Celebs who served in the military before they became famous
To the average person, actors, musicians, and athletes seem to be living the good life, but as it turns out a handful of the ones you’d least expect actually served their country in the military. Before they were a rock star or Hollywood fav, they were private nobody, and ensign puke. But each of them has their own crazy story, as some were heroes, some did their duty, and others were kicked out.
Airman 1st Class Chuck Norris – USAF
If you’re the type of person who enjoyed watching Chuck Norris fight in movies like Delta Force or shows like Walker Texas Ranger, you can thank the United States Air Force. Norris joined up right out of high school in 1958 and worked as a policeman for the Air Force in South Korea.
It was in South Korea that he was given the nickname “Chuck,” and it’s also where he started his decidedly awesome martial arts career. He studied Tang Soo Do, which led to a martial arts career that not only saw him captivate audiences, but he also went 183-10-2 as a professional fighter, all thanks to his four years in the Air Force.
Lieutenant Colonel Rob Riggle – USMC
You might know Rob Riggle best for his time on the Daily Show, Saturday Night Live, or movies like Step Brothers, but you might be surprised to learn that Riggle spent 23 years in the Marines. Originally joining up in 1990, Riggle had just gotten his pilot’s license and wanted to fly jets for the Corps. According to sources, he left flight school to pursue comedy.
Riggie has ribbons from three combat zones, including Afghanistan. Today, he continues to a part of the USO, saying, “I made a promise to myself when I was in uniform and serving overseas that if I was ever in a position to come back and entertain the troops, I would.”
Private Clint Eastwood – US Army
All the badasses that Clint Eastwood played in movies like Heartbreak Ridge, Kelly’s Heroes. and Gran Torino, kind of trump his military service, but those are tough characters to live up to. Eastwood was drafted into the service in 1951 during the Korean War, but he spent his war years doing lifeguard duty at a fort in Northern California.
His service wasn’t entirely uneventful however, as he was involved in a plane crash over the Pacific Ocean that nearly claimed his life. When a Douglas AD bomber he was flying ran out of fuel, it crashed into the ocean in shark infested waters. His lifeguard prowess came in handy, as he and the pilot managed to swim two miles to safety.
Staff Sergeant Beatrice ‘Bea’ Author – USMC
Bea Arthur is best remembered for her roles in television comedy shows such as Maude and The Golden Girls, but you’d probably never guess that she was a United States Marine. WWII was only a few months old when she answered the call in 1942 and served with the Corp until 1944.
She was 21 years old when she joined, and said, “[I] heard last week that enlistments for women in the Marines were open, so decided the only thing to do was to join.” Arthur met her first husband in the Corp, and married fellow Marine Robert Alan Aurthur. They divorced in 1950, but she kept his name (just spelled a little different).
Airman Willie Nelson – USAF
Willie Nelson actually spent less time in the Air Force than Schwarzenegger spent in the Austrian army, as he lasted only eight or nine months. The outlaw country singer was unsure of what to do after high school, so Nelson joined the Air Force at 18 years old.
Nelson didn’t last long in the service, as he was medically discharged before he could complete his enlistment. He cited back problems, and it’s too bad his advocacy for marijuana usage wasn’t in effect, because that probably would’ve helped. After two decades of odd jobs after his service, Nelson eventually made it big.
Sergeant Gal Gadot – Israeli Army
Gal Gadot is best known for her role as Wonder Woman in the DC Extended Universe movies, and for the fact that she’s a former Miss Israel. Just after she won that title at the age of 18, she served her compulsory enlistment in the Israeli army for two years.
Gadot was a straight-up badass while serving, as her title was “Combat Instructor.” When Director Justin Lin found out that Gadot was trying out for the role of Gisele Yashar prior to filming Fast & Furious, which turned out to be her breakout role, he jumped at the chance to hire an actress with knowledge of hand-to-hand combat and weapons.
Sergeant Jimi Hendrix- US Army
Jimi Hendrix, widely considered the greatest guitarist of all time, had a few run-ins with the law as a youngster. Twice he was caught joyriding in stolen cars, and was given a choice: Go to jail, or join the Army. Hendrix wisely chose the latter and was trained at the same Fort where Eastwood was a lifeguard ten years earlier.
Thirteen months into his enlistment, Hendrix’s platoon leader wrote, “He has no interest whatsoever in the Army … I feel that the military service will benefit if he is discharged as soon as possible.” He was granted an honorable discharge after being labeled, “unsuitable.” But it should be noted that Hendrix successfully completed jump school with the 101st Airborne, which was no small feat.
Ensign Johnny Carson – US Navy
The 40+ year career of hilarious Late Night Show host Johnny Carson might never have happened if he hadn’t joined the Navy. He signed up during 1943 when he was 18 years old, and served aboard the USS Pennsylvania during WWII.
Once upon a time, Carson had a conversation with Secretary of the Navy James V. Forrestal, and Carson jokingly said he didn’t intend to stay in the Navy after the war, because he intended to become a magician. When challenged, Carson performed a card trick and made Forrestal laugh. According to legend, the encounter encouraged him to try show business.
Sergeant Drew Carey – USMC
Drew Carey shot to fame when he starred in the TV show boasting his own name as the title, and later went on to host Who’s Line is it Anyway, and the Price is Right. When he was a young man he tried to go the college route, but flunked out of school twice before deciding it wasn’t for him.
Carey decided to join the Marine Corps Reserve and spent the next six years serving in Ohio as a Field Radio Operator. He doesn’t talk much about his time with the Corp, but we do know it’s where he adopted his signature crew cut and bifocals look (Carey originally wore the glasses as a fashion choice rather than of necessity).
Sergeant Hugh Hefner – US Army
Hugh Hefner needs no introduction as the emperor of the Playboy empire, but before he was hosting countless beautiful women at his mansion, and having their pictures featured in his magazine, Hefner spent two years in the US Army as a journalist.
Hefner joined the army in 1944 when the tide of WWII had already been turned in the Allies favor. In basic training, he won a sharpshooting badge for his work with an M1 Garand rifle. He then became a reporter for the army and was best known for his cartoon contributions, which were not known to be dirty.
Sergeant Charles Bronson – USAF
No surprise here, but Charles Bronson, star of the Death Wish series and The Dirty Dozen, was one heck of a soldier once upon a time. He came from a dirt-poor family in Pennsylvania, where he worked the local coal mine since he was 10 years old. Then, when WWII broke out, he got his chance to leave town.
Bronson served from 1943 to 1946, and during the height of the war in the Pacific, Bronson was an aerial gunner in a B-29 Superfortress. He managed to survive his full tour of 25 combat missions, many of which were flown over mainland Japan. He also received a Purple Heart for wounds sustained in combat. Mr. Bronson, you’re the man!
Sergeant Tracey ‘ICE T’ Marrow – US Army
To say that Ice T is “militant” is like saying that rocks are hard. Ice T was selling drugs and robbing cars to support his pregnant girlfriend until he joined the army after his child was born. While in the army Ice T was charged with dereliction of duty for being involved in the theft of a rug.
Ice T, previously affiliated with the Los Angeles Crips gang, got into hip hop while in the army. While stationed in Hawaii he got in trouble again for pimping, but because his commanding officer found a loophole, he was able to receive an honorable discharge. He later claimed that he immediately turned to robbing banks.
Aviation Radioman 3rd Class Paul Newman – US Navy
Paul Newman was also “gung ho,” as he answered his nation’s call during WWII. The actor that shot to fame with roles in movies such as Cool Hand Luke and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, served as a radioman-rear gunner in an Avenger torpedo bomber. He would’ve been a pilot, but was dropped when it was learned he was colorblind.
A stroke of luck may have saved his life just as his squadron reported for duty aboard the USS Bunker Hill. The pilot of his plane was grounded because of an ear infection and Newman had to stay behind. That may have been for the best, as a kamikaze struck the ship, killing several men from his unit.
Airman 1st Class Morgan Freeman – USAF
One of Morgan Freeman’s breakout roles was as Sergeant Major Rawlins in the film Glory and is also known for his roles in The Shawshank Redemption and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. He might’ve started his acting career earlier, as he turned down a partial drama scholarship to Jackson State University, opting instead to join the Air Force.
Freeman thrived in the military and during a four-year career spanning from 1955-1959, he served as an Automatic Tracking Radar Repairman. He rose to the rank of Airman 1st Class, and immediately began a career in acting and dancing after he was honorably discharged.
Lance Corporal Orville ‘Shaggy’ Burrell – USMC
Shaggy was 20 years old when he enlisted in the Marine Corp, and he was discovered shortly after his time in the service. The rapper that gave us songs like “Bombastic” and “It wasn’t me,” actually perfected his singing voice during his time in the Corp.
As a Field Artillery Cannon Crewman Shaggy was deployed in 1990 at the outset of the Persian Gulf War. Shaggy was busted down in rank twice, “I was driving up to New York every weekend to do music,” he told Military Times in 2011. “I mouthed off a lot. So, you know, things like that will get you busted.”
Midshipman Sean Connery – Royal Navy
Sean Connery delivered milk in his native Edinburgh, Scotland prior to joining the Royal Navy at just 16 years old. The Scottish actor that became one of the greatest actors in the world for his role as James Bond, served three years in the navy before he was discharged for medical reasons.
Connery acquired two tattoos during his time in the navy, one that says “Mum and Dad,” and another that says, “Scotland Forever.” He began his career as a bodybuilder while in the navy, but was discharged after three years when a duodenal ulcer flared up, an affliction that plagued most of the men in his family.
Lance Corporal Adam Driver – USMC
Adam Driver, who played Kylo Ren in the latest installments of the Star Wars saga, and starred in Black Panther, still travels with a group that conducts performances for active-duty soldiers. Driver is what you’d call “gung ho,” in that he joined the Marine Corps immediately following the tragedy of 9/11. Modern celebrities joining/having served in the armed forces definitely breaks the “Hollywood lefty” stereotype.
Driver was never deployed to a combat zone, despite his proficiency as an 81mm Mortarman. He spent two-and-a-half years in the Marine Corps until he was medically discharged in 2005. While mountain biking one day, he got into a crash and broke his sternum, ending his military career.
1st Lieutenant James Earl Jones – US Army
That’s right, James Earl Jones, who plays the sophisticated voice of reason in The Hunt for Red October, and the voice of doom as Darth Vader, was an officer in the US Army. When he joined up in 1953 he figured he’d be shipped out to fight in the Korean War, but instead, he stayed home as part of the Reserve Officer Training Corps.
Jones attempted to make it through Ranger school, which is an incredibly brutal test of will. He received his Ranger tab but admitted later that he washed out. He served the majority of his time in cold weather training command in Colorado until 1955, when he was promoted to 1st Lieutenant prior to being honorably discharged.
Sergeant Elvis Presley – US Army
Elvis Presley was already the biggest rock star in American, and a movie star by the time he was drafted into the army in 1958. Initially, he thought about protesting, but it could’ve been an extreme disruption in his budding career. His manager convinced him that doing his duty would only make him more popular — and he was right.
Elvis donated his pay to charity, bought TVs for his base, and extra fatigues for his unit. He also met his future wife, 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu, while stationed in Friedberg, Germany. While Elvis did his two years his studio periodically released previously recorded songs, so when Elvis left the service in early 1960, he had 10 top 40 hits.
Staff Sergeant Johnny Cash – USAF
The “Man in Black,” Johnny Cash, was barely 18 years old when he enlisted in the Air Force in 1950. The notorious rock star who created hits such as “I Walk the Line,” and “Ring of Fire,” can thank his time in the military for his incredible music career, as it was with his Air Force pay that he bought his first guitar.
Cash joined up right as the Korean War was getting going, but showed such promise with Morse code, that he was shipped off to Germany to spy on the Germans. Cash spent four years in Landsberg, Germany, where he wrote some of his first songs, and formed his first band — “The Landsberg Barbarians.”
2nd Lieutenant Jackie Robinson – US Army
Jackie Robinson may have broken the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947, but when he served in the army during WWII, he fought in a segregated unit. The Brooklyn Dodger Shortstop was once a tank commander in the army, as a degree from UCLA made him eligible to become an officer.
That didn’t come easy, as his application was delayed for months until Heavyweight Champion of the World Joe Louis intervened. Robinson got into trouble when he refused to move to the back of a bus, and charges soon followed. Though his unit was the first black tank unit to see action in WWII, he missed out on combat because of his court-martial.
Sergeant Randy Couture – US Army
Before Randy Couture was a three-time UFC Heavyweight Champion and two-time Lightweight Champion (and actor), he served as a Sergeant in the US Army. Couture served during a relatively quiet period for the armed forces, from 1982-1988, but he was a member of the highly specialized 101st Airborne Division.
Couture boxed and wrestled in the army, and after his discharge, he became an alternate to the Olympic wrestling team three times. It wasn’t until 1997 that he had his first professional UFC fight, in which he scored a knockout by submission, despite the fact that his opponent outweighed him by 100 pounds.
Master Sergeant Bob Ross – USAF
Bob Ross was the man that captivated us with his gentle, happy voice and his ability to paint magic on a canvas, but you might be surprised to learn that while in the Air Force Ross’ nickname was “Bust ’em up Bobby.” He got the nickname for constantly punishing insubordination, which was something he loathed.
Ross was from Florida originally, and when he joined up in 1961 when he was 18 years old, he was eventually sent to Alaska. The mountains had a mystifying effect on him, as they inspired him to paint. Soon he was refining his technique and finishing two paintings on his lunch hour. He was discharged in 1981, after 20 years of service.
Sergeant Tom Selleck – National Guard
Tom Selleck looks as excited as a kid in a candy shop in the photograph showing him strapped to a fighter jet. Selleck, who’s best known for his roles in Magnum P.I. and Mr. Baseball did what a lot of young folks did when their draft number was called during the Vietnam War — he joined the National Guard.
Selleck may have avoided combat, but he served his country faithfully for six years with the 160th Infantry Regiment in the California National Guard, between 1967-1973. He was also faithful to his brothers in arms, as he is an active spokesman for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.
Ambulance Driver Ernest Hemingway – Red Cross
Poor eyesight kept the Army, Navy, and Marines from allowing Hemingway to serve, as he was eager to join the fight in WWI. Hemingway would eventually find a way “over there” by joining the Red Cross as an ambulance driver and was stationed on the Italian front.
He later wrote A Farewell to Arms, which was based on his experiences, and was one of his first bestsellers. After just two months in the service, a mortar round sent shrapnel ripping through his legs. Despite his wounds, he was able to help other soldiers who were also wounded, and for his courage, he was awarded the Italian Silver Medal of Bravery.
Sergeant Leonard Nimoy – US Army
It’s hard to look at Commander Spock… ahem… Leonard Nimoy, without thinking of his famous role in the Star Trek series, but prior to him becoming the best No. 2 in the Star Fleet, he served 18 months in the army in Georgia.
Nimoy enlisted in the army in 1953 at the age of 22 years old. His time in the army was not unlike his life in the civilian world, as he was a member of the Special Service, who was responsible for shows and productions. Nimoy wrote, narrated, emceed, and acted in plays meant to entertain his fellow soldiers.
2nd Lieutenant Ted Williams – USMC
The real tragedy of Baseball great Ted Williams’ military career, is that it interrupted the greatest batting performance in nearly 100 years, as he batted an astounding .406 during the 1941 season. He was then drafted into Navy within a month of the US entering WWII.
Williams switched from the Naval Reserve to the Marine Corp in 1943 and became a pilot. He returned to baseball after the war and was called into service again in 1952. He wasn’t too happy about losing another season to war, but the Korean conflict needed officers like him with experience to fill the ranks.
Major General Jimmy Stewart – USAF
We’ve saved the highest-ranking celebrity in uniform for last, as Brigadier General Jimmy Stewart outranks even Rob Riggle. When WWII came around Stewart was already in uniform, even though he was already a major movie star. Stewart came from a military family and took his love of flying into the skies with the Army Air Force.
His proficiency as a pilot was recognized, and soon he was leading entire squadrons on bombing missions. He was awarded not one, but two Distinguished Flying Crosses, which was the 2nd highest medal for a pilot. He continued to serve until 1968 and was later promoted to Major General by President Ronald Reagan well after he retired.