February 4, 2023

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10 Army Veterans Who Made It Big in the Movies

Since the Army is the largest and oldest branch of the United States military, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the service has turned out more than its share of creative veterans, some of whom rank among the most successful entertainers in American history.

Here’s a list of 10 Army veterans who’ve made an impact in the movies.

1. Clint Eastwood

Clint Eastwood was drafted into the Army during the Korean War, but spent his service as a lifeguard at Fort Ord in northern California. Even though he was on active duty during the conflict, Eastwood has long made a point of not referring to the Korean War when talking about his service to avoid giving the impression that he saw combat.

An Army acquaintance named Chuck Hill sneaked Eastwood onto the Universal Studios lot, where he was spotted by director Arthur Lubin. Eastwood couldn’t act much, but Lubin was impressed by his appearance and arranged for him to get a $100 per week contract.

Eastwood’s big break came when he was cast as Rowdy Yates on the CBS western “Rawhide.” The actor appeared in over 200 episodes and the series ran until 1965. He seamlessly transitioned into movie stardom when he appeared in a trio of “spaghetti westerns” from Italian director Sergio Leone. “A Fistful of Dollars,” “A Few Dollars More,” and “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” made Eastwood a worldwide icon.

Eastwood went on to portray the iconic San Francisco cop “Dirty Harry” Callahan, win Best Director and Best Picture Oscars, plus a Best Actor nomination for the classic 1992 western “Unforgiven.” He repeated that achievement by winning the same two Oscars and getting the same acting nomination for “Million Dollar Baby” (2004). Eastwood also produced and directed “American Sniper,” which told the story of Navy SEAL legend Chris Kyle and earned yet another Best Picture nomination for Eastwood.

Related: Clint Eastwood’s 8 Most Awesome Military and Veteran Characters

2. Sidney Poitier

Sidney Poitier was born in Miami but raised in his parents’ native Bahamas. He emigrated to New York City to become an actor and lied about his age to enlist in the Army during World War II. Poitier was assigned to work with psychiatric patients at a Veteran’s Administration hospital on Long Island, New York, before his discharge in 1944.

Poitier made a big impression as a delinquent high school student in “Blackboard Jungle” in 1955, but became a big movie star opposite Tony Curtis in “The Defiant Ones” in 1958. Curtis and Poitier played escaped inmates shackled together, and both men were nominated for Best Actor Oscars and the movie was nominated for Best Picture.

The actor eventually won a Best Actor Oscar for the 1963 move “Lilies of the Field” and went on to become one of the biggest box office draws of the ’60s, with hits like “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” Best Picture Oscar winner “In the Heat of the Night,” and “To Sir, with Love.” Poitier died in February 2022 at age 92.

Related: Sidney Poitier, Oscar Winner Who Lied About His Age to Join the Army, Dies at 94

3. Elvis Presley

Elvis Presley may have first become famous as a rock and roll singer, but he went on to become one of the most reliable movie box office draws of the ’50s and ’60s. His Army career is unusual because he was drafted at the height of his fame and took two years away from his career for military service.

Presley was stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, for basic training and served with the 1st Medium Tank Battalion, 32nd Armor, 3rd Armored Division, at Ray Barracks, Germany. Presley met his future wife Priscilla Beaulieu during his military service and picked up a lifelong interest in karate during his time in Germany.

Elvis enjoyed more career success after his service, starting with the military-themed movie “G.I. Blues” in 1960. “Viva Las Vegas,” “Blue Hawaii” and “Roustabout” were also big hits, and Presley had an impressive run as the top live headliner in Las Vegas before his untimely death in 1977.

Related: Why Elvis Presley Showed Up Two Months Late for Boot Camp

4. James Earl Jones

James Earl Jones fell in love with the idea of military service while participating in ROTC during his undergraduate days at the University of Michigan. He was a member of the Pershing Rifles Drill Team and the National Society of Scabbard and Blade.

After graduation, he served with the 38th Regimental Combat Team and helped set up a cold weather training command at Camp Hale, Colorado. After he completed his service, Jones studied acting at the American Theatre Wing using his GI Bill benefits.

Jones found great success in the live theater, but he found immortality as the voice of Darth Vader in the “Star Wars” movies. Even though it’s not Jones underneath the helmet, his imposing voice is the feature that defines one of the greatest villains in movie history.

He’s also known for playing James Greer in a trio of Jack Ryan movies, “The Hunt for Red October,” “Patriot Games” and “Clear and Present Danger.” Jones played King Jaffe Joffer in “Coming to America” and its sequel, voiced Mufasa in “The Lion King,” Terence Mann in “Field of Dreams,” and earned a Best Actor Oscar nomination for the 1970 boxing drama “The Great White Hope.”

Related: The Voice of Darth Vader Was an Army Officer Who Almost Became a Doctor

5. Robert Duvall

Robert Duvall is a military kid, the son of U.S. Navy Adm. William Duvall. He grew up in Annapolis, Maryland, and defied dad to enlist in the U.S. Army in 1953. After completing his service, Duvall studied acting on the GI Bill at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre in New York City, alongside Marine Corps veteran Gene Hackman.

Duvall built up a string of credits in theater and television before making his movie breakthrough as Boo Radley in 1962’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” He went on to play some of the most iconic characters in movie history, including Maj. Frank Burns in the 1969 movie “M*A*S*H,” Tom Hagen in the “Godfather” movies, Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore in “Apocalypse Now,” and Bull Meechum in “The Great Santini.” After getting Oscar nominations for those last three movies, Duvall finally won a Best Actor award as country singer Mac Sledge in “Tender Mercies.”

Duvall has continued to work, taking notable roles in popular movies like “Days of Thunder,” “Deep Impact,” “Gone in 60 Seconds,” “The 6th Day,” “Jack Reacher” and “The Judge.”

6. Gene Wilder

Gene Wilder was born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He was drafted into the Army in 1956 and served as a paramedic at the Valley Forge Army Hospital in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania.

After completing his service, Wilder worked in theater and television until he made his movie breakthrough in 1967 with the one-two punch of a supporting role in “Bonnie & Clyde” and a lead in the raucous comedy “The Producers,” directed by WWII Army veteran Mel Brooks.

He later reteamed with Brooks to make the 1974 classics “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein.” Wilder gave generations of kids nightmares as Willy Wonka in the 1971 musical “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” and later teamed up with fellow Army veteran Richard Pryor for the massive hits “Silver Streak,” “Stir Crazy,” and “See No Evil, Hear No Evil.”

Wilder died in 2016 at age 83 from complications of Alzheimer’s disease.

7. Richard Pryor

Richard Pryor was raised by his grandmother at the brothel she ran in Peoria, Illinois. He served in the U.S. Army from 1958 to 1960, but military discipline didn’t agree with the budding actor and he spent most of his service in the brig.

After Pryor and the Army agreed to part ways, he eventually made his way to New York City and found success as a standup comic. He released a series of best-selling LPs, played Stanley X in the 1968 cult movie “Wild in the Streets,” and co-wrote the movie “Blazing Saddles,” which was directed by WWII Army vet Mel Brooks and starred Army vet Gene Wilder, Army Air Forces WWII veteran Slim Pickens, Air Force veterans John Hillerman and David Huddleston, Coast Guard veteran Burton Gilliam, and Brooks.

Pryor found stardom in front of the cameras in the ’70s with hits like “The Mack,” “Uptown Saturday Night,” “The Bingo Long Travelling All-Stars & Motor Kings,” “Car Wash,” “Blue Collar,” and “Superman III.” He achieved his biggest success co-starring with Wilder in “Silver Streak,” “Stir Crazy,” and “See No Evil, Hear No Evil.”

Pryor died of a heart attack in Los Angeles in 2005 at age 65.

Related: How the Army Turned Richard Pryor from a ‘Truck Driver’ into an ‘Actor’

8. Robert Mitchum

Robert Mitchum was kicking around California, working as a machinist at Lockheed Aircraft Corporation during the early days of World War II when he was forced to quit because of hearing damage. He found work as an extra in the movies and had a meteoric rise in Hollywood, culminating in a plum role in the 1945 movie “The Story of G.I. Joe.”

Mitchum got drafted into the Army and then got a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for playing a soldier. He served as a medic at Fort MacArthur, California. Mitchum was married with two sons when he was drafted, so the Army gave him a Dependency Discharge after eight months of service.

Mitchum was famous for his tough guy roles, and he was notorious as a Hollywood bad boy after he was arrested for marijuana possession. Mitchum kicked off his post-Army film career in 1947 by starring in two of the greatest film noirs, “Crossfire” and “Out of the Past.” He enjoyed a long career in dramas like “Thunder Road,” “The Night of the Hunter,” “Cape Fear,” “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” and “The Yakuza.”

Mitchum connected with a younger audience when he played television network executive Preston Rhinelander opposite Bill Murray in the 1998 Christmas movie “Scrooged.” Mitchum died from lung cancer in 1997 at age 79.

9. Mel Brooks

Brooklyn native Melvin Kaminsky was drafted into the Army during World War II and served as a corporal in the 1104 Engineer Combat Battalion, 78th Infantry Division, as a combat engineer. By the end of the war, he’d been transferred to Special Services and was touring Army bases and entertaining troops as a comic.

He changed his name to Mel Brooks and found work as a joke writer for Sid Caesar’s hit television series “Your Show of Shows.” He formed a comedy team with fellow writer Carl Reiner, and the duo achieved success with their 2,000-year-old man routines.

Brooks made a breakthrough with his Broadway/Nazi combo satire picture “The Producers,” which starred fellow Army veteran Gene Wilder. Brooks went on to act in his own movies, playing memorable roles in “Blazing Saddles,” “Silent Movie,” “High Anxiety,” “History of the World: Part 1,” “To Be or Not to Be,” and “Spaceballs.”

10. Charles Durning

Charles Durning was drafted into the Army at age 20 and served in the 1st Infantry Division, landing on Omaha Beach as part of the first wave on D-Day in June 1944. He was awarded the Silver Star, Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts.

Durning supported himself as a professional ballroom dancer while he was starting out as an actor in New York City. He played dozens of small roles in film and television before he had a career breakthrough in the 1975 bank heist drama “Dog Day Afternoon.” His gift for comedy led to roles as the villainous Doc Hopper in 1979’s “The Muppet Movie,” the Nazi Col. Erhardt in Mel Brooks’ “To Be or Not to Be,” and Pappy O’Daniel in the Coen Brothers’ “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

Durning earned Best Supporting Actor nominations for “To Be or Not to Be” and as the governor in “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” opposite Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds. The actor, a noted supporter of veteran causes and charities, died in Manhattan in 2012 at age 89.

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