When watching movies and TV shows it is easy to forget that our favorite A-list stars had lives before they became famous. For many actors and actresses, a life in the military was observed before they entered our movie theaters and homes. In some instances, famous movie and TV stars chose to join the Air Force, Army, Marines, and Navy, at the very height of their successful acting careers.
Here are 44 celebrities who served in the military before they traded in their fatigues for a life of luxury and international recognition.
Humphrey Bogart joined the U.S. Navy in 1918 and ferried troops home from Europe during America’s involvement in World War I. It’s believed that he got the iconic scar on his lip during his time serving America in the war. One story claims Bogart’s scar developed when a piece of shrapnel hit him while his ship, the USS Leviathan, was under attack.
Ernest Borgnine served in the U.S. Navy from 1935 until he was honorably discharged in October of 1941. After Pearl Harbor was attacked in December of that same year, Borgnine re-enlisted and served aboard the antisubmarine warfare ship, the USS Sylph, until 1945. Borgnine exited the Navy with the rank of gunner’s mate 1st class.
Michael Caine served in the British Army as a rifle infantryman during the Korean War. Caine has always been a supporter of the military and believes everyone should have to serve for at least six months.
The stand-up comedian, actor, and current host of the “The Price Is Right,” served six years in the United States Marine Corps during the 1980s. Hard to believe when you watch reruns of the Drew Carey show and see his pudgy appearance. A lot easier to believe given his recently reinvented physique.
The “Expendables” star served in the U.S. Army from 1982-88. Couture moved through the rank to become a Sergeant in the 101st Airborne.
Sean Connery enlisted in the Royal Navy at the age of 16. He served for three years and was discharged after he began suffering from a stomach ulcer.
Clint Eastwood was drafted into the Korean War, but lucked out with a job as a swimming instructor. Eastwood didn’t see much action, and served at Fort Ord, while working nights and weekends as a bouncer at the NCO club. During a trip home to see family Eastwood flew aboard a Navy plane at Moffett Field. On the ride back aboard a Navy torpedo bomber, the plane developed engine trouble and was forced to make a water landing off San Francisco. Eastwood swam to safety for more than a mile.
Henry Fonda served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. He was already a successful and highly nominated actor when he joined the military. At the time Fonda said he didn’t want to “fight a fake war” when a real battle was waging in his own backyard. Fonda served on the destroyer USS Satterlee in the Pacific Ocean, and he was commissioned as a Lieutenant Junior Grade in Air Combat Intelligence.
Charlton Heston enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces in 1944 and reached the rank of Staff Sergeant. He served two years as an aerial gunner and radio operator in the Alaskan Aleutian Islands.
Norris was a member of the United States Air Force where he served as an Air Policeman (AP) in 1958. Norris was stationed at Osan Air Base, South Korea. It was during his time in the military that he earned the nickname “Chuck” and began his training in Tang Soo Do (tangsudo). Obviously he went on to earn his black belts and he also founded the art of the Chun Kuk Do (“Universal Way”) form.
James Earl Jones
When James Earl Jones received his commission as a second lieutenant during the Korean war, he believed an immediate assignment overseas was on the horizon. While waiting for his orders he worked as a part-time stage crew hand at the Ramsdell Theatre in Manistee, Michigan, where he had earlier performed. Jones was commissioned in mid 1953 and reported to Fort Benning to attend Infantry Officers Basic Course. He followed up that assignment at the Ranger School and received his Ranger Tab, although he later claimed to have washed out of the Rangers during training. His unit was eventually sent to establish a cold weather training command at the Camp Hale near Leadville, Colorado. His battalion eventually became a training unit in the Rocky Mountains and Jones was promoted to first lieutenant prior to his discharge.
Brooks was drafted into the Army to fight during World War II. He served as a corporal in the 1104 Engineer Combat Battalion, 78th Infantry Division as a combat engineer. Brooks didn’t have the easiest job in the military, as he was tasked with diffusing land minds. The famed Hollywood superstar also fought in the Battle of the Bulge. Given his legendary humor, it shouldn’t surprise his fans to learn that as the Germans played propaganda recordings over loudspeakers, Brooks responded by setting up his own sound system and played music by Al Jolson, a Jewish musician. Later he would bring ‘The Producers’ to the big screen, a movie that featured another attack against Hitler in the form of the play ‘Springtime for Hitler.’
Leonard Nimoy enlisted in the United States Army Reserves in the early 1950s. Not a lot is known about Nimoy’s service time after his personal records were destroyed in a fire in 1973. We do know that Nimoy spent 18 months in the reserves, and his service number was ER 11 229 770. It is believed that Leonard Nimoy spent most of his time atFt. McPherson in Georgia, and was discharged in 1955 having earned the rank of sergeant.
After dropping out of high school in 1954, Carlin joined the Air Force so he could receive a GI Bill to cover the costs of broadcasting school. He was trained as a radar technician, and was stationed in Barksdale Air Force Base in Bossier City, Louisiana. Carlin never served overseas, but supported the troops from home.
Steve McQueen held various dead end jobs until he joined the Marines in 1947. He was promoted to Private First Class and served with an armored unit, but he was demoted back to private seven times. His rebellious nature led the actor to go a-wall for two weeks. Shore patrol apprehended him after he deserted and McQueen spent 41 days in the brig.
Rapper/Actor Ice-T joined the Army to support his girlfriend and daughter. He served four years in the 25th Infantry Division. Early in his career, he was part of a group that stole an infantry rug and subsequently deserted. After a month, once the rug had been recovered, Ice-T returned and received a non-judicial punishment, which allowed him to complete Advanced Infantry Training.
Ice-T was deployed in Hawaii and served as a squad leader at Schofield Barracks. While serving Ice-T purchased stereo equipment, including turntables, a mixer, and speakers. With a bit of financial security afforded to him by the military, Ice-T spent his spare time honing his rap skills and the rest is history.
A young Morgan Freeman was so in love with the idea of flying that he joined the U.S. Air Force in 1955, instead of accepting a scholarship for drama from Jackson State University. Freeman eventually trained as a fighter pilot, but as soon as he sat in the cockpit, he felt like he was “sitting in the nose of a bomb,” as he told AARP magazine. “I had this very clear epiphany… You are not in love with this; you are in love with the idea of this.” Freeman left the Air Force in 1959. He is quoted as saying:
“I joined the Air Force. I took to it immediately when I arrived there. I did three years, eight months, and ten days in all, but it took me a year and a half to get disabused of my romantic notions about it.”
Mr. T was a member of the U.S. Army. Laurence Tureaud served in the Army’s Military Police Corps in the mid-70s. In November 1975 he was awarded a letter of recommendation by his drill sergeant, and in a cycle of six thousand troops he was elected “Top Trainee of the Cycle” and promoted to Squad Leader. In possibly the funniest event in our list, Mr. T. was punished by his platoon sergeant by being told to cut down trees by hand. Three and a half hours into his detail, he was relieved of his duties after he cut down 70 trees. His staff Sergeant failed to specify how many trees the actor should cut down.
After leaving high school in 1950, Cash joined the Air Force just as the Korean War began, and spent most of his four-year enlistment in Germany. With a great sense of rhythm, it makes sense that Cash would master Morse code, and serve as an intercept operator with the USAF Security Service.
Elvis Presley entered the Army as a regular GI at Fort Chaffee on March 24, 1958. Because he was already famous, hundreds of supporters and reporters showed up on the day of his enlistment. Elvis was stationed at Fort Hood for Basic Training and was assigned to the Second Armored Division’s ‘Hell On Wheels’ unit. Later he was assigned to the Third Armored ‘Spearhead’ Division, and stationed in Friedberg, Germany. It was in Germany that Elvis met Priscilla Beaulieu, who would eventually become his wife.
Jimi Hendrix enlisted in the Army as a teen to avoid jail time for car theft. The famed guitarist joined the 101st Airborne Division. Hendrix refused to work and instead spent his time laying in his bunk and playing guitar. After several interventions he was deemed “untreatable by hospitalization or counseling” and the rocker was honorably discharged following an ankle injury.
Before he founded Playboy, Hugh Hefner joined the Army, where he earned a sharpshooter badge in basic training and drew cartoons for military publications. This man was built for the publishing world.
Gene Hackman ran away from home at 16 and lied about his age to join the Marines. He served as a radio operator in China, Japan and Hawaii and earned his high school diploma before his discharge in 1951.
“Wheel of Fortune” host Pat Sajak revealed that his military service actually connects him with the late Robin Williams. Sajak took over the Vietnam morning radio slot from Adrian Cronauer. That early morning spot was called “The Dawn Buster,” but would later be deemed the “Good Morning Vietnam” slot. Robin Williams eventually made the spot famous with the movie, ‘Good Morning Vietnam.’
Kirk Douglas served in World War II as a Navy lieutenant, eventually becoming a communications officer for submarine warfare before he was medically discharged in 1944.
Before “NYPD Blue,” Dennis Franz served in the Army’s 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions in Vietnam. In an interview with Cigar Aficionado in 1995, Franz revealed, “It was the loneliest, most depressing, frustrating time. It was life-altering. I came back a much different person than when I left, much more serious. I left my youth over there.”
Harvey Keitel left home at 16 to join the Marines. He called the move a “spiritual journey. It’s not about war. Our duty is to protect those who do not have the means to protect themselves.”
Tony Bennett was drafted into the Army in November 1944. The singer served as an infantryman in France and Germany. In a powerful interview with SiriusXM Bennett explained his fear when overseas. “The Germans were frightened. We were frightened. Nobody wanted to kill anybody when we were on the line, but the weapons were so strong that it overcame us and everybody else.” Bennett was discharged in 1946 and went on to sell tens of millions of albums.
Rob Riggle served as a lieutenant colonel in the Marines in Kosovo and Afghanistan before becoming a full-time comedian. Not a lot is known about his time in service.
The Hollywood Reporter revealed that Mickey Rooney served in the Army from 1944 to 1946. With a background in entertainment, he spent his time giving laughs to troops during World War II. Rooney also earned a Bronze Star.
“Girls” star Adam Driver joined the Marines after 9/11. In an interview with Entertainment Tonight he explained how serving his country helped push him into acting. “When you get out of the Marine Corps, you feel like you can do anything. That was part of why I went to re-audition for Juilliard. I thought, ‘Worse comes to worst, I know how to live. I’ll live in Central Park or something. I’ll survive.’ You feel like all civilian problems are meaningless and small, which is a complete illusion, but you have this confidence. You’ve been torn down so much — physically, emotionally, verbally — you feel like you’re indestructible … Joining the military was beneficial because I think I had the will but didn’t have the drive or didn’t know where to put it. And I learned in the military where to put it.”
Jimmy Stewart was drafted into the Army in 1940. Originally he was rejected because he was underweight. Eventually the iconic actor packed on a few pounds and enlisted in the Air Corps in 1941, serving until his retirement in 1968.
Willie Nelson served nine months in the Air Force when he graduated high school. Because of back problems the singer/songwriter was honorably discharged after a rather short time in service.
Gene Wilder was drafted into the Army in 1956 and served as a medic in Pennsylvania. He never served overseas.
Johnny Carson didn’t always sit behind a desk. The TV star enlisted in the Navy in 1943 in hopes of becoming a pilot. Instead, Carson was sent to Columbia University to train as a midshipman — and often performed magic tricks for his classmates. Carson was assigned to the USS Pennsylvania in the Pacific Ocean and was en route to the ship when it was torpedoed on Aug. 12, 1945. Carson reported for duty on Aug. 14, 1945, the last day of the war.
Oliver Stone used his own real-life experienced in the Army to inspire his film “Platoon.” Stone enlisted in the Army in 1967, at which time he requested combat duty. After fighting overseas in Vietnam near the Cambodian border, Stone was honorably discharged in 1968, earning both a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart for his service.
Kris Kristofferson fought during The Cold War, serving from 1961-1965. He flew helicopters for the army in West Germany and eventually was promoted to the rank of captain. He exited his military role after his four year commitment drew to a close.
Paul Newman servied during World War II. Newman wanted to be a pilot, but couldn’t because of his colorblindness. Instead, he became a radioman and gunner for the Navy where he served from 1943-1945.
Montel Williams servied from 1974-1996. His “lifetime” career in the military wasn’t the only impressive part of his service record. Williams was the first black enlisted Marine to complete and graduate from both the Academy Prep School and the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. He earned the rank of lieutenant and also received various other accolades and awards during his prestigious military career.
Bea Arthur actually denied serving during World War II, despite a personnel record that showed her driving a truck and acting as a typist from 1943-1945. Her file also has a quote that reads, “I heard last week that enlistments for women in the Marines were open, so decided the only thing to do was to join.” An obtained personality appraisal sheet for Bea Arthur described her as both argumentative and frank.
Actor Bill Cosby joined the Navy in 1956 as a hospital corpsman, serving at at least five marine bases throughout his four-year service. Cosby worked in physical therapy where he treated severely injured Korean War soldiers.
When Kurt Vonnegut wrote about allies firebombing Dresden in Slaughterhouse-Five, he was writing from personal experience. The famed writer was captured during the Battle of the Bulge in late 1944, and was confined in a German prisoner of war camp near the city during the February 1945 aerial campaign. Vonnegut received a Purple Heart for his service in World War II, along with three bronze service stars. The horrors he experienced during his military service fueled much of his work.
The author of The Catcher in the Rye participated in one of the bloodiest battles of all time. Salinger and his fellow military men landed on Utah Beach during the Normandy invasion on D-Day. Salinger fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and liberated the Nazi death camps at Dachau. Salinger was working on his hugely popular book while fighting in the war.
In November 1943, a 16-year-old Sidney Poitier lied about his age and entered the Army. He was homeless and the military took him in out of the cold. Poitier served as a medical attendant at a mental hospital in New York.
Instead of admitting his real age, Poitier attempted to fake insanity. After he was threatened with shock therapy treatments, he admitted to lying about his age. After several weeks of Army-mandated therapy sessions the actor was discharged from his military service.
The founder of The Grateful Dead served in the Army for just nine months during his late teens. His time in the military included a stint for basic training at California’s Fort Ord. The Army decided to discharge Jerry Garcia because of “poor conduct” associated with his short time in the military. He would go on to get stoned, take acid, and entertain millions of fans around the world. Perhaps given his extra-curricular activities, it was for the best that the Army parted ways with the famous singer.