Harold Russell set down his orange juice and deftly picked up a napkin with his hooks.

"It's not what you lost, but what you have left," he said. "And how you use it."

Of course, it is easy to tell that to people when you are the world's most famous amputee, a national symbol of courage for the handicapped, winner of two Oscars for his part in the unforgettable "Best Years of Our Lives," a film about returning World War II veterans.

Russell knows it better than anyone.

"The words don't do it. You need a lot more than that. You need some sort of action."

Action. Or maybe just the presence of the vigorous, self-assured Russell, whose unremarkable life as a suburban Boston meat-cutter turned Army sergeant and paratrooper instructor at Camp Mackall, N.C., was transformed in 1944 in one crimson instant when a defective fuse cap went off in his hands.

("Everything turned flaming red," he wrote in his book, "Victory in My Hands," describing the explosion. "For a second I was blinded. Then I opened my eyes. I was on the ground. I didn't know what had happened. I was stunned, bewildered. Then I looked at my arms. My hands were gone. There were bloody shreds of skin, muscle and bone where they had been.")

Today, at 67, as chairman of the President's Committee on Employment of the Handicapped, he tours the country promoting equal opportunities for the handicapped. He has been a part of the revolution in our national attitudes toward the handicapped, brought on not only by three wars in a generation and a spiraling rate of spinal injuries from thrill sports and highway accidents, but also by the Rehabilitation Act, which requires federal contractors to deal fairly with the handicapped.

"The changes are amazing," Russell said. " 'The Best Years' was the first picture ever to feature a person with no hands. It broke the ice. You had 'The Men' and 'Coming Home,' and I made another movie myself, 'Inside Moves,' which is being re-released this fall. It isn't just wars, you know, there were 10 times as many civilians handicapped as GIs in the war years."

Artificial limbs are lighter, somewhat more efficient, and progress is being made on electronic limbs that work from implants in existing muscles. Russell told of a 15-year-old girl whose arm, sliced off by a boat propeller, has been replaced by an electronic space-age prosthesis.

But all the good news in the world isn't enough when you wake up in the hospital and realize it wasn't a dream, it won't un-happen, the arm or the leg or the spinal cord is gone, and suddenly you are a member of a different race. In the amputee ward of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Russell found a wonderful spirit of comradeship and support. He could always find someone with worse problems than his. The hardest part was leaving this warm shelter and coming back into the world.

("Rita gave me a long, tender kiss. I had a hard job not taking her in my arms. I didn't dare. It might ruin everything. Imagine having those hard, cold claws biting into your back . . . All during the ride to Cambridge I could sense Rita and mother stealing glances at the hooks. I felt like shaking them in their faces and shouting, 'Here! Take a good look at them! Fascinating, aren't they?' ")

There is a new generation of amputees at Reed, and Russell visits them sometimes to let them see that life does go on. "You have to give yourself some time," he said. "You have to have patience. It's like any loss, like a death in the family. You need time to grieve. And then you start to cope with the reality."

What he learned from his experience, he wrote in his book, was that "my weakness, my handlessness, my sense of inferiority, has turned out to be my greatest strength." If there was ever anyone who rose to an occasion, it was Harold Russell. Propelled to fame by a wartime documentary film he made for the Signal Corps, "Diary of a Sergeant," he came to the attention of film director William Wyler, who had a special role for him written into his war's-end epic, "The Best Years of Our Lives." More than anyone in Hollywood, Wyler helped him through the ordeal of publicity, talked him in, he says. The two men kept in touch until Wyler's death last month.

In any case, Russell used his celebrity to help the handicapped, beginning with his consulting firm, which counsels government contractors on affirmative action for the handicapped, and going national when President Kennedy appointed him to the president's committee in 1962. He has served ever since.

Just a few weeks ago he married again; his first wife, Rita, died four years ago. He has two grown children, and his new wife, Betty, has three. Meanwhile, he keeps busy with the career that chose him. Next week he goes to Alaska to discuss jobs for the handicapped.

"Maybe it's not necessarily so bad to be different, at that," he mused. "Maybe it does something for you, not to be exactly like everyone else. Who knows what my life would have been if I hadn't lost my hands. One thing for sure, I never would have got in the movies."