100 actors who served in the military
100 actors who served in the military
Actors have long tried to give audiences a taste of the realities of war and military service since the earliest days of the motion picture industry. But if called upon to portray a member of the Armed Forces on screen, many actors could draw from their own life experience. Some of history's biggest stars served their countries in times of war and peace. Some experienced combat, while others were stationed in friendly countries or at home.
From comedians and action stars to dramatic actors and television icons, here's a look at the stars who moved on from careers as servicemen to lives of fame. All branches of the military, including the Coast Guard, are represented on the list along with some actors from foreign countries. Most of the actors who served will be remembered not for their service in a foreign theater overseas, but for their films that filled seats in movie theaters back home. Some celebrities, such as Elvis Presley and Clint Eastwood, are well-known as having served in the military; others, like Adam Driver and Ice-T, are not as widely known for their service. Rather than shining a light on the hundreds of films depicting the military or war, today we're recognizing movie stars who served their country in real life. Keep reading to learn about 100 actors who served in the military.
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You know him from movies like "Dirty Harry," "Unforgiven," and "The Bridges of Madison County." But did you know actor and director extraordinaire Clint Eastwood was drafted into the Army during the Korean War? Eastwood lucked out and was assigned to a job as a swimming instructor at a base in California during the deadly conflict.
Martial arts legend and star of the big and small screens Chuck Norris is known for TV series like "Walker, Texas Ranger" and movies like the "Missing in Action" franchise. He was introduced to martial arts while serving in Korea with the Air Force and went on to become the first Westerner ever to be awarded an eighth-degree black belt in Korean fighting style taekwondo.
Mr. T will forever be remembered for portraying on-screen tough guys in movies like "Rocky III" and TV series like "The A-Team." After being expelled from high school, the man born Laurence Tureaud served in the Army as a military policeman. He was selected among 6,000 trainees for promotion to squad leader.
Steve McQueen of "Bullitt" and "The Great Escape" fame was also a Marine. He got off to a rocky start in the Corps, making trouble and spending time in the brig, where he was punished with rations of bread and water. But after heroically rescuing several men during a disastrous training exercise in the Arctic, he was given the honor of guarding President Harry Truman's yacht.
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With films like "Cool Hand Luke" and "The Color of Money" on his resume, the late Paul Newman is one of Hollywood's most celebrated actors. Although he joined the Navy's V-12 program in the hopes of becoming a pilot, his color blindness kept him out of the cockpit. He served on torpedo bombers and on the USS Bunker Hill in the Battle of Okinawa in 1945 and left the service a decorated veteran.
Few entertainers achieved greater success across more types of entertainment media than Bob Hope, the man NPR called "the most popular entertainer of the 20th century." But the film actor, TV star, stage performer, and comedian is probably best known for the decades he spent entertaining troops stationed overseas. Hope never actually served himself, but his long list of contributions and seemingly endless USO tours led Congress to enact H.J. Res. 75, which named Bob Hope an honorary veteran "for his lifetime of accomplishments and service on behalf of our men and women in uniform."
The world knows Charles Bronson as an unshakeable vigilante from the "Death Wish" series. But before the legendary macho man went on the attack on the big screen, he was on the attack in the skies over Europe. The first-generation American enlisted in the Army Air Force in 1943 and served as an aircraft gunner and Superfortress crewman. He flew dozens of missions and earned a Purple Heart after being wounded in action.
From "Airplane" to "The Untouchables," Robert Stack played memorable roles on both the big and small screens. He's also a World War II veteran who rose to the rank of lieutenant during his service in the Navy between 1942 and 1945.
With the possible exception of James Earl Jones, Morgan Freeman arguably has the most famous voice in Hollywood. The Oscar winner is a brilliant actor and narrator who counts acclaimed films like "The Shawshank Redemption," "Driving Miss Daisy," and "Glory" among his critical and commercial successes. He joined the Air Force in 1955 with dreams of being a pilot, but when he got a taste of it in training, he realized he didn't have the stomach for combat flight and pursued less dangerous work in film.
Before he played Kylo Ren in the most recent "Star Wars" series, Adam Driver acted in "Lincoln." Prior becoming a known name in Hollywood, the actor was a Marine. Like so many young people of his generation, Driver was swept up in patriotic fervor in the wake of 9/11. He was medically discharged after being injured in an unrelated accident.
From "Taxi Driver" and "Pulp Fiction" to "Reservoir Dogs" and "Thelma and Louise," Harvey Keitel has been playing tough, intense characters on screen for decades, dating all the way back to "Hogan's Heroes" in the 1960s. After being kicked out of high school at age 15, Brooklyn-born Keitel joined the Marines and served in Lebanon as part of an anti-communism force cobbled together by President Dwight Eisenhower.
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The phrase "Good morning, Vietnam!" was shouted by American radio DJs to the delight of servicemen throughout the war that made the on-air slogan famous. Among those DJs was longtime "Wheel of Fortune" host Pat Sajak, who joined the Army as a clerk typist with the rank of Spc. 5th class before his talents were recognized and he was ordered to entertain.
Richard Pryor is regarded as one of the most important and controversial stand-up comedians in history, and his talents translated to a career in Hollywood that included films like "Superman III" and "Brewster's Millions." But before he was a famous and groundbreaking showman, Pryor spent two years in the Army from 1958 to 1960.
In 1954, prior to becoming a legendary stand-up comedian, 17-year-old George Carlin joined the Air Force for the start of what would be a rocky military career. The notorious nonconformist was court-martialed three times before receiving a general discharge in 1957.
Dennis Franz scored small-screen gold with the role of Andy Sipowicz on the TV series "NYPD Blue." As a young man, Franz enlisted in the Army after college and experienced intense combat in Vietnam, where he served with the 82nd Airborne.
The late Gene Wilder had a long and accomplished career in show business, but he's best known for his role in "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory." Before he was famous, however, Wilder was drafted into the Army in 1956. He served as a medic at a U.S. Army hospital in the United States.
Mel Brooks is known worldwide for groundbreaking, irreverent, racially charged, and enduring comedies like "Spaceballs" and "Blazing Saddles," but his comedy career was preceded by combat service. Brooks grew up poor in New York City's Brooklyn borough and enlisted in the Army right out of high school. His high intelligence got him assigned to a specialized unit; he was sent to the front in Europe and fought in heavy combat, including the Battle of the Bulge.
Upon his death in 2010, "Some Like it Hot" actor Tony Curtis was buried with full military honors. The Navy sailor served in a submarine force in the Pacific theater during World War II. He took his experiences back to civilian life, starring in many films about war and the military throughout his career.
James Earl Jones
From "Star Wars" to "Field of Dreams," James Earl Jones is among the most recognizable actors in the world. As a young man, Jones entered the Army during the Korean War, but he remained in America supporting cold-weather training in Colorado. He attended Ranger School and was discharged as a first lieutenant.
Since Leonard Nimoy's service records were destroyed in a fire, no one knows for sure exactly when he entered the service. What is known is that the "Star Trek" actor enlisted in the Army Reserves in the early 1950s, was in charge of a platoon, and was discharged in 1955 with the rank of sergeant.
The late Charlton Heston was an Oscar winner and the star of epic films like "Ben-Hur." The longtime leading man was also a World War II veteran who flew several dangerous missions in the Eastern Front as part of the 77th Bombardment Squadron of the Eleventh Air Force.
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Although he has credits dating from the early 1950s to 2011, Don Knotts is best known for his memorable roles in "Three's Company" and "The Andy Griffith Show." He was discharged from the Army with the rank of technician fifth grade after serving his country in the 6817th Special Services Battalion from 1943-46.
Don Rickles died at the age of 90 in 2017, and the famously caustic comedian and actor continued to work almost right up until the end. With titles like "Kelly's Heroes" and "Casino" on his resume, Rickles started his career as a no-holds-barred comedian who hobnobbed with the likes of Frank Sinatra in the 1950s. During World War II, Rickles served in the Navy and saw combat in the Philippines.
Although he has more than 100 acting credits to his name, Art Carney is most famous for his role supporting Jackie Gleason in the pioneering television program "The Honeymooners." Carney was drafted as an infantryman right out of high school and served in World War II. He served in Normandy, was badly injured by a mortar round, and walked with a limp for the rest of his life.
Like so many men of his generation, "It's a Mad, Mad World" actor Buddy Hackett joined the service right out of high school to fight in World War II. Starting in 1942, he served as part of an anti-aircraft unit for three years until the war's end.
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With memorable roles in "Predator" and "The Running Man," Jesse Ventura rose to the top of the entertainment food chain—but he did the same as a pro wrestler (fans knew him as "The Body"), a politician (governor of Minnesota) and as a military man. He served in the Navy's Underwater Demolition Team, whose units were broken apart and attached to elite SEAL teams after Vietnam.
"Colors," "The Godfather," "The Natural," and "Falling Down" are just a few of the classics on Robert Duvall's resume. But the Academy Award-winning actor also comes from a long military family lineage that can be traced to Robert E. Lee. Duvall served in the Army during the Korean War. He didn't see action, but he began acting during that time, and the media frequently conflated his on-stage performances with actual wartime combat.
Gene Hackman dropped out of high school and lied about his age to join the Marines at the age of 16 and in 1947, he was sent to serve as a radio operator in China. A two-time Oscar winner, Hackman is one of the most prolific and enduring actors in Hollywood, with starring and supporting roles in classics like "The French Connection," "Hoosiers," and "Unforgiven."
Oliver Stone racked up nearly 20 acting credits over the course of his career, but he's best known as the director of Academy Award-winning movies like "Platoon" and "Born on the Fourth of July." While behind the camera during the filming of those war classics, he drew on his real-life experiences. Oliver Stone received two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star for his service in Vietnam after enlisting in the Army in 1967.
Known for playing no-nonsense, stone-faced, tough-guy characters in movies like "The Dirty Dozen," Lee Marvin portrayed cowboys, vigilantes, and military men on the screen. He had first-hand experience with the latter in real life. Marvin, who died in 1987, served in the Marines during World War II.
Far more than just an actor and comedian, longtime "The Tonight Show" host Johnny Carson was a show business icon who changed the way entertainment was delivered to the masses. He was also a Navy veteran who served during World War II shortly after graduating from high school.
Although he'll forever be known as the standard bearer host of "The Price is Right," Bob Barker proved his comedic acting chops with an unforgettable role as himself in Adam Sandler's "Happy Gilmore." Barker left college to train as a fighter pilot for the U.S. Naval Reserve in 1943, but World War II ended before he received an active duty assignment.
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Sammy Davis Jr.
Rat Pack icon Sammy Davis Jr. starred in films like "Sergeants 3" and "Oceans 11" as part of a legendary show business career that spanned genres and generations. That career was interrupted, however, in 1943 when he was drafted into the Army during World War II.
Born in 1908, Jimmy Stewart appeared in more than 80 movies over his long and storied career, but none more famous or beloved than "It's a Wonderful Life." The 1946 Christmas classic was Stewart's first film after leaving the U.S. Army Air Corp. Stewart halted his career to join the service in 1941, eventually reaching the rank of colonel by the end of the conflict.
The TV series "M*A*S*H" revolved around an Army hospital surgical unit whose members dealt with tragedy through laughter during the Korean War. Among the actors was an actual Korean War veteran, Jamie Farr, who received valuable training for his future Hollywood career while on duty. While in the service, he was tasked with making training films, writing scripts, and even touring with famed entertainer Red Skelton.
Jamie Farr was not the only Korean War veteran to star in "M*A*S*H." Co-star Alan Alda, who won five Emmys and was nominated for 20 more for his role as Hawkeye, served as a gunnery officer in the Army Reserve.
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Mike Farrell is yet another veteran of the show "M*A*S*H" who was also a military veteran. Farrell, who played Capt. B.J. Hunnicutt, served in the Army for two years around the time of the Korean War.
Academy Award-winner and longtime leading man Ernest Borgnine made his Broadway debut in 1949 before heading to Hollywood. After graduating from high school, he joined the Navy in 1935 and served for 10 years.
The son of Caribbean immigrants, Harry Belafonte is one of the most recognizable singers, actors, and civil rights activists in history. Before he ever studied drama, however, Belafonte dropped out of high school to enlist in the Navy in 1944.
Satirical comedic actor Bob Newhart appeared in movies like "Elf," "Horrible Bosses," and "Legally Blonde 2," but his name is on his most famous works, which were all on television. He was the namesake actor on sitcoms "The Bob Newhart Show," "Newhart," and "Bob." After graduating from college, Newhart was drafted to fight in the Korean War, where he saw combat during his Army service from 1952–'54.
Upon his death in 1992, the Telegraph referred to Benny Hill as "the world's most popular comedian." The paper backed up that bold claim with the fact that Hill's shows were broadcast into 100 countries, a feat even Charlie Chaplin never matched. The mind behind "The Benny Hill Show" served in the British Army as a driver-mechanic before his talent earned him a role as a military entertainer.
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The father of Rob Reiner, Carl Reiner was an American actor, comedian, director, screenwriter, and author. During World War II he served as a radio operator before studying to serve as a French translator. He then served as a teletype operator before joining a military entertainment unit.
Philadelphia native Sherman Hemsley dropped out of high school to join the Air Force and served for four years. His true career, however, would be on television. He played the role of the iconic sitcom character George Jefferson, who appeared not just on "The Jeffersons," but also on "ER," "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," "House of Payne," and "All in the Family."
Few child stars were as big as Jerry Mathers, who will be forever remembered in television history as the titular character on "Leave it to Beaver." Mathers played Theodore "Beaver" Cleaver from 1957–1963 after appearing in commercials from the age of two. After attending college, he joined the Air Force National Guard.
Hollywood legend Henry Fonda was best known for "The Grapes of Wrath" and "On Golden Pond," the latter of which he starred in alongside his daughter, Jane Fonda. He performed on stage and in films as early as the 1920s, but halted his career in the 1940s to join the Navy during World War II. For his service, he earned a Presidential Citation Award and a Bronze Star.
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Charles Durning was a multi-genre talent who scored multiple Academy Award nominations for movies like "The Best Little Wh**house in Texas" and "To Be or Not to Be," as well as a Tony win for his role in the play "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." He served in the Army during World War II and was among the first soldiers to make it ashore on Omaha Beach in Normandy on D-Day. But that wasn't the only horror he survived. He also saw action at the Battle of the Bulge, was captured, and managed to escape a massacre of American soldiers in Belgium.
The son of immigrants, Golden Globe-winner Harvey Korman is most famous for his role in classic Mel Brooks comedies like "Blazing Saddles" and "History of the World: Part I." He also displayed his small-screen talent on programs like "The Carol Burnett Show." During World War II, he left college to serve in the Navy.
One of the most distinguished talents in movie history, British actor Laurence Olivier was known for dazzling theater audiences in several of Shakespeare's plays before earning a spot on Hollywood's A-List with big-screen roles in movies like "Wuthering Heights" and "Marathon Man." At age 40 he became the youngest actor ever to be knighted when King George honored him with the title, and he remains among the only actors to be buried in Westminster Abbey's vaunted Poet's Corner. He's also a war hero. In 1940, Olivier worked as a British agent in America trying to drum up support from the then-neutral United States before returning to Britain to join the Fleet Air Arm.
Brooklyn-born William Daniels enjoyed a career that spanned Broadway, the big screen and television, earning two Emmys along the way for his role in "St. Elsewhere." Although he was drafted at the age of 18 in 1945 to serve in Italy during World War II, Daniels landed a pretty cushy gig. He was a disc jockey for an Army radio station.
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Academy Award-winning actor David Niven starred in movies like "Around the World in 80 Days," "Wuthering Heights," and "The Guns of the Navarone," but he'll be best-remembered for his dapper and elegant lead role in "The Pink Panther." Before his acting career took off, Niven joined the British Army, earning the rank of second lieutenant in the Highland Light Infantry before being discharged and moving to Hollywood. When World War II broke out, he became among the only British actors in Hollywood to return home and join the fight when he re-enlisted in the British Army.
Sid Caesar was a pioneering comedian and actor who is best known for his role in the "Grease" film musicals and as the creator of the Emmy Award-winning variety show "Your Show of Shows." When World War II broke out, he joined the Coast Guard but was stationed at home in Brooklyn, New York, to perform at military shows.
Cuban-America Cesar Romero—a.k.a. the Latin from Manhattan—enjoyed a 30-year career that spanned from the 1930s to the 1960s and included success on stage, in films, and on TV. When World War II broke out, his career was interrupted when he enlisted in the Coast Guard, where he served for three years.
Two-time Oscar winner Michael Caine starred in the "Batman" franchise, as well as comedies like "Dirty, Rotten Scoundrels" and dramas like "The Cider House Rules" and "Hannah and her Sisters." He's also a veteran of the military. The South London native was a member of the Queen’s Royal Regiment and the Royal Fusiliers, spending time during his military years in Germany and Korea.
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Clark Gable of "Gone With the Wind" fame was arguably the most celebrated leading man to dominate the screen during Hollywood's golden age. After his wife died in a plane crash in 1942, Academy Award winner promptly abandoned his career and enlisted in the Army Air Force at the age of 41. Not only did he make propaganda films for the Army, but he saw action as a tail gunner during five missions over Germany.
The son of Greek immigrants, Telly Savalas shined shoes and sold newspapers before joining the Army to serve in World War II, which he survived, albeit with a Purple Heart. As an actor, Savalas played several different sinister villains before landing the part that made him famous: no-nonsense New York City detective "Kojak."
Talk show host Jack Paar once called the portly and groundbreaking comedian Jonathan Winters "pound for pound, the funniest man alive." Winters parlayed his talent into a long television career, which included a run on his own show, "The Jonathan Winters Show." During World War II, Winters joined the Marines at just 17 years old and served for two years in the South Pacific.
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Before he died in 1971, Audie Murphy amassed an impressive list of credits including "Ride a Crooked Trail" and "To Hell and Back." He is most famous, however, for his career as a soldier, which resulted in him being featured on the cover of Life magazine in 1945. Murphy joined the Army a few days after his 18th birthday and would emerge from World War II three years later as the most decorated soldier of the entire conflict. Murphy was injured three times, killed 240 German soldiers, and was eventually awarded 33 awards and medals, including three Purple Hearts, the Distinguished Service Cross, and the Medal of Honor.
Ed Asner got his big break on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and he became such an industry mainstay that he served as president of the Screen Actors Guild from 1981 to 1985. Asner served in the Army Signal Corps in the early 1950s.
Known for roles in "On the Waterfront," "Dr. Zhivago," and "In the Heat of the Night," Rod Steiger amassed nearly 150 credits between 1950 and 2002. At the age of 16, the future Academy Award winner dropped out of school to join the Navy. During World War II, he saw combat on a Navy destroyer in the Pacific.
Robert Montgomery's resume includes 64 acting credits, but he also directed six movies and produced three others. The "Night Must Fall" actor had already spent 16 years with MGM and served as president of the Screen Actors Guild when World War II broke out. He paused his career to join the Navy and saw action in the European and Pacific theaters.
Known for his roles in "Dr. Strangelove" and as a crooked police captain in "The Godfather," Sterling Hayden’s acting credits date back to 1941. Before he was an actor, Hayden was a sea voyager and captain, sailing around the world as a teenager and earning his first command at the age of 22. At the start of World War II, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Marines and transferred to the CIA's precursor agency, the Office of Strategic Services, eventually earning the Silver Star for valor.
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Two-time Oscar nominee Jack Warden began his show business career in 1950. His 164 credits include "12 Angry Men," "The Replacements," "While You Were Sleeping," and "Heaven Can Wait." Expelled from high school for fighting, Warden worked as both a boxer and a bouncer in his youth. He joined the Navy in 1938, serving for three years on the Yangtze River Patrol before joining the Merchant Marine in 1941.
Ted Knight languished in obscurity for two decades before he struck Hollywood gold with the role of Ted Baxter in the 1970s sitcom "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." Knight landed his own TV series and is also famous for memorable roles in "Caddyshack," "The Love Boat," and "Too Close For Comfort." During World War II, he dropped out of high school and joined the Army, where he would become a decorated member of A Company, 296th combat engineer battalion.
Two-time Emmy nominee Bob Crane is best known for his role as Col. Hogan on "Hogan's Heroes," although he continued working right up to his death in 1978. He served in the Connecticut National Guard starting in 1948 and was discharged in 1950.
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Among only a few World War I veterans to make the list is Spencer Tracy, who served in the Navy. He spent most of the war in Virginia, and went on to star in some of history's most treasured classics, including "Inherit the Wind," Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," and "Judgment at Nuremberg."
Harry Dean Stanton
Harry Dean Stanton's death in 2017 concluded one of the most prolific careers in Hollywood history. His more than 200 credits include "The Green Mile," "Alien," "Cool Hand Luke," Big Love," and "Gunsmoke." He served in the Navy during World War II, working as a cook on a ship during the Battle of Okinawa.
Handsome heartthrob Rock Hudson's resume includes "Giant" with Elizabeth Taylor and "Pillow Talk" with Doris Day. In 1944, Hudson joined the Navy and served in the Philippines.
A veteran of the stage and screen, Fred Gwynne is remembered as Herman Munster from TV's "The Munsters" as well as the short-tempered stickler judge from "My Cousin Vinny." During World War II, Gwynn enlisted in the Navy and served on a sub chaser.
Emmy nominee John Amos has played some of the most iconic characters ever to appear on both the big and small screens, including Kunta Kinte in "Roots," James Evans Sr. in "Good Times," and Cleo McDowell in "Coming to America." A veteran of the New Jersey National Guard, Amos is the Honorary Master Chief of the U.S. Coast Guard.
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R. Lee Ermey
It may be surprising to learn that some actors are military veterans. Others, not so much. Gruff and authoritative, R. Lee Ermey is the human embodiment of Marine Corps machismo, which he put on full display as a hard-nosed drill instructor in "Full Metal Jacket." Before injuries forced him to retire, Ermey served for 11 years as a Marine, earning the rank of staff sergeant and the honorary title of gunnery sergeant after spending 14 months in Vietnam and completing two tours in Okinawa, Japan.
George C. Scott
George C. Scott had a 40-year show business career, the pinnacle of which was his Oscar-winning portrayal of the namesake American general in the movie "Patton." In real life, Scott joined the Marines in 1945 shortly before the end of World War II. He served for four years, often as a guard at Arlington National Cemetery.
The "Ghostbusters" franchise made Ernie Hudson famous, but the Michigan native is by no means a one-trick pony. Hudson has accumulated an impressive 236 acting credits since 1976, including four projects currently in the works. Although he joined the Marines after high school, he was medically discharged after just a few months due to asthma.
From "Cocoon" and "The Natural" to "The Firm" and "Absence of Malice," Wilford Brimley's folksy but serious demeanor has earned him a resume filled with critical and commercial success—not to mention a recurring role as the instantly recognizable Quaker Oats man. Once a bodyguard for Howard Hughes, Brimley enlisted in the Marines during the Korean War and was stationed for three years in the Aleutian Islands.
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James Avery's acting career spanned nearly 40 years and includes nearly 180 credits, but he was best known as stern-but-lovable patriarch Uncle Philip Banks on "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air." After graduating from high school, Avery joined the Navy and served in Vietnam during the height of the war from 1968 to 1969.
Born in 1921, James Whitmore had acting credits dating from the 1940s to the late 2000s. Among the most memorable was that of institutionalized inmate Brooks Hatlen in "The Shawshank Redemption." Whitmore served in the Marines in World War II and used the G.I. Bill to attend the American Theatre Wing after he was honorably discharged.
A little more than 60 years ago, history's most famous veteran joined the Army. Elvis Aaron Presley was offered the opportunity to fulfill his service by entertaining troops, playing concerts, and serving as a recruiting model, but the King (actually a sergeant) famously chose instead to serve as a common soldier. His trademark pompadour haircut was shaved, and he was placed into an armored division in 1958 at the very height of his career.
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