20 Movie Icons You Didn’t Know Were in the Military

By  · Published on May 27th, 2013

I’d be willing to bet that you didn’t know Bela Lugosi was actually Lt. Lugosi of the Austro-Hungarian Army. He’s just one of many Hollywood legends who served in the military, and on this Memorial Day, I think it’s fitting that we take a look at 20 movie icons that you might not have realized had careers in the Air Force, Army, Navy, Coast Guard or Marines.

A few of these names won’t be all that surprising, but most will make you look twice. Some of them had illustrious careers in horror, others as dancers, still others as directors and producers. Comedy, drama, westerns, war movies (oddly enough), science fiction, and romance – all major genres are represented here. The bond that these men (and one woman) shared was that before (or during) their stellar careers on the silver screen, they strapped on a uniform and reported for duty.

This list concludes our week long Boots on the Ground countdown to Memorial Day. Now go out, have a moment of silence, and then toss a few steaks on the grill.

Flt. Lt. Donald Pleasance, Royal Air Force

Before trying to calm Michael Myers down or escaping from a POW camp in The Great Escape, Donald Pleasance was actually in a German POW camp. He flew in WWII with the 166 Squadron, RAF Bomber Command, and was captured after being shot down. Interestingly, he reportedly produced plays while imprisoned. There’s no word on whether he dealt with a masked psycho killer in real life, though.

Lt. Alan Alda, US Army Reserve

It’s impossible to think of Alan Alda without thinking of M.A.S.H. After a decade of being on a show that produced the single largest viewing audience of all time, it’s easy to see why he was a bit typecast. However, he joined the cast of the show with a bit of his own real life experience serving as a gunnery officer in Korea after the Korean War.

Col. Frank Capra, US Army

Before making It’s a Wonderful Life, Capra joined the Army and taught during WWI. He would go on to start building an unbelievable career in film which included You Can’t Take it With You, It Happened One Night, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and even after massive success, he would return for WWII. He used his expertise to create educational films for the War Department (including what some believe is a masterpiece of propaganda filmmaking) with the next entry on the list.

Lt. Col. Dr. Seuss, US Army

If you got a chance to read my write up of The Dark Side of Dr. Seuss (or were fortunate enough to see it yourself) then you already know that Theodor Geisel joined the Army and worked with Capra’s First Motion Picture Unit. There, he made educational cartoons featuring a bumbling private named Snafu and, like Capra, directed propaganda films. So, yes, it’s safe to assume that the Cat in the Hat was anti-Hitler.

HM Bill Cosby, US Navy

The man who gave us advice, made kids say the darndest things, and sold us pudding was also a Navy Hospital Corpsman. He worked with soldiers, marines and airmen severely injured in the Korean War. That’s right, everyone. Ghost Dad was in the military.

Humphrey Bogart, US Navy

Not only was Bogart in the Navy, he may owe his entire career to it. The stories are not exactly clear, but several different accounts tell of how the actor was injured doing his duty in such a way that left him with a scar you might recognize and a lisp that developed. Of course, like most things with Bogart, that could all be tall tales, but his military service isn’t.

Airman Chuck Norris, US Air Force

It may or may not be true that, at one time, Chuck Norris was the U.S. Air Force.

Lt. Col. David Niven, British Army

David Niven was terrible at being in the military during peace time. He was insubordinate, got arrested for it, got his guard drunk, and escaped to New York City to send a telegram back home announcing his resignation. Of course, when WWII started, he paused his budding film career to rejoin the Army, took part in the Invasion of Normandy, and eventually won the Legion of Merit – the highest honor the US bestows on foreign servicemen.

Rod Serling, US Army Air Force

The master of science fiction and creator of The Twilight Zone was apparently so eager to get to war that he enlisted in the army the day after graduating high school. He’s another example of a talent that was born from serving – citing that his time fighting in WWII (and earning a Purple Heart and Bronze Star) made him turn to writing.

Audrey Hepburn, Dutch Resistance

Hepburn wasn’t in the military, so I’m cheating here, but I couldn’t leave her off the list because 1) she raised money for the Dutch Resistance in WWII by performing ballet routines 2) was a volunteer nurse in a Dutch hospital which received many Allied wounded and 3) it was getting a little dude-centric in here.

Sean Connery, Royal Navy

Bond, James Bond was not only in the Navy, but he enlisted when he was 16 years old and spent 3 years of service right after WWII.

Lt. James Doohan, Royal Canadian Army

What you may not know about the Chief Engineer of the USS Enterprise is that before he beamed anyone up, he was a complete bad ass. After joining the Army, his first mission was the D-Day invasion of Normandy and was shot six times by a machine gun (and saved by a silver cigarette case). He then trained as a pilot and went on to be called “the craziest pilot in the Canadian Air Forces.” I have no idea how one earns that nickname, but it’s clear that Doohan’s service was impressive – crazy or not.

Clint Eastwood, US Army

Like many men his age after WWII, Eastwood was drafted into the Army. Luckily for him, it was a major turning point in his life. He taught life-saving at Fort Ord where he encountered several film stars who convinced him to move to Los Angeles and become an actor. It was Chuck Hill, a man stationed at Fort Ord with Eastwood that would later introduce him to contacts at Universal.

Don Knotts, US Army

So you might have heard that Don Knotts was a hard ass drill sergeant in the marines, but that’s just an urban legend. In truth, Knotts was drafted into the Army in 1943, but he never fought. Instead, the military saw fit to use his special talents by having him entertain troops throughout the Pacific.

Lt. Alec Guinness, Royal Navy

There was no way I’d include someone from Star Trek without including someone from Star Wars. I couldn’t afford the fines. Fortunately, Obi-Wan himself was an officer in the Royal Navy during WWII. Before becoming obsessed with building a bridge on the river Kwai and becoming a Jedi Master, he commanded a vessel which took part in the invasion Sicily and Elba island.

Jack Palance, US Army Air Force

Modern audiences remember him as Curly but film fans know him as the scariest-looking villain to ever grace a Western. Unfortunately, that iconic, rugged look came from a tragic crash Palance was involved in while training with a B-24 Liberator. He was discharged in 1944, and would later head out to try his luck in show business. Luckily, he’d already changed his name from Vladamir Palahniuk to Jack Palance years before which undoubtedly helped his casting chances.

Michael Caine, British Army

After a giant career, Michael Caine has burst back into the mainstream spotlight helping out Batman, but before all of that, he served from 1952–1954, seeing active duty in Korea with the Royal Fusiliers.

Lt. Kirk Douglas, US Navy

The man who would later appear in Kubrick’s anti-war Paths of Glory (and, of course, The Final Countdown) was in the Navy during WWII. Douglas was with an anti-submarine patrol in the Pacific but was injured in 1944 and subsequently discharged. Of course, almost immediately after, he caught a big break in his acting career that would make him one of the best known stars of that generation.

Lt. Gene Kelly, US Navy

It’s hard to imagine the all-singing, all-dancing Gene Kelly storming the beaches of Normandy, which is good, because he didn’t. However, he did serve his country proudly by joining the Navy and writing/directing several documentaries while based in Washington, DC.

Cpl. Mel Brooks, US Army

This is the most surprising name on the list. Mel Brooks is the consummate comedian, a man who has made millions laugh with some of the funniest films ever made. But before writing “Springtime for Hitler,” he was in the Army during WWII. He joined up at 17 and was set to work defusing landmines. Later, he would fight in the famous Battle of the Bulge.

Editor’s Note: There are a ton of movie stars and directors who served in the military (including even more who served their home countries while building a career in Hollywood). For a fairly extensive list, go here. And be sure to celebrate war films by reading our Boots on the Ground entries.

Update: We first posted this back on Memorial Day of 2010, but a week ago, I got an email from reader Alo K. who noted that I hadn’t represented the US Coast Guard that well. He’s right. Here’s a great list of celebrities that have served the Coast Guard, and here are a few notable movie icons who’ve sung “Semper Paratus”:

Happy Memorial Day, everyone. Let’s all take a moment to remember those who died serving.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector [email protected] | Writing short stories at Adventitious.