A-list actors play special forces soldiers and five-star generals in film and television all the time, but for some stars military service is more than just a role.
Whether they were drafted during wartime, signed up as proud patriots, or simply enlisted as a way to get their lives in order (or in order to avoid jail time!), these celebrities stepped up and earned their stars and stripes!
By the time Elvis Presley received his draft notice in 1957, he’d had already topped the charts with “Heartbreak Hotel” and scandalized the pearl clutches with his swinging hips on the Milton Berle show. But rather than trying to pull the star card to shirk service, the hit-maker traded his blue suede shoes for army fatigues.
“The army can do anything it wants with me,” Presley said. “Millions of other guys have been drafted and I don’t want to be different from anyone else.” The army chose to deploy him to 1st Medium Tank Battalion, 32d Armor in Friedberg, Germany. He was honorably discharged in 1960.
Jimmy Stewart was already an Oscar nominee and a trained pilot when he tried to enlist in the Army, but he was initially rejected for being underweight. After a bit of bulking up, the Rear Window star joined the Army Air Corps in 1941, where he rose from private to colonel in just four years.
Stewart received twelve military and civilian, honors including the Distinguished Service Medal and two Distinguished Flying Crosses. In 1959, the two-time Academy Award -winner was named Brigadier General, which according to military.com, makes him the highest ranking entertainer in US military history. He remained active in the reserves until 1968.
It sounds like a zany scenario Dorothy might have found herself in on Golden Girls, but Bea Arthur served as a truck driver for the United States Marine Corps Woman’s Reserve during world War II, when, at the age of 21, the future Maude star enlisted in early 1943.
In addition to driving, the star served as a typist and rose to the rank of staff sergeant before receiving an honorable discharge in 1945. Her personality appraisal sheet described Arthur as “argumentative and Officious–but probably a good worker–if she has her own way!” Dorothy would no doubt be proud.
Before he presided over pricing games and the big wheel as the host of The Price Is Right, Drew Carey served in the United States Marine Corps Reserves from 1981-1987. It was during this time the future star of The Drew Carey Show first started doing standup.
“While in the Marine Reserves, I was looking for a way to make some more money, and it was suggested I try using my jokes,” the funnyman, later said, adding. “I knew that once I left the Reserves, I would give back to the military, so I teamed up with USO.”
From Missing in Action’s Colonial James Braddock to Major Scott McCoy in The Delta Force, Chuck Norris is no stranger to playing military men in the movies. And the Walker Texas Ranger star served in real life as well. Chuck joined the Air Force in 1958 as an air policeman in South Korea.
And his stint in the military serendipitously aided his martial arts career when Chuck discovered some locals performing Tan Soo Do while on a walk. “I was mesmerized by their incurable ability,” he recounted. The star was smitten and began an intensive study and left Korea with a black belt.
Before donning her silver bracelets in Wonder Woman, Gal Gadot spent six months of intensive training, spending hours in the gym and learning fight choreographers for the flick. But the actress says she was well prepared for all that from her stint in the Israeli Army. “The military gave me good training for Hollywood.”
In the Justice League star’s native Israel, military service is required of everyone over 18, and Gadot dutifully served two years as a combat instructor. And she says her service helped her land one of her first roles in the Fast & Furious franchise, “the director…wanted to use my knowledge of weapons.”
Facing limited prospects after high school, Tracy Lauren Marrow—aka Ice-T—began selling drugs until his situation changed at 19. “When I had my daughter I was like, man, I’m going to go to jail, I got to do something, and I went to an enlistment office,” he has said.
The “Cop-Killer” rapper served four years in the Army’s 25th Infantry division stationed in Hawaii’s Tropic Lighting Schofield Barracks. It proved a good run. “But when I come back from the Army, I’m back in trouble again because that’s what my friends were doing,” ICE-T has said. Luckily hip hop turned him around.
He’s played countless action heroes, but Clint Eastwood starred in his own adventure while serving in the US Army during the Korean War. In 1951 the Dirty Harry star—who was stationed stateside as a lifeguard at Fort Ord—was on a military aircraft from Seattle to Sacramento when the inter-communications system failed.
Their Douglas AD-1 crashed into the Pacific, and the Oscar-winner and the pilot had to swim two miles back to shore. “I thought I might [not] live,” said Eastwood, who reached the rank of corporal. “I kept my eyes on the lights on shore and kept swimming.”
Before he turned to the Dark Side as Kylo Ren in the Star Wars films, Adam Driver served in the US marines. At 17, he enlisted after the 9/11 attacks. “I joined…filled with a sense of patriotism and retribution and the desire to do something,” Driver has said.
The Girls leading man served two years stateside as a lance corporal in the 1st battalion, 1st marines weapons company, but broke his sternum in a biking accident and was medically discharged before his unit deployed to Iraq. “To not get to go with that group. . .was. . .painful,” he said.
On M*A*S*H, Alan Alda played Captain Hawkeye Pierce—a wisecracking Army doc in the Korean War who becomes the chief of surgery. Alda’s real military stint is bit less grand. “My Wikipedia page says I served. . . as a gunnery officer, but that’s actually not true,” he has said.
“I served briefly in the Army Reserve, and was deployed for about six months. They had designs of making me into an officer but, uh … it didn’t go so well. I was in charge of a mess tent. Some of that made it into the show.” Lucky for viewers!
He’s famous for his role on the A-Team, but before becoming an actor Mr. T was a member of a very different A team—the US Army. After losing his football scholarship at Prairie View A&M University for poor grades, Mr. T—aka Laurence Tureaud—enlisted in the 1970s.
The strongman served in the military police corps and pity the fool who crossed him. Out of his class of 6000 troops, The Rocky III star was elected “Top Trainee of the Cycle” and promoted to squad leader. The MP work served him well—after the Army, he worked as a high-end bouncer.
With hopes of becoming a marine pilot, Johnny Carson signed up to US Navy in 1943. Instead he was trained as a midshipman and assigned to the USS Pennsylvania. Not surprisingly the future king of late night television amused his fellow sailors with magic tricks during training.
Though The Tonight Show host just missed combat during WWII, he continued to work as a communications officer, where he was assigned to decode encrypted messages. But when asked about the pinnacle of his military career, Carson says it was performing a magic trick for then Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal.
While lots of stars served before making it big, Clark Gable was already an Oscar-winning leading man when he enlisted. Though well beyond draft age in 1942, Gable was so devastated after wife Carole Lombard died in a plane crash en route from a war bond rally, he joined the Air Force.
The military wanted him to make a movie about aerial gunners in action, but the Gone With the Wind star insisted on flying several missions in B17s to get actual footage for Combat America. Reaching the status of major, he was retired from active duty due to his age in 1944.
He’s known for hosting his namesake talk show, but Montel Williams is actually a decorated veteran with 15 year of service. In 1974, Williams joined the US Marine Corps after high school graduation. During his training, superiors were impressed with him and recommended Williams for leadership training.
Williams became the first black enlisted marine to graduate from both the Academy Prep School and the US Naval Academy at Annapolis. By the time he left the service he was a decorated full lieutenant. Whats more, he’d discovered he had a gift for talking to people from counseling he’d done with service members and their families.
Before he took on the role of Britain’s most famous spy, Sean Connery was an enlisted man in the British Royal Navy. At just 16-years-old, The Rock star signed up to serve his country. And like any good sailor that’s where he got his first tattoos—including one proclaiming “Scotland forever.”
Unfortunately his time in the military was plagued by a duodenal ulcer, and he was medically discharged after two years. While his naval career may have been cut short, the Academy-Award winner got to draw on his experience in The Hunt for Red October where he played submarine Captain Rank Marko.
All Austrian men used to be required to serve a year in the military, so 18-year-old aspiring body builder Arnold Schwarzenegger reported for duty in 1965. But the future action star was desperate to compete in the Junior Mr. Europe contest being held in Germany, so he snuck out.
The Terminator star took home first prize in the contest, but his superior officers were unimpressed with the stunt and sent him to a military prison for a few days as punishment. But the former Governor of Cali got the chance to make up for it playing heroic uniformed men throughout his career.
In 1961, Jimi Hendrix was caught with stolen cars and authorities gave him the option of jail or joining the Army. The legendary guitarist opted to be all he could be and was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division at Kentucky’s Fort Campbell. But a bit of a purple haze clouded Hendrix’s service.
Commanding officers often wrote up his poor performance—including falling asleep while on duty and practicing guitar in the barracks. Two years into his three year contract, Hendrix injured his ankle during a parachute jump, giving the singer a chance to part ways with an honorable discharge.
Looking for A Warm December, Bahamian-raised Sidney Poitier lied about his age and enlisted in the US Army in 1943 at just 16 after he moved to NYC and couldn’t handle the cold temps. The military may have sent him to warmer climes, but Poitier quickly realized Army grunt work wasn’t for him.
Instead of simply admitting he’d lied about his age and was too young to serve, the In The Heat of the Night star faked insanity and was institutionalized. He only admitted the truth when threatened with shock therapy. He was granted his release a few weeks later.
While a psych major at Brooklyn College, Mel Brooks was drafted into the Army in 1944. “I was a Combat Engineer. Isn’t that ridiculous?” joked the funnyman who served as a corporal in the 1104 Engineer Combat battalion. “The two things I hate most in the world are combat and engineering.”
On the frontlines, the Spaceballs star defused landmines and served in the Battle of the Bulge, and when the German’s played propaganda over their speakers, Brooks reportedly blasted Al Jolson from his own sound system. The writer and director took some additional shots at Adolf Hitler with his megahit The Producers.
For more than 35 years, Pat Sajak has entertained viewers as the host of Wheel of Fortune, but before that he entertained the troops during Vietnam. Sajack enlisted in the US Army in 1968, and though trained as a clerk typist, he was transferred to Saigon to work as disc jokey on Armed Forces Radio.
“I used to feel a bit guilty about my relatively soft duty. . .I was billeted in a hotel and there were plenty of nice restaurants around,” said Sajack. “I always felt a little better when I met guys . . [who] thanked us for bringing them a little bit of home.”
For years, Tom Selleck played former Navy SEAL Thomas Magnum in Magnum PI, but the famously mustached star has a military background in real life as well. After being issued draft orders during the Vietnam war, Selleck enlisted in the California Army National Guard, where he served from 1967-1973.
The Blood Bloods star—who achieved the rank of sergeant—was later featured on California National Guard recruiting posters and served as a spokesperson for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. “I am a veteran, I’m proud of it,” he has said. “We are all brothers and sisters in that sense.”
Prince Harry & Prince William
They may be royals, but that didn’t stop Britain’s Prince William and Prince Harry from serving their country. Both Princes attended the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and trained in the Royal Air Force. After some diplomatic missions, William served domestically as a helicopter rescue pilot.
Harry, on the other hand, insisted on being allowed to serve on the frontlines in Iraq saying, “There’s no way I’m going to…sit on my arse back home while my boys are out fighting for their country.” He served a second tour in Afghanistan flying military helicopters, and though now retired, he remains a strong voice for veterans.
He’s a long-serving Daily Show correspondent, but Rob Riggle served even longer—23 years—in the Marines enlisting in 1990 while a theater major at the University of Kansas. “I had my pilot’s license…So I either was going to be Top Gun when I graduated or I was gonna be a waiter,” he said.
“Top Gun sounded much sexier,” the Modern Family actor continued. Riggle served nine years active duty stateside and abroad and he continued as a reservist even after his career took off not retiring until 2013. “I’ll be proud of that as long as I’m alive,” he said.
“King of Cool” Steve McQueen served in the Marines from 1947-1950, though Initially it proved a poor role for The Great Escape star. He was promoted to private first class but demoted seven times and even spent 41 days in the brig after skipping out for a week to see his girlfriend.
McQueen ultimately proved his metal though. During a training exercise in the Arctic, his unit and their tanks were on a ship that hit a sandbank throwing everyone into the water. Several men drowned, but McQueen dove in and rescued five men. In recognition, he was assigned honor guard to protect President Truman’s yacht.
Growing up watching dashing pilots in war flicks, Morgan Freeman was inspired to join the US Air Force in 1955, even giving up a drama scholarship at Jackson State University. But instead of romantic flights of fancy, Freeman found the cockpit like “sitting in the nose of a bomb.”
“I had this very clear epiphany,” he has said “You are not in love with this; you are in love with the idea of this.” So the future Oscar winner left Air Force in 1959 and eventually found his way back to theater as one of the most decorated actors of his generation.
Before he became a legendary country crooner, Johnny Cash enlisted in the US Air Force in 1950. The “Ring of Fire” singer, was assigned as to the 12th Radio Squadron Mobile at a base in Landsberg, Germany, where he intercepted soviet Army transmissions as a Morse Code operator.
Though the multiple Grammy winner was far from his southern roots, he created his very first band—the Landsberg Barbarians—while on the post and he even wrote the lyrics for his hit song “Folsom Prison Blues” while in the service. In 1954, he was honorably discharged as a staff sergeant.
With dreams of becoming a navy fighter pilot, Paul Newman joined the Navy’s V-12 program at Yale in 1943, but the famed blue-eyed star was disqualified due to color blindness. Sent to basic training, he eventually became radioman and aerial gunner where he was assigned to the Okinawa campaign in 1945.
The Cool Hand Luke star was held back from the mission when his pilot developed an ear infection—had he shipped out, the future Oscar winner would likely have died with the rest of the crew when their ship was destroyed. Newman was honorably discharged a year later.
James Earl Jones
As Darth Vader, James Earl Jones commanded battalions of evil forces, but IRL, he also served in the US Army. At the University of Michigan,The Lion King star joined ROTC, where he excelled and enlisted full-time upon graduation in 1955, eventually reaching the rank of first lieutenant.
Given the option of re-upping, Jones chose a life of theater instead. “I had to do something worth doing for the rest of my life because I figured going into the Army meant the end of my life,” he said. “I figured I’d go into the drama department and at least I’d meet some girls.”
With his fledgling music career stalled, Orville Burell—aka Shaggy—joined the US Marines in 1988 and served as a Field Artillery Cannon Crewman in Iraq during Operation Desert Storm. He received the rank of lance corporal but was demoted twice for behavior. Still Shaggy credits the military for his success.
“Being in the Marines didn’t influence my musical career artistically,” the hip-hop chart topper has said. “I think it did it as far as discipline, as far as preparing me for the rigorous schedule that was gonna come with doing music because I had no clue.”
Expelled from his private high school, Humphrey Bogart enlisted in the US Navy in 1918. Records suggest The African Queen star was an excellent sailor whose main duties were ferrying soldiers between the US and Europe. Though he did spent three days in solitary confinement after missing his ship.
Popular myth claims the Oscar-winner received the scar on his upper lip (the cause of his lisp) in the service, though Bogart defines it. He was honorably discharged in 1919 as a second seaman, but no doubt revisited his naval time 35 years later playing an unstable commander in The Caine Mutiny.
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