says Russell, now 66. “I’ve been working with handicapped people since 1948, and it just seemed like Inside Moves was the kind of thing that would be appropriate.”
Harold’s work with the disabled began, of course, in World War II. After quitting Boston University to enlist, he was rejected by the Navy and Marines because of two missing back teeth and finally joined the Army. He volunteered for the paratroops, he recalls, because “they paid $50 a month more, and it looked like a pretty good idea at the time.” On D day in 1944 he was giving demolition instruction at Camp Mackall, N.C. when a charge exploded in his hands because of overexposure to the sun. It could have been worse, he now muses: “I was sitting on 50 pounds of TNT that didn’t go off.”
During his convalescence at Walter Reed Army Medical Center (where he shared a ward with Telly Savalas, a GI recovering from an arm wound), Harold began using claw-like prosthetics that took the place of his hands. Known as Walter Reed’s “hook virtuoso,” he once stunned a visiting colonel who caught him crouched on the floor shooting craps with fellow patients. A half-hour Army film dealing with his remarkable rehabilitation began making the rounds of war bond rallies and caught the casting eye of director William Wyler, then about to start Best Years.
Russell’s success in the film changed him from actor to activist. At a White House reception for the Best Years cast members, Harry Truman asked the young vet to help with a new President’s Committee on Employment of the Handicapped. Harold has worked with the council ever since, becoming voluntary vice-chairman in the Kennedy administration and chairman in the Johnson years, and he still spends up to four months on the road each year on its behalf. Best Years, meanwhile, was recognized as a classic—it was ranked among the 50 greatest U.S. movies ever made in a 1977 poll of members of the American Film Institute.
Now only ceremonially involved in groups he once ran, like AMVETS, Russell spends his time directing his newest firm, Harold Russell Associates, a Waltham, Mass. consulting company he launched six years ago to boost training and hiring of the handicapped. He lives alone in the seven-room Framingham, Mass. apartment he bought shortly before his wife’s death two years ago. The father of two (and grandfather of four), he drives to work each day, plays pool, scuba dives and jokes that he can do anything with his hooks “except pick up a dinner check.”
This month he will return to California to film an episode of Trapper John, M.D., and he is pondering other TV and movie offers. Inside Moves, he allows, gave him “satisfaction in knowing that I could come back after 34 years and at least hold my own with a bunch of professional actors.” All the same, the lure of Hollywood is not likely to divert Russell from his first cause. “There are about 15,000 young people between the ages of 18 and 29 who become confined to wheelchairs each year as a result of spinal cord injuries,” he notes with a sigh. “There’s no lack of handicapped people.”