Movies are fake, and A-List actors are pampered phonies who play make-believe for a living. In between shooting scenes on Saving Private Ryan, Tom Hanks probably went to his trailer and did yoga and ate kale. However, not all actors fit this mold, and some of them have genuinely proven themselves to be patriots, true heroes, by joining the armed forces and defending their country. Less than one percent of Americans serve in the military, so extremely few of us can really understand what it’s like to fight for your life, what it really means to kill and die for one’s country.
Many of these stars were in the military before they became famous, but several of them left behind their lives of luxury to fight the Axis powers in World War II. Which ones? Dear reader, read on to find out. Here are 15 Huge Stars You Didn’t Know Were In The Military
15. Christopher Lee
The great Sir Christopher Lee passed away in 2015 at the age of 93, leaving behind a career full of iconic roles in films like Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and The Wicker Man, as well as no less than four high-concept heavy metal albums. Seriously.
Before he became one of the greatest actors of all time, Lee had a career in the military. First, he fought alongside the Finland in the Winter War against the Soviet Union, and then he took the fight to the Nazis during World War II proper. Altogether, Christopher Lee spent seven years in the military before returning home to become an actor. Lee served stints in what would later be known as the SAS, the Special Air Service.
The full details of his time as a legitimate spy will probably remain classified forever, but he did give some advice to Peter Jackson. On the set of Lord of the Rings, while shooting the scene in which his character is stabbed in the back, he was instructed to act a certain way. However, Lee, apparently with intimate knowledge of how someone would react upon being stabbed in the back, set Jackson straight, and probably disturbed him deeply.
14. James Doohan
We all know James Doohan best as Scotty, the chief engineer from the original Star Trek and its subsequent movies, but the man himself also served in Canada’s army. Yes, Canada has an army, and it contributed greatly to the anti-Nazi effort during World War II. Doohan saw action during the infamous D-Day, landing at Juno beach and taking down multiple Nazis before getting gunned down by friendly fire. He took six bullets that day, including one which led to his right middle finger being amputated.
Somehow, Doohan remained in the military. One day, on a bet, though he was not a member of the air force, he took a one-man plane and flew it, slalom-style, through multiple telephone poles. He was given a stern talking-to, but we figure that his commanding officers were so impressed by his skill that they just couldn’t bring themselves to fire such a supreme badass.
13. Mel Brooks
One of the most legendary comic minds of all time, Mel Brooks has dominated stage and screen for decades, with movies like Spaceballs, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, and The Producers. He created the spy comedy, Get Smart, and is one of the few lucky and gifted individuals who have successfully earned an EGOT; an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony. The man’s done it all.
Before he was the most respected name in comedy, however, Brooks was a Corporal in the US Army. His job was to defuse landmines while under sniper and artillery fire, a job which surely would require nerves of steel and a steady hand. Regarding his title as a Combat Engineer, Mel said, “The two things I hate most in the world are combat and engineering.” After the war, he took a job as a musician (having taken drum lessons from the unmatched Buddy Rich as a teen), before ultimately finding his true calling in the world of comedy.
12. Adam Driver
One of the only actors on this list who never saw active combat, Adam Driver is nonetheless worthy of inclusion due to his unabashed patriotism. One of many American young men who enlisted after the shocking terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, Driver found himself training to be a Marine, where he thrived amidst the rigors of discipline and regimented structure.
Unfortunately for his would-be career as a world-class soldier, Driver broke his sternum while riding his mountain bike. Despite his protests and attempts to continue training through the pain, he was given a medical discharge from the Marines in 2004, while the rest of his unit deployed to Iraq.
Driver still found a way to serve; he founded the non-profit Arts In The Armed Forces, which brings live theater performances to military bases, free of charge. At the end of the day, we can’t say we’re disappointed that Adam Driver traded Sand Wars for Star Wars.
11. Dennis Franz
Dennis Franz won four Emmy Awards for his role as the cynical, hard-drinking, Vietnam veteran and detective on ABC’s groundbreaking cop drama, NYPD Blue. He also starred in Hill Street Blues, which had also been created by cop-show guru Steven Bochco. Part of the inspiration for the character was Dennis’s own experience in fighting in the Vietnam War.
Fresh out of college, a young Dennis Franz found himself in the army. He spent 11 months fighting in Vietnam, where he experienced the death of friends and the unshakable foreboding of mortality in a combat situation. The experience rocked him to his core and left him with a concern for his fellow veterans, a character trait which found its way into NYPD Blue. His character, a veteran like Dennis himself, is sincerely compassionate about other combat veterans, in stark contrast to his bitter dismissiveness or outright disdain of most other people.
10. Steve McQueen
One of the coolest actors of all time, Steve McQueen starred in such classic films as The Great Escape, Bullitt, The Magnificent Seven, The Towering Inferno, and many more. Unlike many of the other entries on this list, Steve McQueen never saw combat during his time as a marine, but he did heroically save lives, albeit only after being a major hassle to his superiors. McQueen was demoted no less than seven times for insubordination and rebelliousness, including a stint where he went AWOL at his girlfriend’s house. As a result of this crime, he was held in the brig for 41 days.
During an exercise in the arctic tundra, a ship carrying multiple tanks struck a sandbank, sending several tanks plummeting into the ice. While many died as a result of their vehicles falling through the ice and drowning, McQueen was able to save the lives of five men before their tank could be claimed by the icy water below. As a result of his heroism, he was assigned to the relatively cushy assignment of protecting President Truman’s yacht.
9. Art Carney
Best known for being Jackie Gleason’s co-star in The Honeymooners, one of the greatest three-camera sitcoms of all time, Art Carney also won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in the acclaimed drama Harry and Tonto. Younger audiences might know him best for his role in the under-appreciated Last Action Hero, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and written by Shane Black.
Long before that, Carney served as an foot soldier in the Army, and fought during the Invasion of Normandy… Well, sort of. Regarding his career in the military, Carney said that he “never fired a shot and maybe never wanted to.” Before he even had the opportunity to fire his rifle in combat, he was taken out by a piece of shrapnel in his leg, which left him with a limp for the rest of his life. Though he did a good job of hiding his handicap, it can still be seen in many classic episodes of The Honeymooners.
8. Michael Caine
Kids these days know Michael Caine as either Austin Powers’s father in Goldmember or Alfred Pennyworth in Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, but he also starred in such classics as Get Carter, Alfie, and The Italian Job, among oh-so-many others. Back in the day, as part of England’s National Service program (mandatory military service), a young Michael Caine spent two years in his nation’s military, and fought in the Korean War. His time in the service made Caine grateful to be alive, and he commented that he lives “every bloody moment from the moment I wake up until the time I go to sleep.” There’s nothing like a witnessing one’s own mortality to instill a sense of Carpe Diem.
Today, Caine is an advocate against the culture of violence which plagues England’s poor neighborhoods (as chronicled in the gripping and visceral thriller, Harry Brown), and suggests that reintroducing National Service would be a great way to introduce the values of duty and honor into street hooligans and turn them from violent kids into productive members of society.
7. Oliver Stone
Oliver Stone is a famously left-leaning writer/director, whose anti-war and anti-government films have earned praise and come under fire from all sides of the political spectrum. If anyone can serve as director on films like Born on the 4th of July, Platoon, and Heaven & Earth, it’s someone with intimate knowledge and firsthand experience of the horrors of war. This is knowledge that Stone possesses in spades.
Stone served in the US Army for 15 months at the height of the Vietnam war, where he was injured multiple times and took home numerous awards, including the Bronze Star for heroism, the Army Commendation Medal, and the Air Medal. Despite his numerous accolades, Stone returned from the war with conflicted feelings about the things he had seen and done, and the effect US intervention was having on the local people. Thanks to the GI Bill, which funds education for veterans, Stone found himself at NYU, where he studied film and ultimately was able to express himself through his movies.
6. Henry Fonda
“I don’t want to be in a fake war in a studio.” Henry Fonda was already a famous movie star by 1942, having starred in such critically-acclaimed films as The Grapes of Wrath, You Only Live Once, and Young Mr. Lincoln. By the time America decided to join World War II, Fonda felt that he needed to serve his country the old fashioned way and fight against the Axis powers. He even wore part of his actual uniform in the film Mister Roberts.
Fonda served in the Navy for three years, reaching the rank of Lieutenant Junior Grade and earning the Bronze Star, among other accolades. Things surely got awkward for the Fonda family after his daughter and well-known actress Jane earned the ire of veterans for her infamous “Hanoi Jane” stunt, for which many still have never forgiven her, despite her multiple apologies and the numerous myths and exaggerations which have been associated with her admittedly bone-headed decision.
5. Jimmy Stewart
Jimmy Stewart is one of the greatest actors of all time, starring in such movies as You Can’t Take It With You and The Philadelphia Story, as well as Alfred Hitchcock classics like Rear Window and Vertigo. Like Henry Fonda (his close friend), Stewart left Hollywood to fight in the war, but Stewart is particularly notable for joining up before the attack on Pearl Harbor drove the US into the war.
Despite his tremendous accomplishments as an actor, his career in the military is arguably even more impressive. Stewart flew over a dozen combat missions in WWII, including leading a team of bombers during the attack on Berlin. After the end of the war, Stewart remained in the Air Force as a Reserve Officer, and earned the rank of Brigadier General in 1959, becoming the most decorated actor ever to serve in the military. He even served in a non-combat observational role in Vietnam in 1966, before finally retiring from the armed forces in 1968.
4. Hedy Lamarr
Hedy Lamarr didn’t actually serve in the military, but she was still a tremendous badass whose contributions to science affect warfare to this day. She was already a successful actress in Europe, but fled to Paris from her Austrian arms-manufacturer husband after the rise of Nazi Germany, which is already a wholly epic story. Lamarr became a world-renowned Hollywood actress, though she was also a scientist and inventor, whose creations would prove invaluable.
Assisted by composer George Antheil, Hedy invented frequency-hopping radio technology which would prevent torpedoes from being jammed and disabled. While the technology was considered to be too expensive for implementation in World War II, it did ultimately become standard for the United States Navy during the Cold War. Today, that technology is one of the central ingredients of modern-day WI-FI and GPS systems.
3. Clark Gable
No reasonably intelligent fan of the movies needs to be reminded of Clark Gable’s contributions to film, but few may know of the story of his enlistment in the United States armed forces. Gable’s wife, fellow actor Carole Lombard, was on tour selling War Bonds when the plane on which she was travelling crashed into a mountain, killing everyone on board.
Gable was justifiably devastated by the loss, and those who knew him said that he was a changed man after Lombard’s tragic and untimely death. Surely stirred by her patriotism (she had tried to get him to enlist after WWII first broke out, but he refused), Gable enlisted in the Air Force and flew at least five combat missions, serving as an aerial gunner, while simultaneously making a recruitment film meant to bolster the ranks of Air Force gunners. Gable reached the rank of Major by the time his service was up, and he edited and produced the film, which would be called Combat America.
2. Lee Marvin
As big-screen tough guys go, there may be none tougher than Lee Marvin, the star of such hard-hitting war films as The Dirty Dozen and Hell in the Pacific, as well as an Oscar-winning turn in a dual role in the wacky western, Cat Ballou, also starring Jane Fonda.
At the young age of 18, Marvin enlisted in the Marines and went to fight in World War II. During the Battle of Saipan in the Pacific Theater, many of his comrades were killed. Marvin himself was shot multiple times, including by machine gun fire and a sniper bullet, leading to his subsequent medical discharge after over a year of rehabilitation. After his death in 1986, Lee was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. There are no inspirational quotes or melodramatic platitudes on his headstone; it simply has his name and rank, as though he were no different, no better, than any other soldier.
1. Eddie Albert
We know what you’re thinking: the number one military badass on this list is the guy from Green Acres? The truth is, Eddie Albert was a badass. Before the outbreak of WWII, Albert was a full-on spy, covertly taking photographs of German U-Boats while performing in a Mexican circus. After the war was officially raging, Albert enlisted in the Coast Guard, but dropped out to take a position in the Navy.
During the Battle of Tarawa against the Japanese Empire, Albert, while under significant enemy fire, was behind the wheel of a boat which rescued nearly 50 stranded Marines who surely would have died without his stunning act of heroism. Despite all of his movies and television appearances, Albert commented that it was his action that day at the Battle of Tarawa that was his most important accomplishment.
Did we miss any celebrity war heroes? Are you surprised to learn that Eddie Albert and Jimmy Stewart were so noble and virtuous? Sound off in the comments below!
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