You Likely Never Knew These Hollywood Stars Are Military Veterans

Mel Brooks, Morgan Freeman and others served their countries before they ever had success as performers in front of cameras

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No one expects actors to necessarily choose roles that line up with their real-world experiences. George Clooney (“ER”) was never a doctor. Raymond Burr (“Perry Mason”) was never a lawyer. Christian Bale (“American Psycho”) was never a serial killer — although some of his reported on-set behavior might lead you to wonder about that.

There are exceptions, of course. “Dr. Ken” star Ken Jeong is actually a licensed physician. The late character actor Dennis Farina was a Chicago police officer before playing cops on “Crime Story” and “Law & Order.”

When it comes to U.S. military service, Hollywood has occasionally tapped real-life veterans for roles. R. Lee Ermey’s iconic performance as a Marine drill instructor in “Full Metal Jacket” was informed by his real-life experience in that role. Robert Duvall (“Apocalypse Now”), Kirk Douglas (“Paths of Glory”) and Gene Hackman (“Crimson Tide”) are among many real-life veterans who also portrayed military men onscreen.

However, there are many other stars whose real-life military service is less well-known to most. In honor of Veterans Day, it’s a good time to highlight some of that service.

We limited this list to living performers, and they appear in alphabetical order. At least a few here are likely to surprise you:

1.) Mel Brooks. The legendary actor-writer-director is one of only 12 individuals in the “EGOT” club, having won at least one Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony — also known as the “grand slam” of show business honors. Brooks was the main creative force behind such iconic comedies as “Blazing Saddles,” “The Producers,” and “Young Frankenstein.”

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During World War II, Brooks — then going by his given name, Melvin Kaminsky — defused enemy land mines for the U.S. Army and even participated in the Battle of the Bulge. He has said of his service, according to military.com: “I was a Combat Engineer. Isn’t that ridiculous? The two things I hate most in the world are combat and engineering.”

Related: Veterans are Valued in the Workplace

2.) Drew Carey. Carey’s film career is decidedly meager when compared to others on this list, but he’s well known to TV fans from “The Drew Carey Show,” “Who’s Line Is It Anyway?” and his current role as the host of “The Price Is Right.” While for many years his personal image suggested that of a dorky ’50s-era principal, Carey was actually in the U.S. Marine Reserves from 1980-86, serving stateside on mostly weekend duty.

Carey has cited his military service for giving him the perseverance to make it in Hollywood. He told TIME magazine that it “instilled a great sense of discipline that I can call on when I need to.” Carey has entertained the troops on numerous USO tours overseas.

Carey’s military stint is also where the seeds of his comedy career came from. “While in the Marine Reserves, I was looking for a way to make some more money, and it was suggested that I try using my jokes,” military.com reported. Carey has said he would still be in the Marines if he hadn’t gotten such a break in show business.

3.) Adam Driver. At 6’2″, Driver isn’t a small guy, but his lean frame, shaggy look, and tendency toward artsy, iconoclastic characters (“Paterson,” “While We’re Young”) doesn’t exactly scream “military man.” Even his portrayal of Kylo Ren, the malicious successor to Darth Vader in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” is more angsty and tormented than outright chilling or intimidating.

So it might come as a surprise to some that Driver is actually a U.S. Marine veteran. A few months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Driver (then 21) signed up for the infantry and trained to serve in Iraq. However, he broke his sternum in a mountain biking accident, leading to a medical discharge after two years and eight months. He later told GQ: “The idea of not going to do my job with that group in that platoon was kind of devastating.”

4.) Morgan Freeman. One of Hollywood’s most celebrated actors has played everything from a vicious pimp (in 1987’s “Street Smart,” earning his first of four Oscar nominations), to both the U.S. president (“Deep Impact”) and God (in “Bruce Almighty,” as well as a sequel).

While Freeman’s massive filmography only includes a few military roles (including a Union Army sergeant major in “Glory” and an Army colonel in “Dreamcatcher”), he was a radio technician in the Air Force for almost four years, beginning in 1955.

5.) James Earl Jones. Kylo Ren isn’t the only “Star Wars” villain who once served in the military. Jones, who provides the voice for Darth Vader — Kylo Ren’s grandfather — in the film series, is an Army veteran. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1953, expecting to see combat in the growing military conflict in Korea.

Instead, the future actor and his unit were assigned to construct a cold-weather training command in Colorado. Jones was promoted to first lieutenant before being discharged. He portrayed Navy Admiral James Greer in three hit films based on Tom Clancy’s novels, and one of his earliest performances was playing an Air Force bombardier in the 1964 classic “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.”

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6.) Kris Kristofferson. While this Country Music Hall of Fame member is perhaps more well-known for his work as a singer-songwriter (having written “Me and Bobby McGee” and “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” among many other classic tunes), he’s also appeared in more than 80 films, including “A Star Is Born,” “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” and the “Blade” trilogy.

A military brat, he joined the U.S. Army, completed Ranger School, and was stationed in West Germany as a helicopter pilot. He turned down an opportunity to teach English literature at West Point in favor of becoming a musician.

Related: A Homebound Veteran’s Big Surprise

7.) Rob Riggle. He’s best known for playing outrageous characters in comedies such as “Step Brothers,” “The Hangover,” and “21 Jump Street,” but it’s not hard to see the hulking 6’3 Riggle as a bad-to-the-bone Marine — which is exactly what he is. If anyone ever does a comic take on Jack Reacher that actually mirrors the character from the books (unlike the tiny Tom Cruise) — Riggle would make a fine choice.

The actor retired from the Marine Corps Reserve as a lieutenant colonel in 2013, concluding a 23-year tenure. He’s a Combat Action Ribbon recipient who served in Liberia, Kosovo, Albania, and Afghanistan.

For more on Veterans Day, check out the video below:

This piece originally appeared in LifeZette last year and has been updated. 

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