Harold Russell, 88, a disabled World War II veteran who received two Academy Awards for his riveting portrayal of a double amputee in the 1946 homecoming film "The Best Years of Our Lives," died Jan. 29 at a nursing home in Needham, Mass., after a heart attack.
He received an Oscar for best supporting actor and a special Oscar for "bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans."
Mr. Russell, who lost his hands in an Army demolitions accident in North Carolina, became a national symbol of strength for the disabled. He helped establish veterans and peace groups and was the unpaid chairman of the President's Committee on Employment of the Handicapped from the early 1960s to late 1980s.
He owed much of his celebrity to his role in "Best Years" as one of several characters who find the home front an alien world after combat. He was the only nonactor in the film, which starred Fredric March and Dana Andrews.
"Best Years" was not the first motion picture to address the postwar recovery of mentally and physically shattered veterans. What made "Best Years" a landmark was William Wyler's sensitive direction, Robert E. Sherwood's mature and biting script and especially Mr. Russell's poignant work as a man with hooks for hands who yearns for everyday dignity and understanding. The picture won eight Oscars, including Mr. Russell's two.
He later made sporadic film and television appearances but heeded Wyler's advice to attend college "because there wasn't much call for a guy with no hands in the motion picture industry."
He received a bachelor's degree in business administration from Boston University and wrote a best-selling autobiography in 1949, "Victory in My Hands." He was a founder and national commander of AMVETS and a creator of World Veterans Federation, an umbrella group.
He also was outspoken against racial discrimination, touring the country in the late 1940s as a representative of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith. "Discrimination is like amputating America's hands," he said.
Mr. Russell, a former Alexandria resident, was a longtime Massachusetts resident and ran an insurance agency there until 1975.
Harold John Russell, a Nova Scotia native, moved to Cambridge, Mass., at age 6 after his father's death. His mother, a nurse, supported the three children, but Mr. Russell also did odd jobs.
He had risen from meat cutter to grocery store manager by the time the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Mr. Russell joined the Army the next day, saying it was a "glamorous alibi" to leave his job.
In the Army, he became a parachute and demolitions instructor. On June 6, 1944, while he was handling dynamite at Camp MacKall, N.C., a defective fuse caused the TNT to explode. Both of his hands were amputated three inches above his wrists.
Recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, he opted for hooks instead of plastic hands -- he felt the hooks were more practical -- and learned to use the devices to perform such tasks as lighting a cigarette and tying his shoes.
Despite the anguish he felt about relearning simple activities, he would joke that the hooks enabled him to do everything but pick up the check at dinner.
The Army Signal Corps selected him as the subject of a 20-minute documentary called "Diary of a Sergeant" (1945), which "Best Years" producer Samuel Goldwyn saw.
Goldwyn persuaded Mr. Russell to play Homer Parrish, a Navy machinist's mate whose sense of shame and pride causes him to alienate himself from his family and fiancee.
In one powerful scene, Mr. Russell reacts angrily to neighborhood children staring at his hooks and shoves his arms through a windowpane.
He also brought to the film much of his own terror of readjusting to romance. In his autobiography, he wrote of his childhood sweetheart: "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."
He described the looks he got from Rita and his mother and wrote that he felt like "shaking [his hooks] in their faces and shouting, 'Here! Take a good look at them! Fascinating, aren't they?' "
He married Rita, whose maiden name was also Russell, in 1947. She died in 1978.
In 1981, he married Betty Marshallsee Russell. She survives him, as do two children from his first marriage; four grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.
In 1992, Mr. Russell found himself involved in a Hollywood controversy when he auctioned off one of his Oscars, saying he was not poor but wanted the money to pay his wife's medical bills. Over objections from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Mr. Russell reportedly accepted $60,500 from an anonymous buyer.
He earned $10,000 for his part in "Best Years" and received no residuals over the years. He kept the Oscar for special achievement.