Famous Hollywood Actors at War
Ever watched a Hollywood war movie and thought: “These pampered stars don’t know the first thing about life in the forces!”…? Actually some of them do.
Here are some classic stars, and 21st century household names, who did their duty and walked the walk before talking the talk…
Award winning actor and Star Wars villain Driver served in the military before Hollywood came calling. Having not been accepted at the prestigious Julliard school, he was thinking about what to do with his life when something catastrophic happened – the 9/11 attacks.
Signing up to defend his country, 18 year old Driver spent 2 years, 8 months in California with the Weapons Company at 1st Battalion, 1st Marines. He almost went to Iraq. Then fate intervened once more.
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Driver had a serious accident on his mountain bike. He fractured his sternum, and was medically discharged in 2004. His time in the army was over before it had really begun, with Driver reportedly devastated that he couldn’t serve in the Middle East.
Deciding to give acting another try, he won a place at Julliard, and found himself appearing alongside the likes of R2-D2 in a movie franchise he’d enjoyed for years as a civilian.
Speaking to Vulture in 2018, he compared military service with the acting life, stating in some ways they are “the exact same”, featuring “a group of people trying to accomplish a mission that’s bigger than any one person”.
Driver went on to form the organization Arts in the Armed Forces in 2006. It seeks to create conversation between civilians and service personnel through theatrical performance. He wants to give something back to the community that shaped him, and you can only admire such dedication to the cause.
One figure of Old Hollywood who starred in numerous war pictures was James ‘Jimmy’ Stewart. This man is the real deal. When the attack on Pearl Harbor led to America joining WWII in 1941, Stewart was drafted.
Though it was far more than an obligation for him – he’d tried signing up the previous year. Plus, he wasn’t content with the role on offer… and we aren’t talking about acting roles! Qualified pilot Stewart could have served the US as a flying instructor with the Army Air Corps. But he wanted to do more.
After some persuading, Stewart managed to join the 703rd Bomb Squadron over in England. As a relatively mature commanding officer, he became highly-respected.
He took to the air in a B-24, also flying hazardous missions with the 453rd Bombardment Group. The established actor wound up being awarded not just one, but two Distinguished Flying Crosses. He also received the French Croix de Guerre.
Stewart stayed in the military till 1968, finally retiring as a Brigadier-General. The USO website states that this honour made him the highest-ranking actor in the history of the military.
According to author Robert Matzen, speaking to Den of Geek in 2021, the actor saw fighting for freedom as “winning the lottery”. Not that he didn’t experience trauma during World War II.
He was just pleased to be playing his part, and forging friendships with his fellow airmen. An interview is mentioned where he describes the bonds he made “with all those wonderful guys. Feeling I was part of a whole, part of a divine scheme… It wasn’t playacting then. I was living it.”
Stewart is arguably the epitome of a Hollywood star who set aside the business of making movies to focus on a different and selfless life defending his country.
She’s a global superstar, best known for playing Wonder Woman. Yet, before she became an actress, Gadot was part of the Israel Defence Forces. Combining glamour and military grit, she served as a combat instructor for 2 years, after being crowned Miss Israel in 2004 at the age of 18.
The Forces weren’t something she volunteered for, due to Israel’s mandatory law on national service. However, she has spoken of her respect for the army and what it taught her in terms of personal development. Gadot also reportedly participated in the Lebanon War of 2006, which lasted 34 days.
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Ultimately, she auditioned for a Bond movie, before shooting the adrenaline-fueled Fast & Furious in 2009. “The military gave me good training for Hollywood,” she told Fashion in 2015. She has since played various action-oriented roles. We’re guessing the world of DC Comics is somewhat easier to navigate than the military.
He started out in a publicity role, though Gable went on to fly on bombing missions as a cameraman and occasional gunner during the Second World War. What made the leading man decide to get more hands on when it came to fighting Hitler?
The chief motivating force was reportedly the loss of his wife, fellow star Carole Lombard. She tragically died aged 33 in an airliner crash, alongside her mother. At the time, Lombard had been promoting war bonds.
Like James Stewart, Gable left Hollywood and headed to England. He insisted on starting from the bottom, so was in the strange position of being a middle-aged private. According to History Net, he offset his movie star image by ditching his moustache, and joking around with his famous dentures in order to amuse the men.
Gable wanted to be a gunner, but was mainly assigned filmmaking duties. Going from starring in films to holding a camera, he often served within the confines of a B-17G bomber Flying Fortress.
History Net writes that he flew “at least five documented missions on bombers”. He travelled thousands of feet in the air, and shot tens of thousands of feet of footage.
This was used for propaganda and recruitment purposes. At one point an enemy shell struck the plane, slicing through the bodywork. It almost hit him in the head, and wound up shaving off part of his shoe.
Though Gable was reportedly disappointed by the military’s reaction to his filmmaking efforts, he earned his stripes with an Air Medal and Distinguished Flying Cross.
He resigned his commission in 1947, having been made a Major. Reports that he put himself in harm’s way through grief were denied by those who served with him. The Defence Media Network wrote that he was “a sturdy man with unnaturally large hands who took his duties seriously”!
Thank you for being a friend… and thank you for serving your country! Golden Girls star Arthur was in the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve for a couple of years, before going on to become a star of stage and screen. She signed up in 1943, leaving her job as a hospital lab technician and undergoing training.
As covered by VA.gov, her interviewers found Arthur to be a strong personality and, as it turned out, an asset to the forces. Arthur’s documentation read that “her hobbies included hunting with a .22 calibre rifle and playing the piano.” She worked as a typist at Washington DC Marine Headquarters, before going to North Carolina’s Motor Transport School at Camp Lejeune, a job she asked for.
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Arthur drove trucks and was a dispatcher, reaching the level of Staff Sergeant before her honourable discharge in 1945. When she passed away in 2009, her service wasn’t generally known about. In fact, she went so far as to deny being in the Corps. Bea Arthur clearly didn’t feel the need to shout about doing her duty, a humility shared by many in the same position.
Brooks used World War II as an unlikely inspiration for The Producers, his classic satire of show business that showcased a Hitler-themed musical. However, wartime was far from a barrel of laughs for the popular comedian, who served for a few months in the 1104th Engineer Combat Division, 78th Infantry.
Hailing from a poor background, he went from the Big Apple to the Theatre of War in Europe.
What was he doing there? The young Corporal Brooks was performing hair-raising tasks such as deactivating landmines and facing the Battle of the Bulge. In their overview of his military period, Grunge notes that he arrived in Europe during the conflict’s closing stages.
It certainly appears that he was in danger a lot of the time, but thankfully it didn’t last too long. With prisoners of war needing entertainment, not to mention the troops in general, Brooks began getting laughs on stage, leading to a lengthy career on the big screen.
What does the comedy legend remember most about the war? The noise, if this quote from a 1975 Playboy interview is anything to go by! “All through the war, two cigarette butts stuck in my ears,” he revealed.
Brooks was reportedly concerned that he’d lose his hearing before potentially losing his life. Keeping both, he went on to analyse the war in productions like the remake of To Be Or Not To Be in 1983.
It’s safe to say that without the military we wouldn’t have Norris as we know him today. Joining the Air Force in the late 1950s led to the young Chuck traveling to Korea, where his horizons were expanded by the world of martial arts. He reportedly came home following his discharge in 1962 with a black belt in Taekwondo and a brown belt in Judo. Not to mention a raft of essential life experience.
“My time in the military helped me grow up and prepare me for adulthood,” he told Screen Rant in 2020. His ass whipping skills brought him to the attention of Steve McQueen, who he was training at the time. McQueen then encouraged Norris to step out from behind the scenes and embrace a destiny in action cinema.
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He may have soared amongst the clouds in the Air Force, yet Norris also has a fascination for military tanks. The online game World of Tanks hired him for voice duties, and the actor has expressed his admiration for its attention to detail.
James Earl Jones
Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren is a big bad of the Star Wars universe, but he doesn’t hold a lightsabre to the original and the best – Darth Vader. Jones provided the voice for Vader, and his own life pursued a military path before he made acting his sole profession.
In the 1950s, Jones decided to move away from the study of medicine and towards the discipline of army life. He was attending the University of Michigan, where the Reserve Officer Training Corp funded his training as a doctor.
Med school was replaced by an altogether different environment. Jones was sent to Fort Benning in Georgia, where he trained as an officer and Ranger.
From there, he travelled to Camp Hale in Leadville, Colorado. Part of the 38th Regimental Combat Team, the future Sith Lord was stationed in the mountains, where he prepared soldiers for life in freezing temperatures.
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It was a period he seemingly enjoyed to its fullest. Speaking in an army interview, quoted by Military.com, Jones mentioned the “austere beauty of the mountains and the exhilaration of the weather and the altitude”.
The dedicated serviceman didn’t find the “rigors of the work or the pioneer-like existence” much of a chore at all. Nevertheless, with performing in his blood (thanks to actor father Robert Earl Jones), he eventually applied himself to the arts.
As with various others, he benefited from the G.I. Bill, which provided financial assistance as he tried to support himself in those early years. From soldier to janitor to worldwide icon, it’s been quite the journey for Jones. And it all started with the military.