“Whatever it takes” … “Be all you can be” … “Accept the challenges so that you can feel the exhilaration of victory” … These are all popular and famous military slogans, mottos, and quotes that represent the men and women who have bravely served their countries in times of peace and war.
When we think of the machine that is the modern celebrity, we think of a life of glamor, excitement, and luxury. The life of a superstar bigwig doesn’t necessarily draw us to think about their lives in the time before they were rich and famous, unless their status stems from their back story. Then there is the cliché backstory of the star who worked as a waiter or bartender in the years before they were discovered and made it big. But there are other stars who had lives before fame that involved a completely different types of service that didn’t involve busing tables.
Often, stars had interesting and exciting lives long before they entered the spotlight, sometimes by choice, and other times by circumstance. Some of them talk about this time frequently, whereas others are asked more questions about their current projects or who they’re wearing instead of their lives a long time ago. Many celebrities who served their country and boast a military background in addition to their other fame producing talents. Here are 15 stars who proudly served their country long before they entertained us all.
15. Hugh Hefner
Playboy founder and icon is known for his success in creating the world renowned Playboy Magazine. While today he is best known for his ever changing rotation of wives, girlfriends, and playmates (he has dated many concurrently), his first and longstanding passion has been in his role as a publisher and writer. In 1944, after Hugh Hefner graduated high school he joined the Army as an infantry clerk and contributed cartoons for Army newspapers while he served. He was honorably discharged in 1946 and went on to work as a copywriter at Esquire before quitting over being denied a five dollar raise in 1952. He then mortgaged everything he owned (including his own furniture) and secured 45 investors, including his own mother, in order to launch Playboy (which was originally supposed to be called Stag Party).
14. Elvis Presley
Elvis was one of the most well-known faces in entertainment at the time he was drafted to serve in the United States Army. The King of rock and roll served his country from March 1958 to March 1960. Although he was offered the opportunity to serve in special services to entertain troops and live in specialized housing he denied this offer and chose to serve as a regular soldier. This decision increased his musical fan base to include fellow soldiers and older fans who had a new-found respect for the singer. The “hunka hunka burning love” met his future wife Priscilla during his time serving in West Germany. It is also believed that the King’s time in West Germany was where he became addicted to stimulants and sedatives, which eventually contributed to his untimely death at the age of 42.
13. Chuck Norris
Chuck Norris is known for being super tough; so strapping and strong that there are thousands of jokes about how mighty the martial artist really is. (“Chuck Norris is so tough he strikes lightning back.”) Charles Norris comes from a military family background with his father having served as a World War II Army Soldier. In 1958, Norris joined the United States Air Force as an Air Policeman and was sent to an air base in South Korea. It was during this time period that he began his martial arts training in Tang Soo Do, which eventually led to a black belt and when he attained his nickname of “Chuck.” After he was discharged in 1962, he opened a chain of Karate Schools and founded the Chun Kuk Do “Universal Way” form of martial arts. In 2000, he was presented the high honor of a Golden Lifetime Achievement Award by the World Karate Union Hall of Fame.
12. Ice -T
Ice-T was a very young dad who struggled to support his family and was looking for a solid way to meet his financial responsibilities. Ice-T has said, “When I had my daughter I was like, man, I’m going to go to jail, I got to do something, and I went to an enlistment office. Next thing you know, I’m in the military, four years infantry.” He served in the 25th Infantry Division and during his time as squad leader at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii he purchased stereo equipment that included turntables, a mixer and speakers. Today Ice-T can say with pride that not only did he join the services to support his family, but he was also able to use the skills and financial stability that he earned during his time in the army to set in motion his career in the entertainment industry.
11. Alan Alda
Alan Alda is known for his portrayal of lead protagonist Hawkeye Pierce on the popular series M*A*S*H, where he starred for 11 years and won five Emmy Awards for acting, directing, and writing. What many people don’t know about Alda is that he actually served during the Korean War. Perhaps he channelled some of his mandatory six month tour of duty as a gunnery officer from the Korean War into his role of Hawkeye. Alda had joined the Army Reserve after graduating from Fordham College where he had studied English and Theater. Alda was the only character to appear in every episode of M*A*S*H as he became the central character in the ensemble of characters.
10. Bea Arthur
Bea Arthur is best known for her comedic acting having been a central prime time character on both Maude and The Golden Girls in a career that spanned decades of entertainment. With her sharp wit, comedic timing, and penchant for being the best sarcastic foil to ridiculous antics, there’s no wonder why she was so beloved. Bea Arthur was one of the first female members of the Women’s Reserve, having served both as a military truck driver and typist. It’s probably not surprising that the woman who would become the surly Dorothy Zbornak was described in her enlistment interviews as “argumentative” and “aggressive.” During her career she was promoted from sergeant to staff sergeant before being honorably discharged in 1945, the same year she married fellow Marine, Private Robert Arthur.
9. Drew Carey
Drew Carey is currently the friendly face and host of the game show The Price is Right taking over the post from Bob Barker. Despite being known as the popular lead in his own television show, The Drew Carey Show, he got his start by making a name for himself performing stand-up comedy after serving in the Marine Corps. Drew served in the Marine Corps reserves from 1980 to 1986 and claims that he adopted his trademark short hair-cut and dark horn-rimmed glasses while he was serving. Today he remains committed to his Marine Corps roots and partners with the USO, whose mission is to, “strengthen America’s military service members by keeping them connected to family, home and country, throughout their service to the nation.”
8. Dr. Ruth Westheimer
She may be small, but she’s a tiny force that you shouldn’t mess with. Known as a free-thinking and frank-talking sex therapist and grandmother, very few people know about her military background. She has told The New Yorker how her service was, “Not an act of heroism… in 1947 and ’48, everybody in then-Palestine belonged to some group. I chose the group that was the forerunner of the Israel Defense Forces. And I did not know that I had good aim. So when they did some selection, whatever, they put me in a group and they taught me how to put the Sten gun together. I shot the sky very nicely with my eyes closed.” Although she never had to put her skills to use, she admits that she was a very good sniper and was able to put all five bullets in her round into the red circular target. Dr. Ruth also says that she knows how to throw hand grenades, so don’t say you haven’t been warned!
7. Morgan Freeman
His voice may be even more famous than he is, but the American actor and narrator has done more than attaining three Oscar nominations and winning many film awards. When he graduated high school he joined the Air Force to become a fighter pilot based on his romantic notions and fascination with war films, particularly those starring fighter pilots. He was so entranced with the idea of flying that he turned down a drama scholarship from Jackson State University in order to enlist. His main job was as a radar technician, but eventually he was able to train as a fighter pilot, yet as soon as he sat in the cockpit his gut told him that he was more in love the idea of becoming a fighter pilot than it actually being his true calling. He left the Air Force in 1959 after having served for nearly four years.
6. Jesse Ventura
Jesse Ventura was famous wrestler Jesse “The Body” Ventura before moving on to politics and serving as the 38th Governor of Minnesota from 1999 to 2003. Although his life of service didn’t begin in government office, it began long before the World of Wrestling Entertainment when he enlisted to the United States Navy and was a part of the Underwater Demolition Team (UDT) after graduating from Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) school. Both of his parents were World War II veterans, and despite Ventura’s training and role within the Underwater Demolition Team 12, he never saw combat. He received the Vietnam Service Medal and left the Navy in 1975. It was at that time that he began to feel the draw of both body building and wrestling as he began his second career as a famous wrestler.
5. Ernie Hudson
When you think of Ernie Hudson, you’ll probably first remember him for his role as the fourth Ghostbuster Winston Zeddemore in the cult classic films, or as Sergeant Albrecht in The Crow, even starring alongside Sandra Bullock in the Miss Congeniality films, or as Warden Leo Glynn on HBO’s series Oz. Hudson enlisted in the Marine Corps after he graduated from high school, however was discharged from service due to asthma before becoming an actor. Recently Ernie Hudson publicly shared his endorsement and support of American military veterans and praises them for their brave services. He can be seen for a cameo in the 2016 reboot of Ghostbusters.
4. Harvey Keitel
When Harvey Keitel dropped out of high school, he joined the Marines. Keitel is very open about the extensive positive impact joining the Marines has had on his life. He served for over three years in Lebanon for operation Blue Bat and even earned a medal as a fire team leader. Keitel has said of his experience, “For me the Marine Corps was a spiritual journey. It’s not about war.” The current co-president of the Actors Studio has appeared in many critically acclaimed films including: Taxi Driver, Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and The Piano. He is both an Oscar and a Golden Globe Award nominee for his outstanding work. He credits the Marines with much of his success and the way he is commended for his professionalism within the entertainment industry.
3. Tim James
When Tim James retired from basketball as small forward, many people assumed he’d follow a career path into teaching, coaching, or perhaps motivational speaking. Instead the first round pick for the Miami Heat joined the US Army at 30 years old. In his time serving in Iraq on a dusty and isolated air base he says, “To be able to support and defend freedom gives me great joy. A lot of people have died for something many Americans take for granted. I wake up every day knowing I’m doing something important with my life. This is so fulfilling. Keeping our country safe gives me great purpose.” The soldier keeps two reminders of his life as a basketball player with him – his UM and Heat basketball cards, both of which he keeps in plastic beneath his uniform, both under a photo of his son.
2. Montel Williams
Montel Williams is another celebrity who enrolled in the U.S. Marines in 1974, after he graduated from high school. In 1976, after being honorably discharged as a corporal, he decided to enlist in the Navy as a midshipman where he studied Mandarin and graduated with a degree in general engineering with a minor in International Security Affairs. After three years working on submarines he discovered his talent for public speaking when counselling his crew; so he eventually gave up his naval commission to pursue public speaking full-time. His work with educators, parents, and business leaders eventually led him to the Montel Williams Show, for which he is now famous for. When he left the navy, he had the rank of lieutenant, and received three awards: the Navy Achievement Medal, the Meritorious Service Medal, and the Navy Commendation Medal.
1. Adam Driver
Most people know Adam Driver for his complex portrayal of conflicted and complicated Adam on HBO’s critically acclaimed series Girls, or as Kylo Ren in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. But when Adam Driver was 17 and had just graduated high school, he felt lost. Although he’d applied to get into Juilliard, he wasn’t accepted. Instead he was living in his parent’s basement and selling vacuum cleaners. A few months following September 11, filled with a sense of patriotism, he decided to join the Marines. Unfortunately, a few years into his services he dislocated his sternum in a mountain biking accident, which left him unable to be deployed to Iraq. This left him incredibly disappointed, but fortunately because of the confidence he had gained in the service, he reapplied to Julliard, only this time he got in. He can be seen in his TED talk discussing the adjustment from Marine life to civilian life, and today, the Star Wars villain has a project that helps to bridge the cultural gap between the United States Armed Forces. His non-profit Arts In The Armed Forces has a mission to “honor, educate, and entertain all active duty and veteran members of the United States Armed Forces and their families by engaging them into the power and social services of the performing arts.”
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