With Memorial Day around the corner, it’s fitting that we turn our attention to the women and men who have served in the military, and that includes those who work in the entertainment industry. We may not think of the military when we think of Hollywood, aside from when it turns out an incredible war movie. But a number of actors and actresses have served in the armed forces over the decades, including more than a few who might surprise you.
Here are some of the most interesting Hollywood names to ever don a military uniform.
1. Jimmy Stewart
Jimmy Stewart is probably one of the most well-known actors to ever serve in the military and for him, it wasn’t a brief stint but became a permanent part of his life. Drafted in 1940, the lanky actor was originally rejected due to being 5 lbs. underweight for his height. He could have left it at that, but he was determined to do his duty and worked to gain weight in order to qualify for the service. When he got to the Army Air Corps, Stewart was so frustrated at being put on desk duty thanks to his celebrity status that he lobbied his commanding officer to let him head overseas. While there, he led the 703rd Bombardment Squadron on numerous missions, some of them uncounted, into Nazi-occupied Europe. In 1945, he was promoted to the rank of full colonel, one of only a few American soldiers to rise from the rank of private to colonel in just four years. He finally retired from active reserves after 27 years of service at the rank of a 2-star Major General and having been awarded 2 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 4 Air Medals, 1 Army Commendation Medal, 1 Armed Forces Reserve Medal, 1 Presidential Medal of Freedom and 1 French Croix de Guerre with Palm. Talk about a hero.
2. Mel Brooks
The legendary Mel Brooks will turn 94 years old this year. Born in 1926, that made him old enough to fight in WWII – and he did. During the Second World War, he joined the Army Corps of Engineers. He later laughed about it with his trademark humor, once saying, “I was a Combat Engineer. Isn’t that ridiculous? The two things I hate most in the world are combat and engineering.” But despite his joking, it was a tough role he had. One of his tasks was to defuse land mines, and he even fought in the deadly Battle of the Bulge. Once, when the Germans were blaring Nazi propaganda over the loudspeakers, Brooks reportedly rigged up his own sound system to blast “Toot Toot Tootsie,” a song by Jewish musician Al Jolson. Even in the middle of war, Brooks’ sense of humor remained intact.
It might surprise some people to learn that Ice-T joined the Army and served four years, the last two with the 25th Infantry. He didn’t have a decorated time while serving or a spotless record, however. He and some fellow soldiers were charged with stealing a rug, and Ice-T–then Tracy Lauren Marrow–deserted the Army while awaiting his hearing. The rug was returned, and so did Ice-T, who was given an honorable discharge thanks to him being a single father. So, okay, maybe his time in the military didn’t go so well–but it gave him enough money to afford the musical equipment which helped launch his rap career. Maybe it was for the best.
4. Adam Driver
Adam Driver is arguably the most well-known former soldier currently working in Hollywood, as Driver has been open about his time in the military. After 9/11, he wanted to do something to tangibly contribute. “September 11 happened and all my friends were like ‘Let’s join the military!’ and I was the only one who actually did,” he said. Enlisting in the Marines, he found a new sense of purpose in military life. “There’s something about going into the military and having all of your identity and possessions stripped away: that whole clarity of purpose thing,” Driver once told The Guardian. Driver worked hard and looked forward to being deployed. Unfortunately, just before deployment, he injured his sternum in a mountain biking accident and was medically discharged. He was depressed about his discharge, but he emerged from his time in the military with a new sense of purpose. Since then, he founded Arts in the Armed Forces, a non-profit organization that brings stageplays to servicemembers around the world.
5. Bob Ross
Bob Ross–yes, “Happy Trees” Bob Ross–was in the military. He didn’t just enlist, though: He spent twenty years in the Air Force and retired at the rank of Master Sergeant. As a medical records technician, he served as the first sergeant of the U.S. Air Force Clinic at Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska. Far from our image of Bob Ross, the gentle, ultra-chill painter of landscapes, Ross’s positions in the military forced him to be tough and mean to recruits. “I was the guy who makes you scrub the latrine, the guy who makes you make your bed, the guy who screams at you for being late to work,” he once explained to the Orlando Sentinel. But it really wasn’t in his nature, and he found his outlet in teaching himself to paint. Once he left the military, he swore he’d never again be the person he was when he was enlisted, and so he became the soothing, inspirational artist we know and love today.
6. Morgan Freeman
Morgan Freeman is another actor who gave it a solid go in the military. Before being an actor, he enlisted in the Air Force. During his four years in the military, he served as an Automatic Tracking Radar Repairman. But while training to be a fighter pilot looks incredibly cool and exciting in Top Gun, Freeman found his heart just wasn’t in it. Initially in love with the Air Force, he slowly fell out of love as his romanticized notions of the military were stripped away. When he finally got the chance to train as a fighter pilot, he had a realization that changed him the first time he climbed into the cockpit. “I had a distinct feeling I was sitting in the nose of a bomb,” he explained to AARP Magazine. “I had this very clear epiphany: You are not in love with this; you are in love with the idea of this.” He left after four years, but still, he rose to the rank of Airman 1st Class before leaving.
7. Mister T
Back when he was still Laurence Tureaud, Mister T. went to Prairie View A&M University on a football scholarship but got expelled after a year due to his poor grades. So he joined the Army and served in the Military Police Corps. He may not have been a great academic student, but he excelled in the military. In 1975, his drill sergeant awarded him with a letter of recommendation, selecting him from his group of 6,000 trainee troops to be “Top Trainee of the Cycle” and promoting him to squad leader. A funny anecdote from his time in the military highlights his physical gifts: Once, his platoon sergeant punished him for some small infraction and ordered him to chop down trees. However, the sergeant didn’t specify how many he was to cut. When he came back to relieve Tureaud of his duty three and a half hours later, he discovered the future Mr. T. had singlehandedly chopped down over 70 trees. I pity the fool who tried to give him latrine scrubbing duty.
8. Bea Arthur
Deadpool knows that Bea Arthur is to be feared and respected, even if the rest of you didn’t. In the last few years of WWII, Bea Arthur heard that enlistments for women in the Marines were open, so she decided to join. She did, and became one of the first members of the Women’s Reserve and spent her time as a typist and a truck driver. And she was not to be trifled with, rising from the rank of sergeant to staff sergeant within the Marines before her time in the military ended, earning a reputation as being argumentative and tough as nails. Anyone who has ever watched Golden Girls might not be surprised.
9. James Earl Jones
It’s hard to imagine James Earl Jones, he of the iconic voice, not being a part of Hollywood. But we came very close to just that when Jones enlisted in the Army during the Korean War. It wasn’t just a flash in the pan whim of his; he had previously been a pre-med student and dropped out before switching to drama. But he still wanted to do something meaningful with his life, so upon graduation, he decided to join the Army. Commissioned in 1953, he attended Officers Basic Course and became a second lieutenant, even doing a brief stint in Army Ranger training. He eventually decided to pursue his heart, which was with acting, figuring he could always re-enlist if he couldn’t find success as an actor. And so, James was honorably discharged after rising to the rank of first lieutenant. Let’s just consider ourselves lucky that the whole acting thing worked out for him.
10. Drew Carey
Similar to Mel Brooks, Drew Carey is a career funnyman who honed his craft while in the military as a young man. He joined the Marine Corps in 1980, serving in the Marine Corps Reserves for six years. It was during this time in the military that he started to sport his trademark horn-rimmed glasses and flattop crew cut, as well as beginning his work on comedy routines and standup. He was looking for ways to make money while he was in the Marine Reserves and it was suggested to him he start using his comedy – and his career eventually took off. Though he was lucky, he really enjoyed his time in the military. “I think if I didn’t have such a great break, I would still be in the military,” he said. Today, he still gives back to the troops by doing overseas tours with the USO.
11. Robin Quivers
Robin Quivers may have co-hosted The Howard Stern Show for over 30 years, but before she became Howard Stern’s better professional half, she had an entire career in the military. She started out as a nursing student at the University of Maryland and upon graduating, worked in a shock-trauma, intensive care unit, where she was in all kinds of high-pressure situations. Knowing she could put her skills to good use elsewhere, she enlisted in the Air Force where she entered as a second lieutenant and was promoted to first lieutenant after just six months. By the time she was discharged, she’d risen all the way to the rank of captain, making her, quite literally, Captain America. Even when she started going radio, she was still in the military, just considered inactive.
12. Gene Wilder
Everyone on this list thus far chose to join the military. But Gene Wilder was drafted. Born Jerome Silberman, in 1956 he was drafted into the Army under that name. He was quickly ssigned to the medical corps, training at Fort Sam Houston. Once his training was finished, he was assigned to the Department of Psychiatry and Neurology at Valley Forge Army Hospital in Pennsylvania, where he worked as a paramedic for two years before being discharged in 1959. Eight years later, he and fellow military veteran Mel Brooks worked on their first collaboration together, The Producers, with the darkly satirical comedy being partly based on Brooks’ recollections of WWII.
13. Paul Newman
Paul Newman might have been Hollywood’s Golden Boy of the ’60s and ’70s, but he started out on a very different path. After graduating high school in 1943 at the tail end of WWII, he enlisted in the Navy’s V-12 program at Yale University, dead-set on becoming a fighter pilot. However, he was crushed to learn he was disqualified due to being colorblind. Instead, he was shipped off to basic training to become a rear-seat radioman and gunner for torpedo bombers – still an incredibly stressful and high-pressure position. For a year, he operated in torpedo bomber squadrons that trained replacement pilots, before later being stationed on an aircraft carrier as a turret gunner for an Avenger aircraft. He was later assigned to the USS Bunker Hill in 1945. In a lucky twist of fate, Newman’s pilot had an ear infection and they were held back from flying in the Okinawa campaign that same year. Because of this, Newman missed being aboard the USS Bunker Hill when it was bombed by two kamikaze pilots and utterly destroyed during the Battle of Okinawa, avoiding the fate of his fallen comrades on board. Golden Boy, indeed.
But it’s not just native-born Americans who have served in the military. Plenty of actors who grace our screens have served in their own way in their own countries.
14. Arnold Schwarzenegger
In 1965, when Arnold Schwarzenegger was 18, he enlisted in the Austrian Army as was mandatory for all men once they came of age. As you might expect of someone who was forced into the military instead of joining willingly, Schwarzenegger didn’t take it as seriously as others. During basic training, he went AWOL for week in order to compete in the Junior Mr. Europe bodybuilding contest. Unfortunately, he didn’t really think through the consequences of just leaving without permission, and when he returned he spent another week in a military prison. Alright, so maybe the military wasn’t a good fit for him.
15. Dr. Ruth
Today, Dr. Ruth Westheimer is known for being a sex therapist and talk show host. But during WWII, her parents were both killed in the Holocaust, her father at Auschwitz, the circumstances of her mother’s death unknown. Now orphaned, she decided to emigrate to Mandatory Palestine, which at that time was controlled by Britain. Soon after, she joined the Haganah, the main paramilitary outfit of the Jewish population in Mandatory Palestine. Because of her tiny, diminutive stature, Ruth was trained as a scout and a sniper, and was taught to throw grenades and shoot. Though she never killed anyone, she was an excellent marksman and a very good sniper. During the Palestine War in 1948, she was seriously wounded in action by an exploding shell and it was a few months before she was able to walk again.
16. Gal Gadot
Gal Gadot in the Israeli Defense Forces
When she was cast as Wonder Woman, Gal Gadot’s time in the Israeli army (a mandatory service) was well-documented. At age 18, she was crowned Miss Israel and then went on to compete in the Miss Universe 2004 pageant. Two years later, she did her mandatory stint in the Israeli Defense Forces. Don’t think that the pretty face and temporarily derailed modeling career made her soft or that she mailed in her service, though. Gadot excelled in the IDF’s grueling, three-month boot camp, earning the notice of her instructors. She was so good at the physical aspects of the job and military tactics that she earned a spot as a combat trainer during her time in the IDF. That physical prowess helped her land her first Hollywood gig in the Fast & Furious franchise and later, the role of warrior princess Diana. A real-life Wonder Woman.
17. Sean Connery
The man who will always be James Bond to many of us grew up in a vastly different lifestyle than the character he later made famous. Growing up poor and in a tough neighborhood, Connery left school at age 12 in order to deliver milk for a pound a week and help support his family. As he got older, he saw the military as his way out. And so, at age 15, he joined the British Royal Navy, where he served for three years aboard the HMS Formidable. During his time as a sailor, he got two tattoos – a seemingly obligatory thing for a young sailor, but they were a tribute to the two pillars of Connery’s life. One read “Mum and Dad” and the other read “Scotland Forever.” After three years, however, he was discharged on medical grounds after recurring problems with a stomach ulcer.
On this Memorial Day, we salute all the troops who have fallen and those who didn’t, but were willing to risk their lives in order to serve.