These ten celebrities are famous, they’ve gone on to great things, and they all have one thing in common: they served in the U.S. military. Some of them made use of military education benefits to further their careers. Others used their experiences in uniform as the springboard for a life in the spotlight. Join us now for a countdown of 10 well-known military veterans.
10. George Carlin
“So I do have this ambivalence. Obviously I’m against militaries, because of what militaries do. In many ways though, the Air Force was unmilitary-like. They dropped bombs on people, but…they had a golf course.”
Controversial, outspoken and above all funny, George Carlin stands as one of the comedy greats, but given his well-known anti-establishment perspective, it might come as a surprise that he is a also a veteran. After dropping out of high school in 1954, Carlin joined the Air Force to use the GI Bill to cover the costs of broadcasting school. He was trained as a radar technician, and was stationed in Barksdale Air Force Base in Bossier City, Louisiana.
Looking back on his service, Carlin was proud to have been generally discharged instead of dishonorably discharged. He was deemed an unproductive Airman and court martialed three times. As a more constructive outlet for his biting comedy, he worked as a disc jockey for the KJOE radio station while on active duty. Despite his troubles in the service, his work at KJOE helped him jump to other opportunities in the entertainment industry. After working in broadcast for a short while, he moved to California where he found success in television on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Tonight Show” and later, enduring fame as a cutting-edge comedian. One of the more memorable bits from his later career concerned PTSD, as he decried how the military had taken a simple, succinct term (shell shock) and over time had sanitized it into its current form (post-traumatic stress disorder).
9. Steve McQueen
“It was all very pleasant just lying in the sun and watching the girls go by, but one day I suddenly felt bored with hanging around and went and joined the Marines.”
Steve McQueen’s legacy as the “King of Cool” began early — born to a stunt pilot and an alleged alcoholic prostitute, he had a tumultuous childhood which led him to cultivate his rebel image, which would persist throughout his career. After drifting from job to job, he decided to join the Marines in 1947. He was promoted to Private First Class and served with an armored unit, but he was demoted back to private seven times. His rebellious nature came to a head when he let a weekend pass turn into a two week tryst with his girlfriend. Shore patrol apprehended him, but he resisted and spent 41 days in the brig; the first 21 were spent living off of bread and water.
His time in the brig helped reform him. Later his unit was performing a training exercise in the Arctic which turned disastrous. The ship McQueen, his unit, and their tanks had boarded hit a sandbank, which threw several tanks and their crews into the water. Many drowned immediately, unable to get out of their tanks, but McQueen jumped in and saved the lives of five men.
In recognition of his actions, McQueen was chosen to partake in the Honor Guard protecting Harry S. Truman’s yacht. McQueen stayed with the Marines until 1950 when he was honorably discharged. “The Marines gave me discipline I could live with. By the time I got out, I could deal with things on a more realistic level. All in all, despite my problems, I liked my time in the Marines,” McQueen said.
After leaving the Marines, McQueen used money earned through the GI Bill to study acting at Sanford Meisner’s Neighborhood Playhouse. His career was prolific — he starred in numerous roles and maintained his star status up until his untimely death in 1980.
“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.”
Sometimes people join the military for purely practical or financial reasons — count actor and musician Ice-T among them. After a rough-and-tumble upbringing in South Los Angeles, Ice-T was struggling to support his girlfriend and daughter, and decided to join the Army for the financial benefits. He served four years in the 25th Infantry Division. Early in his career, he was part of a group that stole an infantry rug and subsequently deserted. After a month, once the rug had been recovered, Ice-T returned and received a non-judicial punishment, which allowed him to complete Advanced Infantry Training.
During his deployment in Hawaii, Ice-T served as a squad leader at Schofield Barracks. According to his memoir, it was here that he purchased stereo equipment, including turntables, a mixer, and speakers. At one point during his career, a sergeant told Ice-T that he was serving in the army because he couldn’t survive on his own in the civilian world. Despite the sergeant’s claim, Ice-T utilized his time in the army to build financial stability, hone his skills, and launch a career in entertainment.
7. Humphrey Bogart
The man who became a legend playing hard-bitten private eyes and soulful outlaws had a troubled background: born into a successful family, Humphrey Bogart was expected to attend Yale but ended up losing interest in school and dropping out. Instead of attending a different school or looking for a civilian job, Bogart enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1918. It’s been recorded that Bogart was a model sailor, and spent most of his career ferrying troops between the U.S. and Europe. In 1919, Bogart transferred from the Leviathan to the USS Santa Olivia. He missed the ship when it sailed for Europe, and he turned himself in to the Navy port authority. Due to his prompt action, Bogart was not listed as a deserter and was recorded as being AWOL for which he was punished with three days of solitary confinement, and allowed nothing but bread and water to eat.
Despite the infraction, he was honorably discharged on June 18th, 1919 with the rank of seaman second class with a 3.0 performance rating in proficiency and 4.0 in sobriety and obedience.When Bogart returned home, he found that his values had grown independently of his family. Although he was still articulate, polite, and hard-working, he he detested pretension and snobbery. He rebelled and worked as a shipper, then bond salesman, and eventually joined the Naval Reserve. Through a childhood friend, he worked his way into show business, and eventually his roles veered towards tough-guy heroes and gangsters, which became a guidepost for the rest of his career. He would go on to star in classics such as “The Maltese Falcon” and “Casablanca,” and win an Academy Award for Best Actor in “The African Queen.” He was also able to draw upon his naval experience when he played unstable Captain Queeg in one of his final films, “The Caine Mutiny.”
6. Morgan Freeman
“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.”
Sometimes being in the military helps determine what you want to be in life — even if it means not being in the military. Talented young Morgan Freeman was so in love with the idea of flying that he joined the U.S. Air Force in 1955 instead of accepting a scholarship for drama from Jackson State University. Eventually, he got the chance to train as a fighter pilot, but as soon as he sat in the cockpit of what he thought would be his dream job, he felt like he was “sitting in the nose of a bomb,” as he told AARP magazine. “I had this very clear epiphany… You are not in love with this; you are in love with the idea of this.” Freeman didn’t hesitate to act on his gut instinct, and left the Air Force in 1959.
It would be a long, hard road to stardom for Freeman, as he acted for over twenty years on stage before gaining fame on television in the soap opera “Another World” and the long-running children’s program “The Electric Company.” Freeman went on to act in prominent supporting roles, and later as a star in such movies as “The Shawshank Redemption,” “Seven,” and “Unforgiven.”
5. Chuck Norris
“Before the President of the United States can declare war, Congress must have permission from Chuck Norris.”
The world-champion martial artist is a movie and television star, and has spawned a whole industry around “Chuck Norris facts” (for example: “Chuck Norris doesn’t breathe, he holds the air hostage”). Yet it might not have come about had he not decided to join the Air Force after high school. Aiming for a career in law enforcement, he joined the USAF security police, and while stationed in Korea, he realized one night on duty that he couldn’t arrest a rowdy drunk without pulling his weapon. As a result, he started studying some of the local Korean martial arts, including Tang Soo Do and Tae Kwan Do, and became the first Westerner to be awarded an eighth-degree Black Belt in Tae Kwan Do. He held the world middleweight karate champion title for six years, and was named Black Belt magazine’s “Fighter of the Year” in 1969. He founded 32 martial arts schools, and was actor and fellow veteran Steve McQueen’s karate teacher.
McQueen encouraged Norris to go into acting, and after gaining attention as Bruce Lee’s opponent in “Way of the Dragon,” he starred in such films as “Good Guys Wear Black,” “Delta Force” and “Missing in Action.” He also starred in the long-running TV series “Walker, Texas Ranger.” Norris has used his success to give back to the military community, serving as a spokesman on behalf of the Veterans Administration and hospitalized veterans. On March 28, 2007, Commandant Gen. James T. Conway made Norris an honorary United States Marine.
4. Mr. T
“When you find a really tough guy, he’s not a predator. He doesn’t have to prove himself. Guys who have to pretend to be tough, they ain’t. I’m tough.”
Before he nearly pounded Rocky Balboa into submission in Rocky III, and went on to fame as B.A. Baracus on the hit TV show A-Team, Mr. T was a member of the biggest team of them all — the U.S. Army. Originally known as Laurence Tureaud, Mr. T served in the Army’s Military Police Corps in the mid-70s. In November 1975 he was awarded a letter of recommendation by his drill sergeant, and in a cycle of six thousand troops he was elected “Top Trainee of the Cycle” and promoted to Squad Leader. In July 1976 his platoon sergeant punished him by giving him the detail of chopping down trees during training camp at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin, but the sergeant did not specify how many trees that were to be cut down — so Tureaud single-handedly chopped down over 70 trees in the span of three and a half hours before being relieved of the detail.
After his discharge from the Army, Tureaud tried out for the NFL’s Green Bay Packers but failed to make the team because of a knee injury. However, his Army police training served him well in his next job, as a bouncer at Chicago nightclubs, where he began cultivating his ultra-tough “Mr. T” persona (the famous gold chains he wears were a result of picking up discarded jewelry from the nightclub every night). Perhaps the first “celebrity bodyguard,” and certainly one of the most famous, Mr. T eventually found fame in the movies and TV, and currently lives in L.A.
3. Johnny Cash
“That was the big thing when I was growing up, singing on the radio. The extent of my dream was to sing on the radio station in Memphis. Even when I got out of the Air Force in 1954, I came right back to Memphis and started knocking on doors at the radio station.”
The legendary country performer is known as the “Man in Black,” but he was also a man in Air Force blues. Fresh out of high school in 1950, Cash joined the Air Force as the Korean War began, and spent most of his four-year enlistment in Germany. Perhaps not surprisingly for a man with music in his veins, Cash was handy when it came to the rhythms of Morse code, and served as an intercept operator with the USAF Security Service.
It could be argued that if weren’t for the military, we might never have known who Johnny Cash was — coming from a poor background, he was only able to scrounge enough money together to buy a guitar once he started receiving military pay. He purchased his first guitar at the Base Exchange while stationed in Germany, and the rest is history, as they say. He also formed his first band while in the Air Force (the Landsberg Barbarians) and upon his discharge he used his GI Bill benefits to attend a radio-announcing course at a broadcasting school in Memphis.
Although Cash’s reputation as an outspoken, hard-living rebel has overshadowed his time in service, he never forgot about where he came from, and years later, he met a young Army captain named Kris Kristofferson, who he helped become a country superstar in his own right.
2. Clint Eastwood
I was drafted during the Korean War. None of us wanted to go… It was only a couple of years after World War II had ended. We said, ‘Wait a second? Didn’t we just get through with that?'”
Long before Eastwood dared anyone to make his day as Dirty Harry, he served in the Army as a swimming instructor at Ft. Ord. As fate (and luck) would have it, his swimming skills would come in handy: one time when he was hitching a ride aboard a Navy torpedo bomber, the plane developed engine trouble and was forced to ditch in San Francisco Bay. Eastwood swam over a mile through the tide to shore, foreshadowing his own character’s watery trials in “Escape from Alcatraz.”
After his discharge in 1953, Eastwood attended L.A. City College and studied drama under the GI Bill. From humble origins in the movie business (he started on a $75-a-week contract with Universal Studios), he eventually found international fame in “spaghetti” westerns, the Dirty Harry series, and as an Oscar-winning director.
1. Elvis Presley
“The Army teaches boys to think like men.”
It seems only fair that the man known as “the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll” should be the king of this list. Drafted by the U.S. Army just as he was experiencing a rise to stardom seldom seen before or since in popular music, Presley didn’t shirk from his duty and found himself trading in his leather jacket for combat fatigues. He entered the Army as a regular GI at Ft. Chaffee on March 24, 1958. As his famously tousled hair was shaved down to regulation length, he cracked, “Hair today, gone tomorrow.” His induction was a major event, with hundreds of overlookers and media there to witness it.
Elvis was stationed at Ft. Hood for Basic Training and was assigned to the Second Armored Division’s ‘Hell On Wheels’ unit. Later he was assigned to the Third Armored ‘Spearhead’ Division, and stationed in Friedberg, Germany — it was here that he met Priscilla Beaulieu, who would eventually become his wife. During his time in Texas and Germany, Elvis kept a low profile, although he was already wealthy enough to bring his father and grandmother to live with him off-base.
By the time he finished his Army stint, Elvis had been promoted to sergeant, and he was honorably discharged from active duty on March 5, 1960 at Fort Dix, receiving a mustering-out check of $109.54. Just prior to his exit, Elvis reflected on his experiences in an interview for Armed Forces Radio and Television: “I was in a funny position. Actually, that’s the only way it could be. People were expecting me to mess up, to goof up in one way or another. They thought I couldn’t take it and so forth, and I was determined to go to any limits to prove otherwise, not only to the people who were wondering, but to myself.”
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