Oftentimes, we regard actors as people who exist in their own special little world, outside the norms of common folk. However, major events and tragedies often bring them back down to reality, and few events are more major than a war. That’s why today we are taking a look at ten actors who fought in World War II.
10. Desmond Llewelyn
The name Desmond Llewelyn might only be recognizable to James Bond fans who will know him as the iconic Q, the head of the research and development team that always provided Bond with the cool toys and gadgets he used on every mission. Llewelyn played the role for almost 40 years, appearing in 17 Bond movies, more than any other actor in the franchise.
And yet, his acting career was almost snuffed out in its infancy thanks to World War II. Born in Newport, Wales, Llewelyn moved to London in 1934 to study acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. His first on-screen role was in the 1939 Will Hay comedy Ask a Policeman. And immediately following his big break, World War II erupted and Llewelyn was commissioned as a second lieutenant with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and sent to France.
The following year, his unit was in Lille, engaged in combat with a Panzer division, when it got overrun and captured. Llewelyn was sent to Laufen, but there he got caught trying to escape, so instead he was relocated to the notorious Colditz Castle where he spent the remainder of the conflict as a prisoner of war.
9. James Arness
Just like our previous entry, the name James Arness won’t evoke immediate recognition, but Western fans will remember him for his role as Marshal Matt Dillon in Gunsmoke, a part he played for 20 years in over 600 episodes. Before all that, though, James Arness was a decorated veteran who was awarded the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star, and a few others for his role in the Battle of Anzio.
When the US joined the Second World War, Arness wanted to become a Navy pilot, but he was disqualified for being too tall. Instead, he joined the Army and was a part of the 3rd Infantry Division that landed at Anzio in 1944 as part of the Italian Campaign. His height once again worked against him, as Arness was the first sent out of the landing craft to test the depth of the water.
Although he made it through the battle unscathed, Arness later sustained a serious injury while on night patrol, when he walked in front of a machine gun nest. Several shots pierced his right leg, causing the bones to splinter. Arness survived, but the surgeries to repair his leg shortened it by over half an inch, forcing the actor to wear lifts for the rest of his life.
8. Lenny Bruce
Before the stand-up comedian was ushering in the counterculture era and taking part in landmark obscenity laws, he was a seaman aboard the USS Brooklyn warship during World War II. Lenny Bruce joined the US Navy when he was only 16 and saw action in Northern Africa and Italy, taking part in four overseas invasions.
Then, in 1945, Bruce decided that he’d had enough of the Navy, so he pretended to be gay to receive a discharge. He started by mentioning his “homosexual tendencies” to the medical officer, who reported it to the ship’s commander and then had Bruce sent for a “neuro-psychiatric consultation,” where the future comedian admitted that it was only a matter of time before he gave into his urges.
The analysis concluded that Bruce was being truthful and not simply trying to get out of the service. The commander agreed and recommended to have Lenny be either discharged or transferred to a shore-based station. A few weeks later, Bruce received a dishonorable discharge, but he successfully petitioned to have it changed to an honorable one. Decades later, Lenny’s little stunt served as the inspiration for the cross-dressing Corporal Klinger character on the TV show M*A*S*H.
7. Charles Bronson
Charles Bronson became famous for his roles portraying a no-nonsense quiet tough guy, and it seems that this was simply a case of art imitating life. Growing up dirt poor in Pennsylvania in a large family of Lithuanian immigrants, Bronson had to work in the coal mines as a teenager to help support his family after his father’s death.
During World War II, he got drafted and, after attending gunnery school in Arizona, he joined up with the 61st Bombardment Squadron, 39th Bombardment Group, based in Guam. After being assigned to a B-29 “Superfortress” bomber, Bronson fought in the Pacific Theater where he took part in 25 missions and later received the Purple Heart for his efforts. Afterward, he used the GI Bill to get into acting and, fittingly enough, found his first film role in a military production where he played a sailor.
6. Don Adams
Donald James Yarmy became better known professionally as Don Adams, a TV actor with a 50-year career which included his most famous role, that of bumbling secret agent Maxwell Smart in the sitcom Get Smart. But before all of that, Adams had a very close call with death while serving in World War II.
When the war broke out, Adams was still in high school, so he dropped out and joined the Marines. He underwent basic training in North Carolina and then was assigned to I Company, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines, and shipped to Samoa. On August 7, 1942, Adams took part in the initial assault on Guadalcanal, and even though he got shot by a Japanese sniper, that’s not what almost did him in. During combat, Adams contracted blackwater fever, a serious form of malaria that carried with it a 90 percent fatality rate.
He was not expected to live, but Adams did manage to make a full recovery after spending an entire year in the hospital in New Zealand. Despite his close shave, Adams still liked the military life, so when he returned to America, he became a drill instructor for Marine recruits.
5. Mel Brooks
We just had the man who starred in Get Smart, so now let’s move on to the man who created Get Smart. Legendary funnyman Mel Brooks became a big star in Hollywood thanks to his parodies like Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. But just like Don Adams, his first career was in the military, which he joined while still in high school.
One day, when Brooks was 17, an army recruiter showed up at his high school for an aptitude test. Brooks scored highly and joined the Army Specialized Training Reserve Program since he knew that he was probably going to be drafted anyway. From then on, he studied engineering at the Virginia Military Institute and officially joined the Army when he turned 18.
Brooks spent the bulk of his active duty as a combat engineer with the 1104 Engineer Combat Battalion, 78th Infantry Division, helping to clear landmines and build bridges. Even so, his unit had to fight as infantry on multiple occasions and even took part in the crucial Battle of the Bulge.
Once the war was over, Mel Brooks immediately transitioned to a career in entertainment while he was still stationed overseas. He joined a Special Services unit that staged variety shows from camp to camp.
4. Henry Fonda
Unlike most other entries on this list, Henry Fonda was already a big star when he decided to put his career on hold in order to fight in World War II. He made his Hollywood debut in 1935 and rose to prominence during the late ’30s with roles in movies such as Jezebel and The Grapes of Wrath.
Like many actors, Fonda initially did his bit by making war movies to raise funds and morale. But this wasn’t enough for him. The actor was reported saying that he doesn’t want to be “in a fake war in a studio,” so he enlisted in the Navy in 1942. At first, he served as a Quartermaster 3rd Class aboard the USS Satterlee destroyer. Later, he was commissioned as a Lieutenant Junior Grade in Air Combat Intelligence, fighting in the Central Pacific.
According to his record, Fonda’s superiors described him as possessing “officer-like qualities of leadership, military bearing, loyalty, judgment, and intelligence.” He was awarded a Bronze Star Medal and, after the war ended, Fonda kept up his military career by serving another three years in the Naval Reserve.
3. James Doohan
The first, but not the last entry on this list who took part in D-Day, James Doohan is best known to sci-fi fans everywhere as Scotty in the original Star Trek series. Born in Vancouver, British Columbia, Doohan enrolled in the Royal Canadian Army Cadet Corps in 1938 after graduating high school. A year later, he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Artillery, and afterward, he was sent to Britain to prepare for Operation Overlord aka the Battle of Normandy.
On D-Day, Doohan’s regiment stormed Juno Beach, and the actor was personally credited with taking down two enemy snipers. Although he escaped the actual battle unscathed, he was almost killed by friendly fire later that night. Doohan snuck away to smoke a cigarette and, when he returned, a jumpy Canadian sentry mistook him for an enemy and shot him six times. Most of the bullets went into his leg, although one of the shots did blow off his right middle finger. Doohan concealed his missing finger using prosthetics for most of his acting career, although there are scenes in Star Trek where the amputated digit can be seen.
2. David Niven
On-screen, David Niven was always the ideal image of the English gentleman: suave, sophisticated, eloquent, and perfectly mannered. In real life, though, he wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty and fight for king and country.
Unlike the other entries, Niven already had a military career before the Second World War. Born into a military family, he attended the Royal Military College at Sandhurst and graduated in 1930 with a second lieutenant’s commission. He gave up the army life when he discovered that he wasn’t too fond of following orders and launched his acting career.
By the time World War II came around, Niven had already become a leading man and just had his big role as Raffles, the gentleman thief. However, as soon as Britain entered the war, he paused his career and returned home to fight for his country. He joined the Commandos and was assigned to a special recon unit named “A” Squadron GHQ Liaison Regiment, better known as “Phantom.” By the time D-Day came around, he was commander of the unit and led his men into the Battle of Normandy. However, following the war, he steadfastly refused to discuss his experience.
1. James Stewart
In terms of military careers, no actor can boast one quite like Jimmy Stewart. Not only was he already a big star when he enlisted, with films such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life under his belt, but he retired with the rank of Brigadier General.
Like David Niven, Stewart’s family had deep military ties. Like Henry Fonda, he started out by doing recruitment drives, fundraisers, and other public appearances, but wanted to do more. Stewart was already a licensed commercial pilot, so for him, the choice seemed obvious – join the Air Force. After training to fly bombardiers in New Mexico, Stewart was sent overseas, to Britain, as the Commanding Officer of the 703rd Bomb Squadron.
He took part in 20 bombing missions during the war, at a time when most aircrews averaged, at most, a dozen before being killed in combat. Stewart received numerous commendations for his actions during World War II, but even after the war ended, he continued his service in the Air Force Reserve. Even during the Vietnam War, Stewart flew one last mission as an observer and then finally hung up his wings as a Brigadier General.