33 Famous People You Didn’t Know Were Veterans
Before they became stars, these folks proudly served our country, and they're some of the most famous veterans
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Did you know these celebrities are famous veterans?
There aren’t enough ways to thank the countless people who have served and continue to serve the United States in the armed forces. A few ways to show your gratitude include reading up on Veterans Day facts (like the difference between Memorial Day vs. Veterans Day), sharing Veterans Day quotes to honor those who served, shopping these Veterans Day sales or taking your favorite vet out for one of these Veterans Day free meals. You also might be surprised to know that there are actually quite a few famous veterans who served in the military before they became stars—find out who they are below.
Rapper and Law & Order: SVU star Ice-T (born Tracy Marrow) served four years in the United States Army’s 25th Infantry. He enlisted in 1979 after graduating from high school in Los Angeles. After his years of service, he left the Army with an honorable discharge.
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Best known for iconic films like Dirty Harry and Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood was drafted into the Army for the Korean War before he ever graced the big screen. During his time of service, he was a swim instructor at Fort Ord in California. He was also involved in a plane crash at Point Reyes, which culminated in the lifeguard servicemen swimming to shore.
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The Thomas Crown Affair star served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1947 to 1950. Apparently, Steve McQueen wasn’t exactly the best role model for his fellow Marines. “I was busted back down to private about seven times,” he’s quoted as saying in the book Steve McQueen: Portrait of an American Rebel. “The only way I could have been made corporal was if all the other privates in the Marines dropped dead.”
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Remember that part earlier where we mentioned that these celebs served our country before they became stars? Elvis Presley is an exception. At the height of his career, Presley was drafted into the Army in 1957—and there was much to-do about how “The King” should best serve. Though given many cushy options, he chose to serve as a regular soldier.
“People were expecting me to mess up, to goof up in one way or another,” he said in an interview. “They thought I couldn’t take it and so forth, and I was determined to go to any limits to prove otherwise.” Don’t miss these rarely seen photos of Elvis, including one of him in uniform.
In 1955, Morgan Freeman joined the U.S. Air Force as a radar technician, a role he had lofty dreams about. Of the experience, the movie star told AARP Magazine: “I joined the Air Force. I took to it immediately when I arrived there. I did three years, eight months and ten days in all, but it took me a year and a half to get disabused of my romantic notions about it.”
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Stationed in Barksdale, Louisiana, as a member of the Air Force, comedian George Carlin was trained in aviation electronics. After three years of service, he was discharged for poor conduct, according to Soldiers for the Cause. It was after his military stint that Carlin pursued his comedy dreams—see one of his funniest jokes here.
Not simply a debonair leading man on the silver screen, Humphrey Bogart also enlisted in the U.S. Navy. He was wounded during his service in World War I, allegedly by a shard of flying shrapnel, which gave him the scar on his lip and his signature lisp.
After serving for years and being honorably discharged, he pursued an acting career—and we’re grateful, because otherwise he would never have starred in Casablanca, one of the best romantic movies of all time.
We pity the fool who didn’t know Mr. T served in the military. Born Laurence Tureaud but widely known as tough-talking “Mr. T,” he enlisted in the Army in the 1970s, serving in the Military Police Corps. He was even elected Top Trainee of the Cycle out of 6,000 troops, earning the title of Squad Leader.
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We know Chuck Norris for his impressive martial arts skills and film work, but those moves were first learned while serving in the U.S. military. Norris joined the Air Force in 1958 and was stationed in South Korea, which was where he learned martial arts. Later, he returned to the States to serve at March Air Force Base before being discharged in 1962.
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Johnny Cash, born Sam Phillips, was a member of the U.S. Air Force and found himself stationed in Germany (incidentally, this is also where he purchased his first guitar!). We suppose you could say his time spent in the armed forces helped shape his future music career. His boyhood home in Arkansas is arguably the most famous in the state.
It’s hard to picture musician Jimi Hendrix as anything other than the rock god he was, but he was once a member of the Army too. He enlisted in 1961 and was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division. Stationed at Kentucky’s Fort Campbell, Hendrix served for just a year before being discharged because of an injury.
He went on to play an iconic rendition of the National Anthem at Woodstock just a few years later. In case you didn’t know, he’s also one of the most famous left-handed people.
Musician and actor Kris Kristofferson served in the Army from 1960 to 1964, ending with the rank of Captain. A member of the 8th Infantry Division, he served as a helicopter pilot in Germany. Though offered a teaching position at West Point, Kristofferson turned down the opportunity to focus on his music career.
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Thank you for being a friend—and for your service, Bea Arthur. The Golden Girls star served in the Marine Corps as a truck driver, she was one of the first members of the Women’s Reserve and she worked as a typist as well. Arthur (real name: Bernice Frankel) enlisted in 1943 at the age of 21.
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The Price Is Right host Drew Carey is known for cracking jokes and overall funny business, but he took his six years in the Marine Corps Reserve seriously. Carey looks back on those days fondly, and he’s quoted in an interview with Time saying, “It instilled a great sense of discipline that I can call on when I need to.”
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Paul Newman served in the Navy for three years, from 1943 to 1946. Interestingly, he learned he was colorblind when he entered the Navy’s V-12 pilot training program. Because of this, he went to basic training instead and was then stationed at Barber’s Point in Hawaii. Then, Newman was in a torpedo bomber squadron the Navy formed to train replacement pilots.
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Celebrated artist and television personality Bob Ross was a First Sergeant of the U.S. Air Force Clinic at Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska. Apparently it was his view from the base (with nothing to see but miles and miles of trees, mountains and running water) that inspired Ross to begin drawing.
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At the age of 17, Mel Brooks enlisted in the Army (the year was 1944). He ranked high in intelligence testing and because of this was enrolled in the elite Army Specialized Training Program. Not long after Brooks shipped off to Europe, assigned to the 1104th Engineer Combat Group, he served in the Battle of the Bulge. He was discharged as a corporal and then went on to work as a comedy writer.
The late-night talk show king enlisted in the U.S. Navy at the start of WWII. Though he wanted to train to be a pilot, Johnny Carson instead received midshipman training at Columbia University. Stationed to the U.S.S. Pennsylvania, he was actually on his way to combat when the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the war.
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Before she became a Food Network personality, Sunny Anderson served in the Air Force, working as a radio broadcaster in South Korea and San Antonio. Having grown up in a military family, she was keenly aware of the different opportunities available to those in the armed forces.
“I knew that there were radio stations, television stations, newspapers and magazines for the military, by the military—and I wanted to be a part of that,” Anderson told ABC News.
Drafted in 1944, Tony Bennett is a WWII veteran. As a member of the Army, he spent time in the 63rd Infantry Division stationed in France and Germany. His unit was primarily responsible for cleaning up the Battle of the Bulge, and he noted he “saw things no human being should ever have to see.” Not surprisingly, he also performed with a military band while serving.
Johnny Carson’s late-night sidekick Ed McMahon also enlisted to serve in WWII, however the war ended before he was deployed overseas. When the 1950s rolled around, McMahon served in the Korean War with the Marines. He was an F-9 Panther pilot, flying 85 combat missions. He ended his military career as a colonel.
Talk show host Montel Williams served in both the Marines and the Navy. “In the nearly three decades since I retired from the Navy, I’ve never really taken the uniform off because standing up for those who are serving now and those who have served has been the greatest honor of my professional career,” says Williams, who hosted a show called Military Makeover for Lifetime.
One of the many celebrities on this list who enlisted in 1944, Playboy founder Hugh Hefner joined the Army that year. He served as an infantry clerk and illustrated cartoons for Army newspapers (proving publishing was always in his blood). In 1946, Hefner was honorably discharged.
Television icon Tom Selleck served with the California National Guard for six years after being drafted for the Vietnam War. After he was discharged, the actor continued to appear in recruiting campaigns for the military.
In an interview with Impacting Our Future, Selleck advocated for hiring veterans when they return from service: “The responsibility and training our veterans are getting makes them the most employable, the best hire you can possibly have.”
Before he became Kylo Ren in the latest Star Wars flicks, Adam Driver served our country in the military and today has a charity called Arts in the Armed Forces. Driver even credits his time as a Marine with helping to prepare him for the entertainment industry.
Funnyman Rob Riggle enlisted as a Marine in 1990. In an interview with Task & Purpose, he shared a little about what it means to be a veteran. “After 23 years in the service I feel very connected to the military and very connected to veterans,” he said. “I love this country, and I still want to continue to serve. I might not be able to wear the uniform anymore, but I can do other things to help be part of something bigger than myself, which is working on veterans issues.”
Navy veteran Kirk Douglas’s primary unit was the Submarine Chasers, where he served from 1943 to 1944. Douglas (born Izzy Demsky) enlisted just after the start of WWII and was medically discharged in 1944 after being diagnosed with chronic amoebic dysentery, a condition problematic in areas with subpar sanitation that contaminates food and drinking water.
After he graduated from Fordham University, actor Alan Alda joined the Army Reserve. As one of the stars of M*A*S*H, Alda could draw from the six months he served in the Korean War for his role. The show followed a mobile army surgical hospital unit during that same war.
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Bob Barker’s military career got off to an interesting start. The game show host enlisted in the Navy in 1942 but finished out his time at Drury College before reporting for active duty. Trained to be an aviator in WWII, Barker was deployed in 1945 just as the Japanese surrendered, thus ending the war. Though fully skilled with his newfound piloting knowledge, he never actually went into battle.
Wheel of Fortune host Pat Sajak served in the Army during the Vietnam War, working as a deejay with Armed Forces Radio.
“I used to feel a bit guilty about my relatively soft duty,” he told Military.com. “After all, I was billeted in a hotel and there were plenty of nice restaurants around. But I always felt a little better when I met guys who came into town from the field and thanked us for bringing them a little bit of home. I always thought it strange that they should be thanking me, given what so many of them were going through on a daily basis.”
Hailing from a village in the Bahamas, Sidney Poitier made his way to the United States as an impoverished teen. Without any money, he enlisted in the Army during WWII, at the age of 16, after convincing them he was actually 18 years old. The future Best Actor Academy Award winner served as a physiotherapist for nearly a year before being discharged.
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Before his 1980s and 1990s hits “U Can’t Touch This” and “2 Legit 2 Quit,” the hip-hop (and dance) legend and slang originator, born Stanley Kirk Burrell, served in the U.S. Navy for three years after a short stint in community college. He served in both Japan and California as a Petty Officer Third Class Aviation Store Keeper—maybe that’s where he got the idea for the parachute pants.
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Though you’ve seen her starring in “Stranger Things,” “NCIS,” “Mysteries Decoded” and countless other shows, actress Jennifer Marshall also served in the U.S. Navy from age 17 to 22. During her service, she was an aircraft handler, a forklift operator, a logistics specialist, a member of the security defense force and—most important, according to the proud vet—worked for the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt’s Sexual Assault Victim Intervention program.
If you loved learning about these famous veterans, find out all the things America’s troops want you to know.
- The Hollywood Reporter: “5 Actors You Didn’t Know Are Veterans”
- The Washington Post: “Sixty years ago, Elvis Presley was drafted into the Army. He was never the same.”
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: “Navy Veteran Paul Newman”
- Biography: “How Bob Ross’s Time in the Air Force Inspired His Paintings”
- U.S. Department of Defense: “Actor, Comedian Mel Brooks Served in Army in World War II”
- ABC News: “Sunny Anderson, from Air Force to Food Network Star”
- PBS: “The time Tony Bennett ‘… saw things no human being should ever have to see.’”
- Military.com: “Famous Veterans: Pat Sajak”
- Veterans Advantage: “HeroVet: Sidney Poitier”
- Military.com: “4 Surprising Celebrity Veterans”
- JenniferMarshall.com: “Military Service”