We often glorify the action heroes we see on screen, but some celebrities are the real deal. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but here are ten of our favorite real life military heroes, who are more badass than anything you’ll see in the movies:
1. Christopher Lee
Best remembered for playing villains like Saruman, Count Dooku, and Francisco Scaramanga, Christopher Lee was more dangerous than all of them combined. Not much is known about the specifics of Lee’s service during World War II, but we know he served in the British special forces. When journalists would ask about his time in the SAS, Lee would ask back if they could keep a secret. When the interviewer responded yes, Lee would lean in and whisper “So can I.”
Lee’s military training came in handy during the filming of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. When director Peter Jackson told Lee how his character should react to being stabbed, Lee reportedly stopped to correct Jackson asking, “Have you any idea what kind of noise happens when somebody’s stabbed in the back? Because I do,” which sounds more like a thinly veiled threat than a professional conversation between coworkers.
Lee also participated in more onscreen sword fights than any other actor in movie history and in 1996, the 74 year-old Lee recorded a sword fight tutorial for the documentary The Many Faces of Christopher Lee:
2. Bob Ross
It’s hard to imagine Bob Ross, the happy little host of The Joy of Painting, as a hardened military man, but Ross served in the United States Air Force for 20 years, retiring with the rank of Master Sergeant. His job in the military required him to be “the guy who makes you scrub the latrine, the guy who makes you make your bed, the guy who screams at you for being late to work,” and when Ross retired from the military, he promised himself he would never scream again, which worked out pretty well.
3. Clark Gable
Academy Award winner Clark Gable spent World War II flying combat missions in Europe. During one of his flights, Gable’s plane was hit, killing one of his crewman, wounding another two, and almost killing Gable himself. For his service, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal, American Campaign Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, and World War II Victory Medal, but the weirdest honor actually came from Germany. Apparently Clark Gable was one of Adolf Hitler‘s favorite actors and the dictator offered a sustainable reward to anyone anyone who could capture Gable and bring him to Germany alive.
4. Jimmy Stewart
In 1941, Jimmy Stewart became the first major American movie star to wear a uniform in World War II. During the war, Stewart flew 20 combat missions over Germany, bombing targets in Bremen, Frankfurt, and Berlin and earning numerous military honors. In 1959, Stewart was promoted to Brigadier General, making him the highest-ranking entertainer in the American military at the time.
5. Dr. Ruth
We all know Dr. Ruth Westheimer as the enthusiastic radio sex therapist, but you might not know that before she dedicated herself to educating the world about the importance of safe sex, Westheimer was a trained sniper. After both of her parents were killed in the Holocaust, Westheimer moved to Israel and joined Haganah, a Jewish military organization. “I could hit the target smack in the center further away than anyone could believe,” Westheimer once bragged, “Even today I can load a Sten automatic rifle in a single minute, blindfolded,” which, surprisingly, is not a euphemism.
6. Oliver Stone
It probably comes as no surprise that Oliver Stone, the director behind Academy Award winning war films like Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, served in the military, but you may not know he was awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star which he received for “extraordinary acts of courage under fire” during the Vietnam War.
7. Mel Brooks
Years before Mel Brooks took shots at Hitler and the Nazis with The Producers, the legendary comedian served as a Corporal in the United States Army where he defused land mines and took actual shots at actual Nazis at the Battle of the Bulge. Brooks would later say about his military career, “I was a Combat Engineer. Isn’t that ridiculous? The two things I hate most in the world are combat and engineering.”
8. Rob Riggle
Former Daily Show correspondent Rob Riggle spent over 20 years in the United States Marine Corps. During his time on active duty and as a member of the Marine Corps Reserve, Riggle served overseas in Liberia, Kosovo, Albania, and Afghanistan and worked search and rescue at Ground Zero immediately following the 9/11 attacks. He once joked that he could kill any other member of the The Daily Show, which probably isn’t far from the truth.
9. Adam Driver
Before playing angsty teenager and Pearl Jam fan Kylo Ren in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Girls star Adam Driver served as a Marine. Driver was inspired to join the Marine Corps after the 9/11 terrorist attack, “September 11 happened and all my friends were like ‘Let’s join the military!'” Driver recalled, “I was the only one who actually did.”
10. James Doohan
Stark Trek actor James Doohan (who played Scotty in the original series), was on Juno Beach in Normandy during the D-Day invasion. While leading the charge, Doohan shot two enemy snipers, but was shot himself six times: four times in the leg, once in his hand, and once in the chest. Doohan lost his right middle finger, but his life was sparred thanks to his nicotine addiction. The bullet headed for his chest was stopped by his cigarette case.
Doohan wasn’t the only celebrity who stormed the beaches of Normandy. He was joined by Yankees legend Yogi Berra, actor Alec Guinness (who played Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars trilogy), and author J.D. Salinger. In fact, Salinger was carrying the first six chapters of Catcher in the Rye in his pocket during the D-Day invasion.
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