30 celebrities who served in the military
- November 9, 2018 |Last updated on 04/30/2021
Hollywood has its fair share of veterans in its ranks, though you might not know it.
While these singers, actors and TV hosts earned their fame well after leaving the armed forces, their time in the service also deserves some recognition for helping mold them into the people they would become. Here are some stars who you may never have known were once in the military.
Morgan Freeman enlisted in the United States Air Force in 1955 after turning down a scholarship to Mississippi’s Jackson State University. The Oscar-winning actor spent nearly four years in the service, rising to the rank of airman first class. He left the military to pursue an acting career, appearing on screen for the first time in the 1964 series, “Another World.”
Before headlining concert halls and stages with his abrasive comedy act, Don Rickles also got a taste of military life. The prolific insult comic and actor spent two years as a seaman on a torpedo boat in the U.S. Navy during World War II.
He was honorably discharged in 1946, two years before he began studying at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. After nabbing a few small parts on TV, he reportedly turned to stand-up comedy, kickstarting a decades-long career that continued until he died in 2017 at the age of 90.
You may know MC Hammer as the rapper behind the classic track, “U Can’t Touch This,” but he is also a former military man. After unsuccessfully pursuing a career as a professional baseball player, he considered selling drugs, like many of his friends, he once told Rolling Stone. Instead, he joined the Navy, spending most of his three-year stint in his native California, with six months spent in Japan.
After police caught a young Jimi Hendrix stealing cars in Seattle, they gave him a choice: prison or the Army. He enlisted in 1961 and was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division, stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. He was discharged a year later, reportedly due to an ankle injury sustained in a parachute jump. Thankfully, the injury didn’t affect his ability to shred.
Hugh Hefner joined the U.S. Army in 1944. Though he initially served as a rifleman, he soon became a typist and writer for a military newspaper in the United States, which would foreshadow his post-service life. During part of his two-year tour, he was stationed out of Camp Pickett, Virginia, where he helped draw cartoons for the military base’s paper. He was honorably discharged from Army in 1946 and went on to build his media empire.
Drew Carey’s stint in the Marine Corps lasted for six years, starting in 1981. It was during his time there that he began delving into comedy. When he was serving in the Marine Reserves, Carey wanted to find a way to make some extra money, and someone suggested to him that perhaps he could use his jokes to make an extra buck. That turned out to be pretty good advice!
Elvis Presley was drafted in December 1957, several years after his music career had taken off, and entered the Army in March 1958. He was stationed in Fort Hood, Texas, before being deployed to Friedberg, Germany, where he met his future wife, Priscilla Beaulieu. Despite already being famous when he joined up, Presley just wanted to be treated like any other recruit.
“The Army can do anything it wants with me,” he reportedly said while leaving for basic training in 1958. “Millions of other guys have been drafted, and I don’t want to be different from anyone else.”
Clint Eastwood was drafted into the Army in 1951, during the Korean War. He served at California’s Fort Ord as a swim instructor and was eventually promoted to corporal. During his time in service, Eastwood was on a plane that crashed in the Pacific Ocean, near Northern California’s Point Reyes. Though the accident forced Eastwood to swim to shore, he managed to escape the incident without any serious injury and would go on to get his first screen credit in 1955.
You probably think of Montel Williams first as a daytime talk show host and maybe as an advocate for multiple sclerosis patients, but he’s also a highly accomplished veteran who served for more than 20 years in the military. He began his career in the Marines and, after getting discharged, earned a degree in general engineering from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Williams spent several years as a supervising cryptologic officer before leaving the Navy as a lieutenant commander.
After getting expelled from Prairie View A&M University, Mr. T (real name: Laurence Tureaud), enlisted in the Army in the mid-‘70s. During his time in the Military Police Corps, he was awarded a letter of recommendation by his drill sergeant and promoted to squad leader. After getting discharged, he became a bouncer and a professional bodyguard before eventually transitioning into acting.
Before launching her acting career, Bea Arthur (then Bernice Frankel) spent 30 months as one of the first members of the Women’s Reserve in the Marine Corps. According to the Smoking Gun, she served as a typist and truck driver, though she later denied having any sort of career in the military. In the personality appraisal portion of the enlistment process, Arthur was reportedly described as “argumentative” and “officious — but probably a good worker — if she has her own way.”
According to The Guardian, Adam Driver’s decision to enlist in the Marines came from “an overwhelming sense of duty” after 9/11. He spent two years in training but was discharged before his unit was deployed to Iraq due to an injury he sustained while mountain biking. Though leaving before deployment was initially devastating to Driver, it did lead him to rediscover his love for acting, and he enrolled in drama school at Juilliard shortly after his discharge.
The singer, whose real name is Orville Burrell, enlisted in the Marines in 1988. He enlisted as an artilleryman, serving mostly with 5th Battalion, 10th Marines, and reached the rank of lance corporal.
“Being in the Marines didn’t influence my musical career artistically,” he said in an interview for the Grammys in 2011. “I think it did it as far as discipline, as far as preparing me for the rigorous schedules that was gonna come with doing music because I had no clue.”
James Earl Jones
Long before he served the Empire as Darth Vader, James Earl Jones served in the U.S. Army in the Korean War. Though he expected to be sent overseas, he and his crew were instead employed to assemble a cold-weather training center in Colorado. He was promoted to first lieutenant before getting discharged in 1955. After leaving the military, Jones moved to New York to become an actor.
Before becoming a legendary country music star, Johnny Cash spent several years in the U.S. Air Force. Per the Academy of Achievement, it was while serving in Germany that he bought his first guitar. He also started a band, the Landsberg Barbarians, with his friends, playing at small nightclubs and honky-tonks around the air base. After he was honorably discharged as a staff sergeant in 1954, he moved to Memphis and signed with Sun Records shortly thereafter.
Gene Hackman lied about his age to join the Marines at 16 years old, serving for four and a half years as a field radio operator. He was stationed in several different countries, including China and Japan. Following his discharge in 1951, he moved to New York, working several different jobs before beginning his pursuit of an acting career in 1956.
Before becoming one of the world’s most well-known therapists, Dr. Ruth (whose full name is Ruth Westheimer) moved to Israel at 17 and joined the Jewish paramilitary group Haganah. She trained and fought as a sniper during the Arab-Israeli war in 1948.
“I was a sniper in the underground in the Haganah in 1948,” she said, per ABC News. “I’ve never killed anybody. But I was badly wounded on both legs; that’s not why I’m short — I would’ve been short anyway.”
The beloved TV painter spent 20 years in the Air Force, starting at the age of 18. He was stationed at Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska, a place he often cited as the inspiration for his landscape work. According to Biography.com, Ross augmented his military pay by selling his art to tourists on the side.
The side hobby eventually turned into his full-time job. Per Military.com, Ross reached the rank of master sergeant before leaving the service to pursue his career as an artist.
Ted Williams temporarily interrupted his professional baseball career in 1943 to serve three years in the Navy and Marine Corps during World War II. He trained as a naval aviator but was never called into active combat before the end of the war. After getting discharged, he resumed his baseball career for several years but remained in the Marine Corps.
Williams later returned to active duty in the Korean War. Per MLB.com, he flew 39 combat missions in Korea before being withdrawn from flight status in 1953 after a hospitalization for pneumonia. Following his return to the U.S. that year, he resigned from the Reserve to resume his Hall-of-Fame baseball career again.
The game show host put his skills as an entertainer to good use during his time in the military. After serving as a finance clerk in Vietnam, he was transferred over to Saigon to act as a disc jockey.
“I used to feel a bit guilty about my relatively ‘soft’ duty, Sajak wrote of his experience for the USO website. “After all, I was billeted in a hotel, and there were plenty of nice restaurants around. But I always felt a little better when I met guys who came into town from the field and thanked us for bringing them a little bit of home.”
Sajak maintained the position for several years before returning to civilian life, where he continued to work in the entertainment industry. He nabbed his career-making role as the famed host of “Wheel of Fortune” in 1983.
Over 30 years before serving as Luke Skywalker’s mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi, in “Star Wars,” late actor Sir Alec Guinness was a member of Britain’s Royal Navy. Apparently, Guinness put his theater career on hold to enlist, serving first as a seaman and then as a temporary lieutenant. He also later commanded a landing craft, transporting troops and supplies during the 1943 invasion of Sicily, Italy.
Well before becoming Wonder Woman, Gal Gadot served in the Israeli Defense Forces in her native country. Military service is mandatory in Israel for all men and women over the age of 18, and Gadot enrolled at the age of 20. During her time in service, she reportedly served as a physical fitness instructor.
“I taught gymnastics and calisthenics,” the actress once told Maxim. “The soldiers loved me because I made them fit.”
Before launching his career as a pop singer, James Blunt served in the British Army for six years. He worked as a reconnaissance officer, deploying with NATO to Kosovo in 1999. During his assignment there, Blunt brought along his guitar and would sometimes perform for troops or other locals. It was during his duty there that he penned the song, “No Bravery.”
“It was incredibly easy to write,” he recalls of the time, per the Daily Mail. “Because it just describes what was around us at the time. It took no imagination. The things that were in front of me were absolutely abhorrent. What struck me most about that time is the imagination with which human beings can murder each other. It’s a tragedy.”
The famous author served in the Army from 1943 to 1945. He enlisted shortly after graduating from Cornell University, serving in Europe as an infantry battalion scout. According to Military.com, he was taken as a prisoner of war while fighting in the Battle of the Bulge in 1944. His experience served as the basis for a lot of his writing, particularly his celebrated 1969 novel, “Slaughterhouse Five.”
By the time America got involved in World War II, Jimmy Stewart was already a huge movie star, having won an Academy Award for “The Philadelphia Story.” He traded Hollywood glamour for military life in early 1941, reportedly packing on a few pounds to meet the minimum weight requirements. After completing his flight training, he became a commanding officer in the bomb squadron, embarking on 20 combat missions.
He reached the position of brigadier general before formally retiring from the military in 1968. After the war ended in 1945, Stewart resumed his acclaimed acting career. In 1985, President Ronald Reagan awarded Stewart the Presidential Medal of Freedom and promoted him to Major General on the Retired List.
After dropping out of Boston University, Leonard Nimoy enlisted in the army in 1953. Nimoy served 18 months at Fort Ord in California, and Fort Benning and Fort McPherson in Georgia, reportedly writing and acting in shows for the Special Services Division, which entertained the troops, during his time there. The actor tweeted a photo of himself in uniform in 2014, with the caption “Call me Sarge.”
After years of dealing drugs on the street to support himself, Ice T was inspired to join the Army after the birth of his first daughter.
“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 told NPR. He served as a ranger in the 25th Infantry Division for four years before leaving with an honorable discharge.
Chuck Norris joined the U.S. Air Force in 1958 as a police airman. He served in South Korea, which is where he first learned martial arts. In his book, “The Official Chuck Norris Fact Book: 101 of Chuck’s Favorite Facts and Stories,” the actor wrote about being mesmerized by a group of villagers practicing tang soo do, a karate-based martial art. He returned to the U.S. with a black belt in tang soo do and a brown belt in judo, and he served at March Air Force Base before his discharge in 1962.
Actor Rob Riggle (you may know him from stealing scenes in “The Hangover” or “21 Jump Street”) first joined the Marines in 1990, with the intention of becoming a Navy aviator. Though he didn’t finish flight school, he did spend 23 years in the service, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel. His Army background and his acting career collided in 2018 with the movie “12 Strong,” which is based on true events. In the film, Riggle plays Lt. Colonel Bowers — a colonel that the actor served under in real life while on deployment in Afghanistan.
Tom Selleck served in the California Army National Guard during the Vietnam War era, from 1967 to 1973.
“It was a difficult time,” Selleck said of his military days, per Media Planet. “I was proud to serve my country, but there seemed to be a consensus that we needed to blame the soldier or sailor for government policy. That went away over time, and I think that’s a great lesson.”
Mel Brooks decided to enlist in the Army when officials paid a visit to his Brooklyn high school. After passing the specialized training reserve program test, he was sent to Virginia Military Institute.
“They taught me a code of honor, a code of behavior. I really bonded with the other guys in my freshman year at VMI and I learned an awful lot,” he told NPR of the experience. “You know, it was a growing up process and I’m very grateful to have been at Virginia Military Institute.”
He ended up serving as an Army combat engineer during World War II before starting his long career in show business.
Before he became the most famous fictional veteran of the Korean War, Alan Alda had real military experience. After serving in Fordham University’s Reserve Officers Training’ Corps, Alda entered the Army Reserve, where he saw a six-month deployment. At a 2013 event at Southern Connecticut State University, Alda spoke about his experience in the military.
“They had designs of making me into an officer but, uh … it didn’t go so well,” he said at the event. “I was in charge of a mess tent. Some of that made it into [“M.A.S.H.”].”
According to his website, the former James Bond star enlisted in Britain’s Royal Navy at the age of 16. He served for three years before being discharged for medical reasons related to a stomach ulcer. After leaving the military, he returned to Scotland, where he tried a variety of jobs, including lifeguarding and truck driving, before getting into modeling and acting.
The iconic talk show host enlisted in the navy in 1943, hoping to train as a pilot. Instead, he was sent to Columbia University for midshipman training, and he performed magic to entertain his classmates on his side. After completing training, he was assigned to the USS Pennsylvania. He also later served as a communications officer in charge of decoding encrypted messages.
Following the death of his third wife, Clark Gable decided to join the Army in the middle of his celebrated acting career. He enlisted as a private in the Air Force in 1942 during World War II. According to the BBC, he was assigned to the 351st Bomb Group at Polebrook, in England. During his time there, he flew operational missions over Europe to obtain the combat footage for the movie, “Combat America,” which was completed in 1944.
Long before he was an Oscar-winning actor, Jeff Bridges was serving in the U.S. Coast Guard at 18 years old. He served for seven years and recalls the experience as being difficult but rewarding.
“The ceiling is about 7 feet tall and below the racks where you sleep there’s three or four racks stuffed into that space and you’re out in the ocean at sea in a flat-bottomed boat up against the wind and the swells and everyone is puking,” he told the A.V. Club. “You return from the watch at about 4 a.m. and get dressed in your wool suit and go up there — that was a pretty terrible living condition. But, again, all the tough times make great memories when you look back. Like, I’m glad it’s in the rearview mirror.”
Paul Newman enlisted in the Navy Air Corps during World War II. The star left Ohio University after less than a year in the hopes of becoming a pilot in the military. According to Fox News, he was dropped from the pilot program after it was discovered he was colorblind. Instead, he served as an aircraft radio operator. After the war, Newman earned his bachelor’s degree in drama and economics at Kenyon College before pursuing a career in theater and, later, television and film.
Steve McQueen enlisted in the Marines in 1947, serving with an armored unit and getting promoted to private first class. But his rebellious nature got him demoted several times. He spent over a month in the brig (a military prison at a Naval or Marine Corps base) after spending two weeks with his girlfriend without permission. But rather than make a great escape, the actor served his time, reformed his behavior and was eventually chosen to partake in the honor guard protecting President Harry Truman’s yacht. That’s where he remained until getting honorably discharged in 1950.
Even while serving his mandatory year in the Austrian army, Arnold Schwarzenegger couldn’t resist pursuing a career as a bodybuilder. The actor once snuck out of military camp to participate in the Junior Mr. Europe contest in Germany. He won the contest, but had to spend a few days in Austrian military prison as punishment, Fox News reported.
Shortly after becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen at the age of 20, Henry Kissinger was drafted to the Army’s 84th Infantry Division. He served first as a rifleman in France and then later as an intelligence officer in Germany. According to Biography.com, it was during his deployment that Kissinger decided to pursue academics with a focus in political history.
In 1947, Kissinger returned to the U.S., where he enrolled at Harvard University. He ended up not only graduating summa cum laude from the university but went on to earn his Ph.D. and eventually become a professor there.
Originally published on The Delite.