In light of the Memorial Day Weekend, amid all the patriotic mattress sales, car deals, and blockbuster clearance items (because that’s why these patriots served their country), we need to sometimes bring it back to entertainment. After all, that is what we do here. That said, you may be surprised to learn some of the celebrity veterans who have passed were actually serving our country in another life.
While their stories are different and their careers are vast, the experience is still the same — they all had a higher calling before they had a part of the high life. So, enjoy during your BBQ and check out…
These 10 Celebrity Veterans Who Can Now Be Memorialized for Service
Bob Ross (1942-1995)
Yes. The famous coifed afro and unmistakable taglines like “Happy little accidents” and “There’s nothing wrong with having a tree as a friend” was in fact a retired Master Sergeant with the U.S. Air Force from 1961-1981.
He once told the Orlando Sentinel, “I was the guy who makes you scrub the latrine…and screams at you for being late to work. The job requires you to be a mean, tough person. And I was fed up with it.”
If you are a streamer (and during COVID-19, who isn’t), you have noticed the whimsy painter, Sgt. Happy, has experienced a renaissance of pop culture, which is awesome to see. Unfortunately, Ross’ life was taken too quickly after he fought another battle against lymphoma.
Jimmy Stewart (1908-1997)
It’s Christmas anytime this guy shows up. Jimmy Stewart is among Hollywood’s elite, but before he graced the screen more than 100 times, he was drafted to serve our country in World War II. He was later rejected for his sinewy frame. Many would breathe a sigh of relief. Not him. Stewart packed on the pounds and enlisted in the Army Air Corps.
Keep in mind: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, You Can’t Take It With You, and The Mortal Storm are among his best — and those were before the war. Yes, he was that famous and still enlisted. That’s pride that is hard to match. Because of that fame, he was placed behind-the-lines. Yet, he insisted so he eventually was a lead in a bombardment squadron in 1943. Then, he filmed It’s a Wonderful Life three years later.
Oh yeah, he didn’t officially retire from the Army until 1968, when Jimmy Stewart was promoted to a two-star (Brigadier) general. Salute!
Charles Bronson (1921-2003)
One of the original badasses in Hollywood was Charles Bronson. His films prove that distinction from The Magnificent Seven, The Dirty Dozen, Once Upon a Time in the West, Death Wish, to one of his most underrated films Death Hunt. He was the man — evidently, a particular aura he carried with him.
In 1943, Bronson enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps to eventually become a tail gunner on a B-29 with the 39th Bombardment Group also known as the Superfortress. He flew on 25 wartime missions and was even awarded a Purple Heart for the wounds he received in service to this country. Man’s game, Charles Buchinsky.
Bea Arthur (1922-2009)
That is Staff Sergeant Bernice Frankel, USMC, reporting for duty. Please! Doesn’t this make sense? The woman who would later be known as Bea Arthur was in the Marines as a typist and a truck driver. And, being the beacon of women’s rights as she was, she enlisted at age 21 because, “enlistments for women in the Marines were open, so I decided the only to do was to join.”
From Maude Finlay to the biting and whimsical Dorothy Zbornak, Bea Arthur was the prototypical “tough broad” in Hollywood. She knew how to give it and take it. Man, she was so great at doing both. And two years into World War II, Bea still enlists to serve her country and was honorably discharged as a Staff Sergeant.
James Garner (1928-2014)
A “man’s man” was usually the term bandied about when discussing James Garner. He played the type to the hilt in famed roles like Jim Rockford and Bret Maverick. Many younger people may recognize him as ‘Duke’ — the older guy in The Notebook. From The Great Escape to Space Cowboys, Garner was on every terrain. He was even the voice of Rourke in Atlantis: The Lost Empire.
However, before all the pomp and circumstance, he earned the moniker in the Army National Guard during the Korean War. Garner was even awarded a Purple Heart after sustaining injuries from a mortar round and friendly fire. Ironic, a hero like that would end becoming one. He was also the voice of Shazam!
James Arness (1923-2011)
Get this: You are destined to become one of TV’s iconic lawmen, playing Sheriff Matt Dillon in what was a historic role — one of the longest TV series ever (20 years) and playing the same role the longest in TV history (over five decades). You star in a show named Gunsmoke. And all it took was enlisting in the U.S Army 3rd Infantry Division as a Rifleman.
James Arness is a stand-alone symbol of what to achieve in Hollywood because of his commitment, longsuffering, and work ethic — all qualities he earned in service to this country. Arness landed on Anzio Beachhead during World War II in 1944. There, he was honored with a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart for his bravery. Ever notice Sheriff Dillon walking with a limp in Gunsmoke. Shrapnel in his right leg was why.
P.S. His younger brother is Mission Impossible star and the trusting pilot Captain Clarence Oveur in Airplane, Peter Graves.
Rod Serling (1924-1975)
Ah yes. The dulcet, literate tones of Rod Serling and his soothing introduction as we all entered The Twilight Zone. What you may not know is his love for this country was deeper than most — the morning following his high school graduation, he enlisted in the U.S. Army where he served with the 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment.
He fought in the Philippines, on the Island of Leyte where we helped take Manila back from the Japanese. There, he earned a Purple Heart, Bronze Star, and the Philippine Liberation Medal. He was also a boxer while in service where he didn’t earn as many distinctions. In the Army, he learned the power of a voice, which is why is was such an early opponent of censorship. This is what led to The Twilight Zone — having the courage to something out of the ordinary that others warn you not to take on. Bravo, Rod!
Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970)
Only in the U.S. Army’s notable 101st Airborne Division for 13 months, Jimi Hendrix wanted to enlist for his country — but he wanted to enlist as a musician despite having no formal training. (How would you like to be the recruiter who told Jimi ‘No, you’re not qualified to play music’?) As a paratrooper, Hendrix wasn’t the shiniest example of brass at the Army’s disposal. On his 26th jump, he broke his ankle at Fort Campbell in Kentucky.
The rest, as anyone would say, is history. He began to venture out to Kentucky nightlife, then Nashville, which is where he began jamming with the local giants on the blues scene. The Army is actually where his bassist Billy Cox and Hendrix met. Following discharge, they formed a band called the “King Kasuals,” but then settled for an “experience.”
Elvis Presley (1935-1977)
In 1958, the world stood still as Elvis Aron Presley joined the U.S. Army. The man would become one of the most culturally important in the history of the world spent two years serving our country and an additional four in the Army Reserves, when he received his honorable discharge in 1964.
According the Army’s website, the man who would be “King,” served in two different armor battalions — Company A, 2d Medium Tank Battalion, 37th Armor, stationed at Fort Hood, Texas and 1st Medium Tank Battalion, 32d Armor when he was stationed overseas in Germany.
Johnny Carson (1925-2005)
Speaking of kings, the royal leader of late-night talk television wasn’t only an American treasure, comedian, and prolific writer. During World War II, Johnny Carson served our country in the United States Navy. He was also 10-0 as an amateur boxer with the Midshipmen onboard the U.S.S. Pennsylvania. In fact, it was serving in the Navy that convinced Carson to become an entertainer.
In “Carson: The Unauthorized Biography,” Paul Corkery discloses a moment when Cadet Carson had an audiences with then Secretary of the Navy, James V. Forrestal. Secretary Forrestal asked Carson if he planned to stay in the Navy following the war, “No, I want to be a magician.” Cynically, Forrestal asked Carson to perform a card trick.
“It was that moment I discovered I could entertain and amuse someone as cranky and sophisticated as Forrestal.” Today, we celebrate what he did in late night TV, but it was because of who he was that got him there.