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MOVIES | FILM CLIPS / A TRUE VETERAN ACTOR

Sure, It's Typecasting --but He's Used to It

September 08, 1996|Anne Bergman | Anne Bergman is an occasional contributor to Calendar

As Harold Russell lay in his Army hospital bed in June 1944 recovering from an explosion that took away his hands, he tried to remember that it wasn't what he had lost that mattered. What mattered was what he was going to do with what he had left.

Two years later, he became the only actor in the history of the Oscars to take home two Academy Awards for the same role, that of the young World War II veteran struggling to adjust to civilian life as an amputee in William Wyler's "The Best Years of Our Lives."

But Russell never parlayed the honor into a career on the silver screen. Instead, he took director Wyler's advice and returned to Boston University to finish the college education he had begun under the GI Bill.

"Wyler told me I should go back to college because there wasn't much call for a guy with no hands in the motion picture industry," Russell recalls. "I figured he was right."

An untrained actor, Russell--who had lost his hands during a stateside Army demolition accident in 1944--was discovered by Wyler after the director spotted him in a government-made documentary depicting the rehabilitation of an amputee, in which Russell was shown learning how to use the hooks that replaced his hands.

It's been 50 years since he won the Oscars in 1946 (a special award for "bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans" and another for best supporting actor) and Russell finds himself back in Southern California appearing in "Dogtown," an independent film written and directed by George Hickenlooper and starring Mary Stuart Masterson. In it, Russell plays a disabled World War II veteran who since his homecoming has become somewhat of a local hero to his neighbors in a small town in Missouri.

"I wrote the part for him," says Hickenlooper, whose credits include the documentary "Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse." "I'd discovered 'Best Years' when I was studying film at Yale. I found it very compelling, and I was so moved by Russell's performance I didn't have him audition for this part; I had complete confidence in him."

As for Russell, he sees the opportunity to return to Hollywood--albeit for a low-profile film--as sort of a last hurrah. "I'm 82," he says with humor, "the only actor older than me was George Burns and he's gone now."

While Russell says he had to be persuaded to take the role, it's clear that he's thoroughly enjoying the star treatment, with the film's producers flying Russell and his wife, Betty, out from their home in Hyannis Port, Mass., and putting them up in a hotel close to the Redondo Beach-based shoot.

On the set, Russell is a picture of patience, perched atop a director's chair, marveling at the activity that surrounds him. "The miracle," he says in his familiar New England accent, "is that anything ever gets made!"

"Dogtown" will be Russell's third feature film--he played a disabled veteran in Richard Donner's "Inside Moves" in 1980--but he has returned to Hollywood to appear in episodes of the TV series "Trapper John, M.D." and "China Beach."

Yet despite his relative lack of dramatic experience, Russell's got his lines down, and as co-star Jon Favreau puts it, "He hits it every take."

"He's a real trouper," adds Favreau, who co-wrote and stars in the upcoming "Swingers." "We gave him a little American flag pin [in reference to a scene from "Best Years" in which Russell's character confronts an antiwar isolationist] and he put it right onto his hat. He loved it."

Russell most recently made news when he put one of his Academy Awards up for auction in 1992. At the time, then-academy President Karl Malden criticized Russell's move, saying: "These Oscars should not become objects of mere commerce." The academy even offered Russell $20,000 to not sell his award. He held out and an anonymous bidder eventually paid more than $60,000 for Russell's best actor statuette. (Those who have received Oscars since 1950 have been required to agree in writing not to sell their statuette to anyone but the academy.)

"I didn't mean in any sense to degrade the value of the Oscar," Russell says. "A lot of people thought that I was trying to say something nasty about the industry. We just wanted to sell it, that's all."

Russell, who made a career as an advocate for the disabled, insists that his decision was not made out of financial hardship. "It wasn't that we were desperate or hungry," he says, "it was just that we have a lot of children and grandchildren and we wanted to put something away in case any of them ever needed something.

"I'd never sell the special one," he says. "The war was over and this was the industry's way of saying, 'Thank you,' to the veterans."

Russell doesn't regret heeding Wyler's advice, earning his degree in public relations, eventually serving on the president's committee on disability. "I served 25 years, under every president from Truman to Bush, working to encourage industry to hire qualified disabled workers."

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