11 Hollywood Stars Who Served in the Military

8:15 AM 5/27/2019

by Kristin Vartan

Elvis Presley, Bea Arthur, James Earl Jones and Adam Driver are just some of the famous faces who've been a part of the Armed Forces.

From left: Elvis Presley, Bea Arthur, James Earl Jones and Adam Driver
From left: Elvis Presley, Bea Arthur, James Earl Jones and Adam Driver
Photofest (2); Getty Images (2)

It’s not just casting calls that Hollywood stars respond to, but Uncle Sam’s too. 

Stars who have served in the military are just like the other 20.4 million American veterans: At one point in their lives, they either were drafted or volunteered to serve their country. Some of these public figures have even taken the skills they’ve learned in training or combat to their careers as actors, singers and comedians. Chuck Norris has been able to perform his own stunts in films because of his time in the military — and even prepare other actors for action on film. Star Wars star Adam Driver saw the correlations between the two professions so strongly that he started a nonprofit that combined them. But even further than physical training, some actors have applied their emotional growth from their time in service to their time on screen. 

“The military and theater communities are actually very similar: You have a group of people trying to accomplish a mission greater than themselves,” Driver said during his TED Talk. “It’s not about you. You have a role, and you have to know the role in that team.”

From Norris and Driver to Bea Arthur and Morgan Freeman, here are 11 stars who have served in the military.

  • Bea Arthur

    Years of service: 1943-45

    CBS/Photofest

    The late Golden Girls (1985-92) star was one of the primary comrades of the Women's Reserve in the Marines when she enlisted in 1943. In her military roles (as she would later be in her acting roles), she was reportedly a force to be reckoned with: "officious — but probably a good worker — if she has in own way," according to military.com. After rising in the ranks as a sergeant and staff sergeant, Arthur left the military and had a successful Broadway career. She took her Tony Award-winning skills from the stage to the screen as Cousin Maude in the '70s hit sitcom All in the Family and its spinoff, Maude, and became one of the stars (with Betty White, Estelle Getty and Rue McClanahan) of The Golden Girls.

  • Harry Belafonte

    Years of service: 1943-45

    Sean Gallup/Getty Images

    Lifetime achievements include reaching EGOT-winning (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony) status and serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, according to CNN. It was the G.I. Bill that funded the singer-actor's education at The New School for Social Research in New York. After performing at jazz clubs, he took his performance skills into his breakout film role in Bright Road (1953), according to Military Hub. From there, he went on to star in films like Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), Kansas City (1996) and Bobby (2006). In between motion pictures, he made Grammy-winning records — and became known as the "King of Calypso" — and progressed the Civil Rights movement forward alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and John Kennedy. He is currently a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, according to CNN, and appears in TV shows like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

  • Kirk Douglas

    Years of service: 1943-44

    Courtesy of Photofest

    Douglas fought for his country during World War II, following his Broadway performance in Spring Again and ahead of his screen-acting career, according to CNN. Two years after his service, the actor did his first film, The Strange Loves of Martha Ivers (1946), opposite Barbara Stanwyck. From there, he became the film icon he is known as today: starring in classics like Spartucus (1960), The Vikings 1958) and Lust for Life (1956).

  • Adam Driver

    Year of service: 2001

    Adam Driver
    Adam Driver
    Amanda Edwards/Getty Images

    Before he joined the dark side as Kylo Ren in Star Wars, Adam Driver joined the Marine Corps following 9/11. His time in service was cut short after a mountain-biking accident. Driver injured his sternum prior to his deployment to Iraq. Instead, he was discharged and decided to reapply to Julliard, which he was rejected from before joining the Marines: "There's something about going into the military and having all of your identity and possessions stripped away: that whole clarity of purpose thing," Driver told The Guardian about his time in the military. "It becomes very clear to you, when you get your freedom back, that there's stuff you want to do." He was accepted to the prestigious performing arts institution, where he met his future wife, Joanne Tucker, and rekindled his relationship with his first love — acting, according to The Guardian. Eventually, he landed his breakout role opposite Lena Dunham in HBO's Girls (2012-17). He recently was nominated for an Oscar for playing Flip Zimmerman in BlaKkKlansman (2018), and he is gearing up for his third run as Kylo Ren in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019). Despite his flourishing acting career, his time in the military stayed with him: he founded and still runs nonprofit "Arts in the Armed Forces," which brings professional stage productions straight to military servicemen and women, according to military.com.

     

  • Clint Eastwood

    Years of service: 1951-53

    Clint Eastwood
    Clint Eastwood
    Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for AFI

    Following high school and the Great Depression, Eastwood was drafted into the Army during the Korean War. His years of service were spent as a lifeguard while stationed in Ft. Ord, California. Thanks to the G.I. Bill, he was able to attend drama school at L.A. City College. He caught the attention of Universal Studios and signed a contract that launched his career in Western films, according to military.com. From Francis in the Navy (1955) and Revenge of the Creature (1955), he became a Hollywood icon known for Sudden Impact and Unforgiven, for which he won an Oscar. He also became a Hollywood triple-threat as a director, actor and producer, winning Oscars for all of those roles.

  • Morgan Freeman

    Years of service: 1955-59

    Morgan Freeman
    Morgan Freeman
    Greg Doherty/Getty Images

    Before his award-winning career, Freeman enlisted in the Air Force and trained to be a fighter pilot. That aspiration for aviation did, however, come to a crash landing. He told AARP Magazine he was "only in love with the idea" of flying and had this "distinct feeling that he was sitting in the nose of a bomb" when inside the cockpit of a plane, according to military.com. He left the military after four years to pursue his original passion: acting. Two decades of dedicated stage acting later, Freeman landed his breakthrough role on soap opera Another World and eventually became a blockbuster regular after 1994's Shawshank Redemption.

  • Zulay Henao

    Years of service: unclear

    Amanda Edwards/Getty Images

    Fighting (2009) and Boy Wonder (2010) are not her first brushes with combat. The Single Mom's Club (2014) star went straight into the Army following high school for three years. She discharged from service to pursue a her acting career. She then honed her performing skills at the New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts, according to Insider, and went on to appear in a long line of films and television shows like Army Wives (2007) and Takers (2010) with Idris Elba. She is set to star in Meet the Blacks 2: The House Next Door later this year.

  • James Earl Jones

    Years of service: 1953-62

    James Earl Jones
    James Earl Jones
    Kevin Winter/Getty Images

    Adam Driver was not the first Star Wars villain to come from a military background. James Earl Jones, who is renowned for his role voicing Darth Vader, joined the Army during the Korean War. He was well on his way to a lifelong career in the military, proceeding from second lieutenant to first lieutenant while training comrades in Colorado. After some self-reflection, he decided to leave the military in lieu of a successful television, film and theater career, according to military.com. One might think that his distinctively imperious voice (it's hard to believe he ever had a stutter) would have served him well as a commanding officer, but then the greater public would not have experienced his talents as Mufasa in Disney's The Lion King (1994 and 2019), Darth Vader in the Star Wars franchise and as King Jaffre Joffer in Coming to America (1988 and the sequel in 2020, according to IDMb).

  • Chuck Norris

    Years of service: 1958-62

    Chuck Norris
    Chuck Norris
    Gilbert Carrasquillo/Getty Images

    He joined the Air Force after high school before he became an action film force of nature. While in Korea, Norris got exposed to the world of martial arts, such "chops" that prepared him for roles like Way of the Dragon (1972, opposite Bruce Lee) and one of his starring roles, Walker, Texas Ranger (1993-2001). He was the first western man to earn an eighth-degree Black Belt in Tae Kwan Do, according to military.com. From student to master, he spent his years after being discharged from the military training actors like Priscilla Presley and Steve McQueen in the martial arts. McQueen convinced Norris to pursue acting, which led to a flourishing career in television and film.

  • Elvis Presley

    Years of service: 1958-60

    Elvis Presley
    Elvis Presley
    Getty Images

    The King of Rock briefly traded in his "Blue Suede Shoes" and iconic haircut for a shorter one and an Army uniform when he was drafted in 1957. He entered the Army in 1958. His era as an Army sergeant served as the threshold between Elvis in his prime and "Mature Elvis." One of his military comrades did introduce him to the drugs that may have been responsible for his death, and his addiction coincided with his return to a rock 'n' roll realm that was different than the one he remembered.

  • Tom Selleck

    Years of service: 1967-73

    Tom Selleck
    Tom Selleck
    Noam Galai/Getty Images

    The Blue Bloods star has spent most of his acting career protecting civilians as a private investigator or a chief of police, but there was a time when he was protecting his country in real life. Selleck's time signed to 20th Century Fox's talent program was interrupted when he received a call to arms during the Vietnam War. He became a sergeant in the California Army National Guard. His side gig as a model during his days at USC came in handy when the National Guard decided to make Selleck the star of its recruitment posters, according to military.com. However, Fox fired Selleck when he returned to Hollywood. His career propelled forward 11 years later when he was cast as the star of Magnum P.I (1980-88). Since then the veteran has recurred in many prominent TV shows and movies, including Friends (from 1996-2000) and Jesse Stone, and he currently leads the NYPD in CBS' Blue Bloods (2010-present). A 10th Jesse Stone television film has also been announced, according to IMDb.

    An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Elvis Presley served in the Navy and listed his years of service as running from 1957-1960. Presley served in the Army and while he was drafted in 1957, he didn't begin his service until 1958.