Many of today’s celebrities aren’t just servants to the silver screen. Some also have U.S. military service under their belts too. Whether responding to casting calls or the call of Uncle Sam, they once served their country as proudly as they now do the camera. Some were drafted to fight in World War II or the Korean or Vietnam Wars, while others volunteered to serve as everything from fighter pilots to Marines.
Sometimes the military exploits of our favorite movie stars bleed into their films. Chuck Noris was able to perform his own stunts due to his combat training. Adam Driver started a non-profit that jointly supported the acting and military professions. Zulay Henao enlisted straight out of high school and said the brutal training regime set her up for battling the highs and lows of Hollywood.
The military is notoriously tough on its members, much the same as Hollywood can be to its stars. Keep watching to find out the ways in which some of the world’s most renowned screen starlets and movie veterans earned their stripes.
Bea Arthur enlisted in the Women’s Reserve of the Marines in 1943, quickly rising through the ranks as first a sergeant and then a staff sergeant. According to her peers at the time, she was a force to be reckoned with–a character trait that apparently carried through to her time on The Golden Girls set, too. When Arthur left the military, she spent a successful few years on Broadway before taking to the screen in numerous award-winning roles: Cousin Maude in All in the Family and spin-off Maude, and sassy Dorothy Zbornak in The Golden Girls.
Before Harry Belafonte became an EGOT-winning singing and acting tour de force, he served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. In fact, his dramatic education at The New School for Social Research in New York was funded by the G.I. bill. Formerly known as the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, the bill guaranteed veterans a year of government-funded unemployment pay once they returned home. Belafonte went on to star in iconic movies from humble beginnings performing in jazz clubs and released a string of hit records. Once active in the Civil Rights movement, today, he is a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador.
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Unlike most of the other World War II veterans in this list, Kirk Douglas already had acting credits under his belt before he headed off to the front lines. He starred in the Broadway performance Spring Again before answering the call of Uncle Sam and enlisting. It wasn’t until two years after returning from war, in 1946, that he featured in his first film, The Strange Loves of Martha Ivers–he starred opposite screen favorite Barbara Stanwyck. Douglas went on to become one of the American film industry’s greatest stars with a career that spanned more than six decades.
Well before his famed stint as Kylo Ren in Star Wars, Adam Driver was an active member of the Marine Corps. He signed up after 9/11 and narrowly avoided deployment to Iraq following a mountain-biking accident. Driver broke his sternum and was honorably discharged. He said his time in the military reinforced the idea that he wanted to become an actor, especially after he was accepted into a prestigious arts institution, The Juilliard School, right after his service came to an end. However, it seems Driver still holds a flame for the military. He founded Arts in the Armed Forces–a non-profit organization that brings stage productions to military personnel–in 2006.
As one of Hollywood’s most mature stars, Eastwood lived through the Great Depression. Following high school, he was drafted into the Army during the Korean War. However, he didn’t see any action overseas. Instead, he spent his years of service stationed in California, where he was enlisted as a lifeguard in Fort Ord. Like other actors of his era, Eastwood took advantage of the generous G.I. Bill, using the benefit to attend drama school in Los Angeles. Universal Studios caught onto his talent, and he signed a contract with them in the early 1950s.
Following a lifelong fascination with flying, Morgan Freeman joined the Air Force. He trained as a fighter pilot, and between 1955 and 1959, he served as a radar technician. After rising to the rank of Airman 1st Class, he began to feel like he was, quote, “sitting in the nose of a bomb.” The violence of the job didn’t sit well with him, and in the end, he left the military to pursue another passion, acting. After spending twenty years on the stage, he got his big movie break in 1994 with Shawshank Redemption.
This Colombian-American actress was lucky to be able to draw on three years of military training for the combat scenes in movies like Fighting and Boy Wonder. Right after high school, Henao enlisted in the Army, saying that the pressures of training at Fort Bragg taught her to change her attitude and get tough. She eventually chose to leave because she wasn’t enjoying the lifestyle; instead, she enrolled in the New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts to hone her considerable acting skills. Henao has gone on to star in a string of hit films and television shows, from Army Wives in 2007 to Takers in 2010.
James Earl Jones
While James Earl Jones is probably best known as the voice of Darth Vader and Mufasa from The Lion King, he also has a distinguished military career under his belt. In fact, he was on his way to a lengthy stint in the military–rising to the ranks of first lieutenant and training in Colorado other soldiers before making the controversial decision to leave. Almost right away, he landed successful roles in television, film, and theater, cementing his belief that acting was the right path for him–despite having to overcome a stutter.
Today, Chuck Norris is one of the world’s most famous action film stars, so it’s perhaps not surprising that he enlisted in the Air Force right out of high school. He served as an air police officer in 1958 and was sent to Osan Air Base in South Korea shortly after. He didn’t return to American until 1962. In Korea, he was exposed to the world of martial arts, training him for roles in films and TV shows like 1972’s Way of the Dragon (alongside the iconic Bruce Lee) and Walker Texas Ranger. And he wasn’t too shabby at martial arts, either. He was the first person of Western descent to earn an eight-degree black belt in Taekwondo, and he even developed a signature martial arts form, the Chun Kuk Do.
Though undeniably the King of Rock, Elvis Presley did, in fact, trade his iconic floppy haircut for a far shorter do when he entered the army in 1958. He didn’t sign up–he was drafted–but begrudgingly took up training, rising to the rank of Army sergeant in just two years. He was initially offered a less active position in Special Services, but he was persuaded to turn that down in favor of serving as a regular soldier. While in the military, Presley developed the drug habit that–coupled with his return to a rock ‘n’ roll industry far different from the one he left–ultimately killed him.
The Magnum P.I star had just signed a lucrative contract with 20th Century Fox when he was called to serve in the Vietnam War. While in the Army, Selleck became a sergeant with the California Army National Guard and even ended up as the face of the National Guard recruitment posters at the time. After all, he had experience modeling while at USC. After being discharged, Fox promptly canceled his contract, and it wasn’t until eleven years later that Selleck got his next chance at television and movie fame with Magnum P.I and, later, top-rating shows like Friends and Blue Bloods.
Tony Bennett was drafted into World War II in 1944, and right after training, he was sent to the frontline in France and Germany. He described the harrowing experience as having a “front-row seat in Hell.” Even while faced with the horrors of war, Bennett wasn’t one to back down from humanitarian issues. He was demoted for defending his decision to sit down to lunch with an African American soldier, an old friend, and had to spend the rest of the war disinterring mass graves. Though best known for his musical genius, Bennett has had cameo appearances in a number of blockbuster movies. He also had a flopped attempt at a more substantial acting career with 1966’s The Oscar.
After watching this video, it would be easy to conclude that all of the very best actors have spent time in the military. Do you think time spent in the military makes people better actors and actresses? Or do you believe it makes no difference at all when it comes to acting talent? Hash out this debate with other Facts Verse fans in the comments section. And be sure to give this video a thumbs up, share it with your friends, and, if you haven’t already, subscribe to Facts Verse. Hit that notification bell to get new content right when it’s uploaded.