Actors of a certain age will have served time in the military, particularly in the immediate post-war era. In Europe, National Service went on until the late 1950s or early 1960s. In the USA, conscription came to an end in 1973 when President Nixon realised that conscription was an archaic system no longer suited to modern warfare ‘ this had been the prevailing thought in Europe at the time too. Some of the following were enlisted and others volunteered.
1. Jimmy Stewart
One of the mainstays of Christmas viewing is ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ where Jimmy Stewart extols the virtues of his life and being an all-round good egg in a town over-run by a greedy capitalist. Stewart’s character in that film defined his career so many are surprised to learn that he went to great lengths to get into the USAF during WWII. Despite having been rejected for being unsuitable on grounds of weight and height, he logged enough hours in an aircraft that they would accept him.
2. James Doohan
Famous for playing the engineer Scotty on Star Trek and his famously often-terrible mockery of a Scottish accent, Doohan was in fact present at the D-Day landings. Sadly, nobody could beam him up and away from being shot at on that fateful day and losing one of his fingers. In his military career, he was considered one of the most accomplished pilots in the Canadian Air Force and was even seen as a bit of a maverick ‘ skills that no doubt he brought to his later role on Star Trek
3. Bea Arthur
The Gold Girls actress was one of the first women to sign up for the USMC when it finally permitted women to enlist during WWII. Though she later denied it, some digging around revealed that she served 30 months as a typist in Washington and then as a truck driver in Virginia. It is no wonder she tried to hide it as she was recorded as being argumentative. She was finally discharged in 1945 (honourably) with the rank of Staff Sergeant ‘ quite an impressive feat.
4. Chuck Norris
His background in and fame for martial arts as well as most of his film roles should probably come as no surprise to his fans. Norris signed up for the USAF in 1958 and served as an Air Policeman in South Korea. It was this stint that led to him taking an interest in martial arts and taking it up for himself. By the time his tour of duty came to an end, he had a black belt in Tang Soo Do and a brown belt in Judo. It could be argued then that had he not served, he might not have gone on to become a big screen action hero.
5. Bill Cosby
The comedy actor might come across as too much of a joker to have ever signed up for the military but he joined the US Navy in 1956 and served for four years, moving through five different bases during that time (including Quantico and Bethesda). However, Cosby did not serve on the front lines ‘ he served as a hospital corpsman on a physical therapy team, helping seriously injured veterans of the Korean conflict. In 2011 he was given an honorary award as a Chief Petty Officer
One of the most surprising entrants on the list is rapper and actor Ice-T. Having sold drugs on the streets of LA, the birth of his daughter made him realise that he had to clean up his life. He went to an enlistment office and was stationed at Hawaii for four years. It gave him the self-discipline he needed because when he came out, he never went back to selling drugs. He went on to have a successful rap career and starred in several noteworthy films.
7. Mister T
He is famous for playing BA Baracus in The A-Team and no doubt he fed on his background in the Military Police in acting the role and in the show’s scenarios. Having been kicked out of college, he signed up and promptly did four years of service. He must have found his niche because he won an award for his skills on the motorcycle. After leaving the services, he joined the NFL but had to give it up due to injury. This was when he made his way into acting
8. Sean Connery
It might have been playing fictional secret service agent James Bond that made Scot Sean Connery famous but many do not know that he served in the military in real life. He was too young to serve in World War II but due to National Service still being in place, he signed up for the Royal Navy in 1946 at the age of 16. Illness forced him out after three years, medics decided that it was dangerous to his health so he was discharged.
9. Arnold Schwarzenegger
The former Mister Universe and Terminator actor actually spent time in prison for absconding from the Austrian army in 1965. He too was serving National Service and had to stay on camp overnight. However, he broke out of his barracks in order to take part in the Junior Mister Europe contest. He won the title but his superiors took a dim view of his achievement and promptly punished him. They did release him after a few days though and congratulated him for the achievement
10. Sir Alec Guinness
Most famous for the role of Obi Wan Kenobi in the first trilogy of Star Wars films (a role he came to loathe later in life), Guinness served in the British Royal Navy during World War II. His most notable campaigns were toward the end of the war when he was involved in the invasions of the islands of Elba and Sicily ‘ so critical to taking back the Mediterranean from the Axis Powers.
There are advocates on both sides of the Atlantic calling for the return of conscription, but critics ask what the value of National Service is in the 21st century. What is clear though is that many of the figures above gained something of benefit to their future careers following their time in the military.