Service Before Stardom: Photos Of 28 Icons Who Served In The Military

Culture | July 4, 2019

Left: Willie Nelson playing a show in South Carolina in 1996. Right: Nelson during his time in the air force, circa 1950. Sources: (Paul Natkin/WireImage; Wikimedia Commons)

There's no one type of person who serves in the military -- tough guys like Clint Eastwood and Chuck Norris might seem to fit the mold, but nonconformists like Willie Nelson and Jimi Hendrix served too. Leonard "Mr. Spock" Nimoy, Wheel of Fortune's Pat Sajak, and Playboy founder Hugh Hefner all served. These fascinating photos show future stars and celebrities when they were just kids, really, unaware of the fame that lay in store and doing their duty in the meantime. For vintage photos of celebrities in the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard -- as well as a couple from the Austrian army and British Navy -- read on.

Hugh Hefner's Typing Skills Kept Him Out Of Combat

Hugh Hefner with his future first wife Millie, circa 1944.

Serving in the Army during World War II, Hugh Hefner was said to be a decent soldier. He earned his Sharpshooter badge in training at Fort Hood, Texas, and was well trained in combat. He probably would have seen battlefield action. But the Army noticed another skill that was in demand -- Hefner could type unusually well for a man. He was assigned to a desk job in Washington, DC, which was just fine with him -- he enjoyed the Washington social scene and, let's face it, the women. During his Washington years (he was actually stationed at Fort Meade, in Maryland), Hefner created cartoons for military newspapers, went to the movies habitually, and nurtured his urban-sophisticate persona, which would a decade later become the persona of the magazine he founded -- Playboy.

Morgan Freeman Could Fix Your Radar

Source: (WorldLifestyle)

Morgan Freeman had always dreamed of being a famous actor, yet put those dreams on hold to join the Air Force after high school. In fact, he turned down a scholarship to study drama at Jackson State University in order to serve. In the Air Force, he was an Automatic Tracking Radar Repairman, and attained the rank of Airman First Class. Freeman spent four years in the service, before leaving to focus solely on acting.

Jimi Hendrix Joined The Army -- Or Else

Jimi Hendrix in the Army in 1961. Source: (pinterest.com)

The rock n' roll guitarist and singer spent time in the Army, but not necessarily because he wanted to. Hendrix had been caught driving stolen cars a couple of times and was offered the choice of prison or the Army. He was miserable and wrote to his father requesting that he send his red Silvertone Danelectro guitar. After one year of service, he was discharged honorably, on the basis of unsuitability. His platoon sergeant wrote: 

He has no interest whatsoever in the Army ... It is my opinion that Private Hendrix will never come up to the standards required of a soldier. I feel that the military service will benefit if he is discharged as soon as possible.

Leonard Nimoy Was In The Army Special Services

Source: (pinterest.com)

Enlisting in the early '50s, Leonard Nimoy spent a total of 18 months in the U.S. Army Reserves. Part of his service was to put on entertaining shows that he wrote and directed himself with the Army Special Services. He left the Army with the rank of Sergeant and went on to become one of the biggest icons of TV, the Vulcan science officer Mr. Spock on Star Trek.

Elvis Presley Went To Germany

Source: (WorldLifestyle)

The King of Rock n' Roll, Elvis Presley, did not simply spend his entire adult life as an extremely famous singer. In fact, he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1958 whilst he was on his way to fame and stardom, continuing to make music. While stationed in Germany, he met the love of his life, Priscilla

Bea Arthur, Staff Sergeant

Source: (nationalww2museum.org)

Bea Arthur, the actress we know so well from the hit TV shows Maude and The Golden Girls, enlisted in the U.S. Marines when she was 21 years old. Serving in the United States Marine Corps Women's Reserve, she was a typist and a truck driver, and she managed to work her way up from private to staff sergeant. 

Sean Connery, On Her Majesty's Naval Service

Source: (WorldLifestyle)

At the ripe age of 16, famous actor Sean Connery enlisted in the Royal Navy. He successfully served three years before being discharged for a severe stomach ulcer. After his service, he took on a few odd jobs and finally, ended up doing some bodybuilding which led him to modeling and acting.

Clint Eastwood Taught Swimming

Source: (togetherweserved.com)

Clint Eastwood is known worldwide for his award-winning acting and directing abilities. But prior to his fame and fortune, he spent some time being drafted into the U.S. Army. His role? Teaching swimming lessons at Fort Ord in California. He was discharged in 1953.

Chuck Norris Learned Martial Arts While Stationed In Korea

Source: (travelfuntu.com)

When Chuck Norris completed high school, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force as an Air Policeman in 1958. While stationed in Korea, he found a new passion for martial arts. With copious amounts of training, he was able to use these skills in his acting career after leaving the Air Force in 1962.

Tom Selleck, National Guard Poster Boy

Source: (military.com)

This famous actor was issued draft orders during the Vietnam War and in an attempt to be proactive, decided to join the California National Guard, serving for six years. Additionally, he became the face of U.S. Military recruitment posters. “I am a veteran, I’m proud of it. I was a sergeant in the U.S. Army Infantry, National Guard, Vietnam era. We’re all brothers and sisters in that sense,” says Selleck.

Tony Bennett Liberated A Concentration Camp

Tony Bennett in the Army in 1945. Source: (tonybennett.com)

Many people worldwide are familiar with the talented Tony Bennett. In fact, he is the winner of multiple Grammy awards for his outstanding performances. But prior to becoming a famous singer, Bennett was drafted in the U.S. Army in 1944 and was deployed in 1945. Though his service came late in the war, Bennett saw quite a bit of combat, pushing the Germans back through France and into Germany. His unit was involved in the liberation of a concentration camp near Landsberg Germany. Bennett described his war experience as horrific and advocated for pacifism for the rest of his life. Upon return, he was able to use his Army benefits to enroll at the American Theatre Wing, which paved the way for the long career that followed. 

Ronald Reagan Made Movies For The Air Force

Source: (pinterest.com)

Ronald Reagan, the 40th president of the United States, enlisted in the Army Reserve in 1937. It was only in 1942 however that he was called for active duty, being transferred to the Army Air Force and working in public relations. He attained the rank of Captain, and was in the First Motion Picture Unit, and involved in the production of some 400 training films during World War II. His service ended in 1945.

Arnold Schwarzenegger Went AWOL To Compete In A Bodybuilding Competition

Source: (Piximus.net)

Arnold Schwarzenegger, an actor, bodybuilder, and politician, joined the Austrian Army at the age of 18 as it was mandatory for males in Austria to do so. But during this time, he went AWOL as he wanted to participate in a bodybuilding competition in Germany (which he won). This lead him to be sent to military prison for three days. After finishing his service, he went on to focus on his bodybuilding full time.

Jimmy Stewart Was The Most Accomplished Actor-Serviceman

Source: (defensemedianetwork.com)

Jimmy Stewart came from a military family, and his career in uniform was significant. He served in World War II, flying 20 combat missions with the 445th and 453rd Bomb Groups, and rose to the rank of Brigadier General in the U.S. Air Force. Stewart received the Air Force Distinguished Service Medal, Distinguished Flying Cross (twice), Army Commendation Medal, Presidential Unit Citation, Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the French Croix de Guerre. He was the highest-ranking actor in the U.S. military.

Willie Nelson's Career As An Airman Never Got Off The Ground

Source: (Wikimedia commons)

Willie Nelson joined the U.S. Air Force after high school but was only able to serve for a mere nine months as he was discharged due to a back injury. After, he worked odd jobs and only made it big in the music industry 20 years later. 

Johnny Carson Decoded Messages In World War II

Source: (pinterest.com)

Well before becoming a legend of late-night TV, in 1944 Johnny Carson enlisted in the U.S. Navy. His official duties included decoding encrypted messages; he also made a name for himself as a boxer (compiling a 10-0 record) and magician. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought the war in the Pacific to an end before Carson saw combat. After the war, he attended The University of Nebraska, which paved his way for a successful career in radio and TV. 

Mel Brooks Defused Land Mines In World War II

Source: (history.com)

Actor, writer, producer, director, composer, and comedian Mel Brooks spent part of his youth as a corporal in the Engineer Combat Battalion during World War II. “I was a Combat Engineer," he has said, "Isn’t that ridiculous? The two things I hate most in the world are combat and engineering." Brooks was a corporal in the 1104 Engineer Combat Battalion, 78th Infantry Division, which was tasked with defusing land mines.

Jeff Bridges Carried On The Family Coast Guard Tradition

Source: (pinterest.com)

At the age of 18, Jeff Bridges joined the Coast Guard Reserves and served for seven years. He reflects on the experience by saying, “But, again, all the tough times make great memories when you look back. Like, I’m glad it’s in the rearview mirror.” After serving, he made a name for himself as a leading man in films such as The Last Picture Show (1971), Tron (1982), Starman (1984) and Jagged Edge (1985).

Jeff Bridges wasn't the only member of his family to serve in the Coast Guard. His brother Beau (also an actor) served as well, for eight years. And their father, Lloyd Bridges, served in the Coast Guard during World War II. Lloyd's character on the popular TV show Sea Hunt was a Coast Guard Auxiliary officer, and Lloyd did public service announcements for the Coast Guard.

Ed McMahon Flew 85 Combat Missions In Korea

Source: (WorldLifestyle)

Throughout school, Ed McMahon dreamed of becoming a pilot but was unable to join the U.S. Military because he didn't meet the standards of studying at least two years at a college. Fortunately, when Pearl Harbor took place, the requirements for pilots dropped and he was able to join. Within his service, he flew 85 combat missions and was awarded six air medals. He retired in 1966 having earned the rank of colonel. McMahon found fame as Johnny Carson's sidekick on The Tonight Show and is also remembered as the host of Star Search and a spokesman for the Publisher's Clearinghouse Sweepstakes.

Al Gore Was Against The War, But Served

Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

Al Gore, the 45th Vice President of the U.S. who's gone on to be an environmental activist, served in the Army after graduating from Harvard in 1969. As the son of an anti-war Senator (Albert Gore Sr.), the younger Gore was also against the war. But he felt that going to Vietnam would help his father's campaign fend off charges that the anti-war stance was unpatriotic. He has also said that he enlisted reasoning that if he didn't go, someone else from some small town in Tennessee would have to. When talking of his experience he said, "I didn't do the most, or run the gravest danger. But I was proud to wear my country's uniform." After a five-month deployment, Gore returned to the States to attend divinity school at the Vanderbilt University.

Johnny Cash Was A Morse Code Prodigy

Young Johnny Cash in his Air Force uniform, hanging out with an unidentified friend. Source: (pinterest.com)

On July 7, 1950, famous singer Johnny Cash joined the U.S. Air Force and was assigned to the 12th Radio Squadron Mobile in Landsberg, Germany where he would work as a Morse code operator. It was there that he formed his first band, The Landsberg Barbarians. He ended his term as staff sergeant on July 3, 1954. 

Cash had a talent for transcribing Morse code, and while stationed in Germany he was tasked with taking down messages intercepted from Soviet military correspondence. "I was who they called when the hardest jobs came up," he wrote in his autobiography. "I copied the first news of Stalin’s death."

Alan Alda Really Did Serve In Korea

Source: (WorldLifestyle)

Before becoming a star from the TV show, M*A*S*H, Alan Alda graduated from Fordham University and joined the Army Reserve. He spent six months in active duty during the Korean War, after which he used his skills learned and focused on his acting career.

Humphrey Bogart Served In World War I

Source: (WorldLifestyle)

Before Bogey rose to fame in such classics as Casablanca and The Big Sleep, he enjoyed a career as a sailor, helping troops move between the U.S. and Europe. His time in the Navy was short-lived, from 1918-1919, but upon exiting, he was given the rank of seaman second class. 

Pat Sajak Was A Radio DJ In Vietnam

Source: (WorldLifestyle)

Known for being the host of Wheel of Fortune for over three decades, Pat Sajak also spent some time in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. Sajak worked as a DJ for Armed Forces Radio. “I used to feel a bit guilty about my relatively soft duty…I always thought it strange that they should be thanking me, given what so many of them were going through on a daily basis," Sajak admits.

Harvey Keitel Served In 'Operation Blue Bat' In Lebanon

Source: (WorldLifestyle)

Harvey Keitel began his journey in the U.S. Marines in 1956, at the age of 16. He served some time in Lebanon during Operation Blue Bat and was awarded a medal as the fire team leader. After his service, Keitel focused on acting and won a spot on Martin Scorsese’s 1967 film Who’s That Knocking At My Door? which paved the way for a bright future in Hollywood.

Mickey Rooney Was Awarded The Bronze Star

Source: (smoothjazzandmore.wordpress.com)

Mickey Rooney was clearly born to entertain. Before hitting the big screen, he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943. His role? An entertainer! He served for 21 months, wearing the uniform while performing for the troops. He was so good in fact, that he was awarded a Bronze Star Medal for entertaining troops in combat zones. 

Gene Hackman Was A Marine Stationed In China

Source: (pinterest.com)

Gene Hackman managed to used his powers of persuasion to enlist in the U.S. Marines at the age of 16. Hackman dropped out of school and lied about his age to gain access to the Marines. Hackman shipped off to China in 1947, where he worked on a radio show while completing his high school diploma. Hackman was demoted three times for leaving his post -- "I was not a good marine," he has admitted. Upon his return to the States, he used the GI Bill to study journalism and TV production. He didn't break into film acting until he was 30 but went on to win Academy Awards in 1972 (Best Actor, for The French Connection) and 1993 (Best Supporting Actor, The Unforgiven).

Montel Williams Served 15 Years In The Marines And Navy

Source: (WorldLifestyle)

Montel Williams is not only an extremely successful talk show host, but also has a very impressive background in the military. After high school, he enlisted in the U.S. Marines to which he received copious amounts of training. After showing immense talent, he was recommended to the Naval Academy Preparatory school at Newport, Rhode Island. At this school, he learned Mandarin while graduating in general engineering. This, in turn, lead Williams to become the first black marine to graduate from the naval academy.  

Tags: Air Force | Army | Coast Guard | Marines | Navy | US Military

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Will Gwyn