Many people wear their service time in the United States Military as a badge of honor. For a large segment of the population, it demonstrates a great deal of selflessness, commitment, and courage. At the same time, some former members choose not to speak about their time. These two realities make the truth about military service a difficult thing to nail down.
While actors move in a very public space, these conflicting worlds still come into play. In the past, we’ve seen actors embellish their military service to help them better embody ideals about masculinity and strength. We’ve also seen actors downplay their service out of modesty or even regret. Over the years, countless actors have served in the military. Some took part as more of a formality, whereas others gave everything they possibly could for their country. We decided to separate the real stories from the lies and exaggerations. Here is the truth behind these actors’ military service.
Rob Riggle went from Ground Zero to Afghanistan
Actor Rob Riggle is primarily known for comedic roles in movies like Step Brothers, The Other Guys, and the 21 Jump Street. He was also a popular correspondent on The Daily Show. But one of the proudest achievements for Riggle was becoming a US Marine and being a part of the organization for more than two decades. In an interview with Marine Magazine, he described what he liked best about serving. "I earned the title ‘Marine,’ no one gave it to me," he told Marine Magazine (via U.S. Veterans Magazine). "I’ll be proud of that as long as I’m alive."
According to a CBS piece, Riggle served 23 years in total, including 14 years in the Reserves and nine years on active duty. He served in Albania and Kosovo and retired as a Lieutenant Colonel. In September 2001, Riggle was in a Reserve unit in Manhattan when tragedy struck. "I got a call saying, ‘Report to Ground Zero,’" the actor recalled in an interview with ABC News. "I worked on the rubble piles in the bucket brigades from the 12th to the 18th; 12 hours on, 12 hours off, just moving rubble by hand, cause it was still search and rescue at that point." Riggle then volunteered to return to active duty and was deployed to Afghanistan where he would complete two tours.
Tall tales and Tom Mix went hand in hand
Tom Mix may be unknown to many today, but during his career peak, he was the biggest star in Hollywood. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Mix starred in hundreds of full-length Westerns. To bolster his image as the world’s greatest silent film cowboy, he told stories of his exploits as a soldier and a lawman. Consider History‘s description: "The star was a genuine cowboy and swaggering hero of the Wild West: He was born in Texas; fought in the Spanish-American War, the Boxer Rebellion and the Boer War; and served as a sheriff in Kansas, a U.S. marshal in Oklahoma and a Texas Ranger."
The truth, however, was much less exciting. While the Texas State Historical Association records show that Mix joined the army and signed on for "two three-year enlistments," those records also "indicate that he deserted before the expiration of his second stretch." In fact, the TSHA doesn’t even have a record of Mix ever living in Texas for a prolonged period, let alone serving as a Ranger. And as Wide Open Country noted, there were also tales of Mix supposedly being a member of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. That wasn’t quite the case: As the Museum of Western Film History’s website pointed out, Mix rode alongside the Rough Riders in a parade, but publicists apparently embellished the story.
As the TSHA put it, "The myth of Mix is perhaps more interesting than mere fact."
Jimmy Stewart was a ‘leader’ in the Air Force
Known as one of the greatest actors to ever live, Jimmy Stewart appeared in iconic films, such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Philadelphia Story, and It’s a Wonderful Life. Stewart also served in the Army Air Corps for 27 years. He eventually rose to the rank of brigadier general in the Air Force Reserves, said to be the highest rank ever given to an actor, as per the book Jimmy Stewart: Bomber Pilot. When he was first drafted, Stewart was denied for being too underweight. Determined to contribute, he claims that he then volunteered and had a friend operate the skills to pass the physical test.
According to that book, Stewart was different than most celebrity service people. "Few stories linked Stewart to Hollywood stars who wore uniforms but did not have serious military duties," an article in Osprey Combat Aircraft stated (via Jimmy Stewart: Bomber Pilot). "The truth was that Stewart flew B-24s, and he was more than a ‘celebrity in uniform.’ Stewart was very much a combat pilot, officer, and leader." In total, the actor flew in 20 combat missions in Europe. When he returned, he not only refused to talk about the war, but he suffered from nightmares and his eating habits were changed. "He just couldn’t eat, he was so upset by everything," his friend Elinor Gordon Blair said in Pieces of Time. "When he came back, that wonderful robust appetite we remembered was gone."
A long time ago, Adam Driver was in the Marines
These days, Adam Driver is an Academy Award-nominated actor and Star Wars’ Kylo Ren. Before he hit Hollywood, he was a lance corporal in the Marines, signing up after September 11, 2001. "I was a marine with 1/1 weapons company, 81s platoon out in Camp Pendleton, California," he said during a TED Talk in 2016. "I joined a few months after September 11th, feeling, like I think most people in the country did at the time, filled with a sense of patriotism and retribution and the desire to do something, that coupled with the fact I wasn’t doing anything."
For two years, Driver trained alongside his fellow Marines and grew attached to them. "I found I loved the Marine corps the most for the thing I was looking for the least when I joined, which was the people, these weird dudes, a motley crew of characters from a cross-section of the United States that, on the surface, I had nothing in common with," he said. "Over time, all the political and personal bravado that led me to the military dissolved and, for me, the marine corps became synonymous with my friends."
But two years into his service, just months before being deployed to Iraq, Driver had a mountain biking accident and broke his sternum. Despite his best efforts to remain with the team and fight through the pain and the injury, he was medically separated and eventually discharged.
Brian Dennehy ended up in a book about stolen valor
As CBS News noted in 2005, there have been many people throughout the years that have falsely claimed military service, including several actors. The late Brian Dennehy, for example, one of the country’s preeminent stage actors and known for films like Tommy Boy and First Blood, found himself in hot water for exaggerating his service time. Beginning in 1989, Dennehy discussed his military past, suggesting he received shrapnel wounds in a The New York Times interview and that he served five years in Vietnam in a Playboy talk (via Financial Times).
In 1998, B.G. Burkett’s book, Stolen Valor, revealed that Dennehy was actually a marine who played football in Okinawa, Japan, but he never saw action (via CBS News). The actor then started to backpedal on some of his claims. He told The Dallas Observer that the story snowballed after he began "shooting my mouth off in bars." In a 1998 interview with The Globe, he gave a formal apology. "I lied about serving in Vietnam, and I’m sorry" Dennehy said (via The Dallas Observer), "I did not mean to take away from the actions and the sacrifices of the ones who did really serve there … I did steal valor. That was very wrong of me. There is no real excuse for that. I was a peace-time Marine, and I got out in 1963 without ever serving in Vietnam."
Ice-T left the military after a debacle involving a rug
Before becoming a hip-hop icon and star of Law & Order: SVU, Tracy "Ice-T" Marrow was looking for a way to earn money. So, he joined the Army in the 25th Infantry. He did not have a good time. "I didn’t like total submission to a leader other than myself," he told The Daily Targum. Yet, to hear Ice-T tell it, it was his ability to follow orders that got him in trouble.
In Ice: A Memoir of Gangster Life and Redemption—from South Central to Hollywood, the rapper spoke about the event that led to him leaving the Army. "It’s funny to think about it now, but all through Advanced Infantry Training, me and a couple of other guys spent half our time stealing for our company," he said. "That little crime spree came to a head when [a commanding officer] told us we had to go steal an infantry-blue rug for his office." Ice-T followed those off-the-record orders. They stole the rug, but their ride never showed, they got caught, and Ice-T went to jail. While in jail, however, he still received his pay.
"They ended up giving $2,500 to a dude in jail awaiting military trial for burglary," he said. With the money in hand, the rapper broke out of his holding cell, caught a civilian flight to California, and laid low for a while. Eventually, he called the commanding officer who was giving him orders to steal and sorted it out.
Bea Arthur wouldn’t talk about her time in the military
In 1943, the US Marine Corps sent out a call for women to join its ranks a Women’s Reservists, the first time the Marines allowed women to serve. Five days after the call initially went out, a young woman named Bernice Frankel joined. At just 20 years old, Frankel was too young to enlist on her own, so she needed her parents permission. In her military file, a handwritten letter explains why she joined. "I was supposed to start work yesterday," she writes (via National WWII Museum), "but heard last week that enlistments for women in the Marines were open, so decided the only thing to do was to join."
She also goes on to say that she did some acting, an art form that would make her famous after being discharged as staff sergeant years later and changing her name to Bea Arthur. The US Department of Veterans Affairs includes other notes about her service time. She is described as "frank and open," as well as "argumentative" and "over aggressive," though not "cocky." One evaluation deemed Arthur "Officious–but probably a good worker if she has her own way!"
Official records show Arthur’s duties in the Marines as a typist at the Washington headquarters and a "truck driver and dispatcher in Cherry Point, North Carolina." For whatever reason, Arthur never discussed or admitted to her service time publicly. In a 2001 interview for EmmyTVLegends.org, she laughed off the suggestion and denied it.
Clint Eastwood had a scare at sea
Four years before he made his on-screen debut, Clint Eastwood was serving in the military. "I was drafted during the Korean War. None of us wanted to go," he said in the interview in the Wall Street Journal. "It was only a couple of years after World War II had ended. We said, ‘Wait a second? Didn’t we just get through with that?’ An atomic bomb, the pacification of Japan … and here we are back in it again. … But everybody went. You objected but you went."
Yet, Eastwood never saw active duty. Instead, he was stationed at Fort Ord in California as a lifeguard and swimming instructor, as per My Northwest. In her book, The Good, The Bad, and the Very Ugly, Eastwood’s ex, Sondra Locke suggested the actor was vague about his service time on purpose. "He always dropped the Korean War reference, hoping everyone would conclude that he was in combat and might be some sort of hero," she wrote (via History Chronicle).
He did go through a harrowing experience while in the Army, though. According to The Mercury News, he hitched a ride aboard a WWII vintage Navy bomber in 1951 when it ran out of fuel and crashed into rough seas. The original report from The Independent Journal stated that Eastwood and the pilot jumped into the sea and "left on life rafts." They then paddled toward land, though Eastwood was thrown from his raft and forced to swim to shore near the end.
George Carlin was a mechanic on military planes
The late George Carlin made a career of his hilarious and often scathing social critiques. Over the years, the iconic comedian routinely used a number of topics in his bits, including wars and American militarism. With his critical stance on the country’s infatuation with its military in mind, it may be surprising to learn that Carlin was once a military man himself. In the George on George documentary, the comedian tells the story of his service time. "I was in the Air Force. I was in strategic air command, which was the real mother of everything," he explained. "I was in a B-47 squadron. Those were the primary bombers at the time, so we kept the peace for quite a while … I was a mechanic on these planes."
Perhaps it was fitting that Carlin rebelled. "There’s no question that my kind of makeup doesn’t fit regulation and structure and authority. It never did," he said. "I happened to end up with three court martials." He goes on to describe each of these disciplinary actions. In one, he fell asleep while on guard duty in a combat simulation. "I was proud of that one," he said. Another was for "failure to obey a lawful order." The last, he said, was showing disrespect to an officer. When it was time for budget cuts, Carlin fit the bill perfectly, so he received a "general discharge under honorable conditions."
Mr. T pities the tree
Mr. T, born Lawrence Tureaud, may be an enigma to today’s younger generations. Truth be told, Mr. T is likely an enigma to all generations. While known for his roles in Rocky III and The A-Team, the actor’s larger-than-life persona has likely surpassed any one character on films and TV shows. Everything about Mr. T seems extraordinary, including his manner of speaking and his catchphrases, which have made him into a larger-than-life character of sorts. Yet, even the stories from his life sound unbelievable, such as one tale in particular from his time in the military.
According to his autobiography, Mr T: The Man With The Gold (via Den of Geek), Mr. T was once ordered by his platoon sergeant to cut down trees as a means of punishment. He was in the National Guard Military Police in Wisconsin at the time, and he had a lot of trees to work with. Without any further instruction, a young Mr. T got to chopping and didn’t stop until he heard from his superior about five hours later. By that time, he had felled "about 75 trees, no little trees either." Mr. Tree was no match for Mr. T.
Morgan Freeman wanted ‘the movie version’
Long before the great Morgan Freeman became a Hollywood great, he, as Mississippi Today noted, received a drama scholarship at Jackson State University. However, he ultimately turned it down to pursue his dream of learning how to fly. According to a talk in Interview, before he was an actor, he went into the US Air Force so he could take up a career in the skies. When he first joined, however, he was assigned to ground duties, acting as a mechanic and radar technician, and he loved it.
"I took to it immediately when I arrived there," he said. "I did three years, eight months, and ten days in all, but it took me a year and a half to get disabused of my romantic notions about it." It wasn’t until he began his flight training that his feelings changed. "I sat there looking at all those switches and dials and I got the distinct feeling that I was sitting in the nose of bomb," he explained. "I realized my fantasies of flying and fighting were just that—fantasies. They had nothing to do with the reality of killing people. What I wanted was the movie version. So that was the end of the whole idea of doing anything other than acting for me. I’ve never had any other vocation."