Top 10 Most Famous Actors Who Served in the Military

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While today it is generally more common for an actor to entertain soldiers rather than be one, there was a time when even fame and stardom was not enough to keep some people out of war. As a result, during the Second World War a number of actors served in the armed forces—most through enlisting—with a few of them seeing considerable combat. Of course, most of those on this list became actors long after the war, but there are a few who left promising acting careers to serve their country and need to be recognized for their bravery and sacrifice. Because it is impossible to determine who deserves to be first, this is an alphabetical listing of those who actually saw considerable combat. (Unfortunately I am forced to omit dozens of actors who also served in WWII or have served since in peacetime—such as Elvis Presley—though their service is greatly appreciated as well.)

10. Eddie Albert

People generally remember Eddie Albert as the inept farmer and perennial straight man on the goofy hit 1960’s TV show Green Acres, but few know that he also won the Bronze Star with Combat “V” for his actions during the invasion of Tarawa. In November, 1943, Albert (then a young Navy Lieutenant by the name of Eddie Heimberger—his real name), rescued dozens of stranded and wounded Marines from the landing craft he commanded, much of the time while under heavy enemy machine-gun fire.

9. James Arness

Think Matt Dillon wasn’t for real? The fictional old west sheriff was every bit as tough as the six-foot, seven-inch tall actor who played him. As a rifleman for 3rd Infantry Division, Arness landed at Anzio, Italy in January, 1944, where he was wounded by enemy fire and evacuated. After undergoing surgery several times, Arness was honorably discharged in 1945, having received the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart medals. His wounds bothered him after the war, resulting in acute leg pain that made it increasingly difficult to mount a horse (Matt Dillon without a horse? Unthinkable!) It became so bad he had to undergo a series of operations to remove bullet fragments that had fused into the bone. Now that’s one tough hombre.

8. Mel Brooks

Hard to believe the off-the-wall director and actor famous for such goofy films as Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, and Space Balls was a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), but it’s true. A corporal in the combat engineers, his job was to destroy enemy obstacles and included occasionally defusing mines—a job that required a steady nerve, a calm demeanor, and no doubt a good sense of humor. He also fought in the famous Battle of the Bulge in December of 1944 and was even rumored to have been known to answer German propaganda that was being broadcast at regular intervals from a loudspeaker by shouting “Toot Toot Tootsie goodbye!” I guess Mel Brooks was Mel Brooks even back then.

7. Art Carney

Before becoming Jackie Gleason’s lovable but bumbling side kick on the hit 1950s TV sitcom The Honeymooners, Carney fought at Normandy in July of 1944 as part of a machine gun squad. While performing that dangerous task, he was hit in the leg by mortar shrapnel and sent home—where he walked with a limp the rest of his life. He later quipped about his military service by saying that he “Never fired a shot and maybe never wanted to. I really cost the government money.”

6. Charles Durning

This versatile actor with a long acting career and over 100 movies to his credit was one of the most decorated soldiers turned actors of World War Two. A combat infantryman during the war, he survived the bloody landings at Omaha Beach in June of 1944 and was even capture by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge in December, 1944 (though he managed to escape). Awarded three Purple Hearts and a Silver Cross for bravery, he was to spend months after the war recovering from the many wounds he received before being discharged and beginning his long acting career—a career, by the way, that is still going strong today.

5. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

Few would have guessed the dashing actor and first husband to Joan Crawford would give up the sparkling lights of Hollywood to serve his country, but that’s exactly what he did. Commissioned an officer at the outbreak of World War Two, the actor served on Lord Louis Mountbatten’s staff in England where he observed the British make cross-channel raids on German positions designed to confuse and deceive the enemy. Taking that knowledge back to America, he was made part of a unit called the “Beach Jumpers” whose job it was to make bogus beach landings designed to confuse the enemy as to the location of the real landings. Serving in this capacity in North Africa, Sicily, and France, he was awarded several medals for bravery, chief among them the Silver Star, the Legion of Merit, the British Distinguished Service Cross, and even the French Croix de guerre. Fairbanks stayed in the Naval Reserve after the war and ultimately retired a captain in 1954.

4. Russell Johnson

Hard to imagine the mild-mannered and slightly nerdy (but in a good way) professor on the popular but utterly inane 60’s sitcom Gilligan’s Island was an Army Air Corp bomber pilot who flew no less than 44 missions over the Pacific during World War Two. In one mission, his B-25 was shot down over enemy held territory in the Philippines, forcing him to crash land, which resulted in two broken ankles. He was also awarded the Air Medal before being discharged in 1945 and going on to use his GI Bill money to finance his way through acting school (which is where it is assumed he first learned how to make a radio out of a coconut. Too bad he couldn’t figure out how to fix a hole in a boat.)

3. Lee Marvin

This actor, known for his tough guy roles, was a real life roughian who left school to join the United States Marine Corps, serving as a Scout Sniper in the 4th Marine Division in the South Pacific. He was wounded in action during the Battle of Saipan and saw most of his platoon killed. Marvin was wounded by machine gun fire, which severed his sciatic nerve, for which he was awarded the Purple Heart medal and given a medical discharge. The tough old Marine died of a heart attack in 1987 and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery where his headstone reads “Lee Marvin, PFC US Marine Corps, World War II”. Once a Marine, always a Marine.

2. Audie Murphy

Murphy was a true American hero and the only actor to have been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. In fact, Murphy was the most decorated American soldier of World War II who, besides receiving the CMOH, was also awarded 32 additional U.S. and foreign medals and citations, including five from France and one from Belgium. He later went on to appear in 44 films—mostly westerns and a few army films—before he died in a plane crash near Roanoke, Virginia three weeks shy of his 46th birthday. Not surprisingly, he was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery.

1. Jimmy Stewart

Stewart was an up and coming actor when he chose to give it all up and join the Army Air Corp in 1942. Considering how dangerous the skies over Europe were and the very high rate of attrition suffered by allied pilots, it’s a miracle he survived at all. Flying no fewer than 20 combat missions over Germany at the controls of the famous B-17 bomber, he received six battle stars, the Distinguished Flying Cross with Oak Leaf Clusters, the Air Medal and even the famous French decoration, the Croix de Guerre with Palm. He even stayed active in the U.S. Air Force reserve after the war, reaching the rank of Brigadier General before retiring in 1968.

Honorable Mentions: Jason Robards (he was at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941); Tom Posten (flew C-47s over Normandy dropping paratroopers on D-Day. Anyone who saw episode 2 of the HBO special Band of Brothers knows just how dangerous that was.); Clark Gable (flew on some combat missions over Germany in order to get some “realistic” training video. Couldn’t have done that if he were union.); Henry Fonda (another actor who left the glitter of Hollywood to serve in the U.S. Navy in WWII); and Jackie Coogan (flew commandoes in gliders into Japanese held territory in Burma.)

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Jeff Danelek is a Denver, Colorado author who writes on many subjects having to do with history, politics, the paranormal, spirituality and religion. To see more of his stuff, visit his website at www.ourcuriousworld.com.


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32 Comments

  1. I’ve read stories about things Audie Murphy did during the war and I believe he is a great American hero but finding that he appeared in those movies adds a new perspective. Thankyou for making me realise that.

    • Jonathan Reiter on

      He didn’t see combat… These guys did, although I shouldn’t include Clark Gable, he did too…
      Just for the record, I was in my country’s army, but didn’t go to a war… Good thing, too. I got more than enough problems to deal with right now…

  2. Wow, I never knew Mel was in the service, let alone he was at the battle of the bulge! cool list though I am ashamed to say I only know just 4 of the men on the list.

    • Oh one last thing, I figured Rod Serling (from Twilight Zone) would have made the list or at least an honorable mention, he saw combat in the pacific theatre at Leyte Gulf.

      • I think maybe because Rod Serling was more of a writer than an actor? Not that his service was not worthy of being mentioned. He did mostly intros to t.v. programs I think.

  3. The terrific actor Neville Brand played Texas Ranger Reese Bennett on the TV western Laredo(1965-’67)was also a highly decorated U.S.Army soldier who fought in Europe in WW II & who was wounded.

    • Absolutely!!! I was thinking Neville Brand would be no.2 and Audie no.1. I’m pretty sure Neville was the second most decorated soldier in WWII, although in interviews I saw he kind of dismissed and played down his bravery, just as all great heroes do. He even stated on a talk show it was another actor who was the second most (can’t remember who he said it was) that is also not on this list. Maybe they don’t consider him recognizable enough. Rod Steiger is also missing from this list. I saw a bio on TCM and he too should’ve been mentioned. James Garner saw action in Korea, as did Charles Bronson I believe.

      • larry leighton on

        No. Neville cleared that up before his death. He held several medals, but he wasn’t No. 2. He might have been No. 4, I can’t remember.

    • While both his service and support of the United States Military is appreciated and honorable, Chuck Norris did not see combat like the rest of the men on this list. I know he was station in South Korea in 1958 but this was after the Korean War ended in 1953 (well not technically since only a ceasefire was declared but you get the idea).

  4. It was surprising that Neville Brand didn’t make the cut. I’ve read that he was the fourth most decorated soldier in WWII. Then again I’ve also read that the Army didn’t track medals (but if that’s true why is it common knowledge that Audie Murphy was the most decorated soldier in WWII?).

  5. Daryl Griffin former MAJ USA on

    I’m sick and tired of journalists and modern Hollywood types who are too lazy to do their homework because they look down on those who have and currently serve. THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS THE CMOH!!!!!! IT IS NOT THE CONGRESSIONAL MEDAL OF HONOR NOR HAS IT EVER OFFICIALLY BEEN NAMED THAT!! IT IS THE: MEDAL OF HONOR awarded in the name of congress and presented by the President of the United States. Additionally the US doesn’t have a Silver Cross it is the Silver Star. I doubt Lee Marvin or Jimmy Stewart would appreciate your sloppy lazy research. I DO APPLAUD YOU FOR SHOWING TODAY’S GROUP OF LIBERTINE QUISLINGS IN HOLLYWOOD WHAT REAL MEN WHO WERE ACTORS DID WHEN HISTORY CALLED!!
    PS. Do you know which attack killed more Americans Pearl Harbor or 11 Sept. 2001? I was at the Pentagon so don’t whine to me about the war on terror. I APPLAUD YOU AGAIN FOR RECOGNIZING THESE HONORABLE MEN OF HOLLYWOOD.

    • Where in Lee Marvin’s or James Stewart’s bio do you see any reference to a “Silver Cross”? Perhaps they edited it after your post, but I don’t see it.

      • Hector Rivera Jr on

        The author of this article listed a Silver Cross in Charles Dyrning’s biography.

        There is also a lot of controversy surrounding Durning’s WWII record (i.e. lies and exxagerations ) but he was awarded a Silver Star and Bronze Star; I don’t see why he had to lie claiming he landed on D-Day on Omaha Beach or that he survived the Malmedy Massacre or the Battle of the Bulge.

        http://m.web2carz.com/article/article.php?articleId=2097

  6. Mr. D Griffin-My 1944 US Navy Bluejackets Manual, an official Navy publication given to all new recruits, has a photo of what it calls the Congressional Medal of Honor. The medal was commonly called this during WW2. While at the Pentagon you could have done your own research to find this out, as it seems to bother you so much.

  7. David Niven also deserves mention. Although popularly known as a refined gentlemanly actor, during WWII Niven was actually a commando! His bio reads like an adventure story. And of course, like so many others of his era, when asked about his experiences in the war, he usually said something slightly self-depricating and changed the subject.

  8. Audie Murphy was a soldier before he was an actor. In fact it was because of his pile of decorations that he went into acting!

    He was a genuine badass nonetheless though.

    I remember in Basic Training, we were learning about our TA-50 (field gear) and our Drill Sergeant told us about Murphy and his exploits! He almost went to tears as spoke in reverence about the man. It was pretty moving!

  9. Don’t forget about Sgt Bob Keeshan (aka Captain Kangaroo )who earned his navy cross the same day as Lee Marvin at Iwo Jima. Lee Marvin said Sgt Keeshan was one of the bravest men he ever saw standing on Red Beach urging his men forward to get them off of that beach amid machine gun and mortar rounds

  10. what is james stewart doing at no. 1 audie murphy should be no.1 He was so young when he inlisted and was only 19 years of age when the war ended. a real hero to the end.

  11. Jimmy Stewart flew B-24 Liberators during WW2 and not B-17’s as you stated. Before entering combat, he was an instructor pilot on B-17’s in the United States. Read the book “Jimmy Stewart, Bomber Pilot”. Its a good reference.

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