War has always been a subject that has intrigued movie going audiences. The history of film is strewn with epic movies depicting the reality of war, the valor of soldiers, the horrors faced by its victims, the effects on those left worrying at home and the reality faced by the men and women returning home after their tours. Almost every war has been immortalized on film. From the Trojan wars, through to the War in Afghanistan, filmmakers seem to be drawn to the subject. Since they were first awarded in 1929, 20 war themed films have won the Academy Award for best picture and many more have been nominated. For example, in 1998, 3 out of the 5 nominated films were war based movies. In the end Shakespeare in Love took the Oscar but this goes to show how popular this genre is with both the public and critics alike.
Actors have often used military roles to propel their career to new heights. Playing a tough soldier was the thing to do for leading men in the 50’s. It gave instant credibility as an action star. Over the years, the part of the soldier changed. No longer depicted as being tough unflappable super men, they became regular people dealing with the atrocities that they were subjected to during combat.
Of course all of this remains within the Hollywood protective nutshell, no matter how real the film is, or how broken a character may appear, this pales in comparison to the realities soldiers experience. That being said there are quite a few actors who were in the armed forces. Actors who saw active duty and were forced to deal with the truths of war. There were many who served in the military, what follows is a list of actors who served, some in the most adverse of conditions.
10 Dennis Franz
Dennis Franz is best known for portraying police officers. He portrayed an officer in the extremely popular Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue, Dennis’ adult life began in a way that he could not have imagined. He was drafted into the United States Army. After basic training he was sent to Vietnam where he served 11 months in the 82d Airborne division. He is the only actor on the list to have seen action in Vietnam.
9 Kirk Douglas
As with many young men in the early 40’s, Douglas enlisted in the US Navy. He spent most of his time as a communications officer working on anti-submarine warfare. Douglas was eventually discharged for injuries incurred in the line of duty.
These injuries might have stopped his military career but did nothing to slow his rise to become a Hollywood heartthrob in the 1960’s. He went on to be one of the top grossing stars of the 50’s and 60’s.
8 Paul Newman
Paul Newman was a man of many interests. Not only was Newman an award winning actor and director, but he was also an owner of a Indy Car racing team, winning several professional road races himself and founded the Newman’s Own food corporation. Before all the fame and fortune however Newman saw action in WWII. He enrolled in the Navy V-12 Program at Yale University, with hopes of becoming a pilot. These aspirations were dashed when he was found to be color blind. Instead he was trained as a radioman and gunner, which led him to fly as a turret gunner in an Avenger torpedo bomber. His combat action occurred in the Pacific during the last year of the war.
7 Clark Gable
Clark Gable was a Hollywood superstar when WWII was declared. Coming off his performance as Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind, which remains one of the most beloved movies of all time, he was MGM’s leading man. Already in his early 40’s when the U.S, entered the war, Gable’s wife at the time, Carole Lombard, suggested he enlist as part of the war effort. Initially scoffing at the idea, his mind was changed when Lombard passed away a few months later. He was offered a “special assignment”. Gable was chosen to make films to recruit aerial gunners. This led him to England where he flew 5 missions, one of which was over Germany, as an observer-gunner in a B-17 Flying Fortress. During one of these missions his aircraft was attacked by fighters and anti-aircraft guns. In the attack one crewman died, two others were wounded and Gable was nearly hit in the head by a shell. Once MGM studios got word of the narrow escape, they pleaded with the Army to protect their star. Gable was quickly transferred to non-combat duty and sent home to finish his film. For the missions he was involved in he received the Air Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross.
6 Lee Marvin
Lee Marvin was known for his portrayal as a tough guy on the screen. Although he won an Academy Award for his portrayal of two gunmen in the comedy/western Cat Ballou, he is remembered fondly as an action hero.
This fame occurred after his active duty. Enlisting in the Marines at 18 years old, he was sent over seas and saw action in the Battle of Saipan. Marvin was wounded by machine gun fire in the assault on Mount Tapochau where most of his company was killed. Marvin’s wound severed his sciatic nerve. For his efforts he was given a medical discharge and awarded the Purple Heart.
5 Russell Johnson
Although Johnson might not have a name as recognizable as the others, he portrayed one of the best known characters in television history. In 1964 he took on the role with which he would be forever associated with: the Professor on Gilligan’s Island. Prior to being a castaway, Johnson flew in combat missions in the pacific. Johnson joined the Air Force as an aviation cadet after high school.
During his service he flew 44 combat missions as a bombardier in a B-24 Liberator heavy bomber. It was during one of these missions that his plane, along with two others, were shot down over the Philippines. Johnson escaped with two broken ankles and a Purple Heart. He was also awarded the Air Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, the Philippine Liberation Ribbon and the WWII Victory Medal. He was honorably discharged on November 22, 1945.
4 Charles Durning
Charles Durning was a very prolific actor having appeared in over 200 movies. Known as a master character actor, he is best remembered for his roles in The Sting, Tootsie, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and To Be or Not to Be, the latter two of which garnered Academy Award nominations as best supporting actor. Durning was drafted at the age of 20 and saw action in the invasion of Normandy.
He landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day. Durning survived the landing but was wounded in the Battle of the Bulge. He was then captured, but managed to escape. For his efforts Durning was awarded three Purple Hearts and the Silver Star.
3 James Doohan
James Doohan is a Canadian actor best known for playing first engineer Montgomery Scott (Scotty) on Star Trek. Before “ bravely going where no man has gone before,” Doohan joined the Royal Canadian Artillery. He was sent to England for training in 1940 and saw his first action on D-Day. Landing on Juno Beach with the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, Doohan took out two snipers and managed to lead his men through a field of land-mines. In a strange twist of fate he was shot with 6 rounds, four in the leg, one through his middle finger and one in his chest, which was actually stopped by a cigarette case. In the end he only lost his middle finger which he concealed during his acting career.
2 Audie Murphy
Audie Murphy was the ultimate soldier in WWII. Abandoned by his father and with his mother dying when he was a teenager, Murphy’s older sister helped him falsify documents in order to meet the minimum age requirement to enlist. He was already an able marksman with a hunting riffle when he enlisted. He earned his Marksman Badge and his Expert Badge during training.
His active duty began in February 1943 in French Morocco. His combat experience would take him throughout Europe, in which he proved time and again his worth as a soldier. He was awarded the Congressional Medal Of Honor, along with 32 other U.S. and foreign medals. Whereas most others on the list were actors prior to service, Murphy became a star because of his military career. He would appear in 44 movies, most of which were westerns. His name is forever linked to the term war hero.
1 James Stewart
Jimmy Stewart was on top of the acting game before the war. He was nominated for an Academy Award in 1939 for his role in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and won the award in 1941 for The Philadelphia Story. He would not make another movie for a few years as he was drafted into the United States Army in October 1940, where he failed the minimum weight standard. It was not until the end of March 1941 that Stewart was inducted. He became the first major movie star to wear the soldier persona in WWII. Steward was already 33 when he joined but the fact that he was a college graduate and held a commercial pilot license allowed him to receive a pilot’s rating.
For the next few years his status as a celebrity would restrict him to training duties and selling war bonds. This was to change in late 1943 when Stewart, now a Commander, flew his first mission to bomb a U-boat facility in Kiel, Germany. He flew in over 20 missions over Germany which allowed him to be awarded 12 U.S. and foreign medals. Stewart remained active in the Air Force reserves until 1968 reaching the rank of Brigadier General. After the war Stewart continued his Hollywood success being nominated for three more Best Actor Oscars. He tops our list because James Stewart was excellent both as an actor and a soldier.