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10 Veteran Actors Who Actually Saw Combat

Which tough guys were the real deal in battle?

spinner image different actors that served in the military
Left to Right: James Doohan, Jimmy Stewart, Gregory Gadson, Jessica Lynch, Christopher Lee
Photo Collage: Sean McCabe; (Source: Stewart: Getty Images; Gadson :Alamy; Lynch: Rueters)

Many well-known actors have served honorably in uniform, but far fewer have seen combat. Here are 10 actors who saw real action.

Jimmy Stewart: Plane hit during bombing mission in World War II

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Jimmy Stewart in 'It's a Wonderful Life.'
CBS via Getty Images

Already an Academy Award winner for The Philadelphia Story and an amateur pilot by the time the U.S. entered World War II, Jimmy Stewart enlisted in the Army Air Corps. Based in England, he commanded groups of up to 150 aircraft on a total of 20 bombing missions.

During one raid, flak burst through Stewart’s plane, Dixie Flyer, taking out two engines and leaving a gaping hole at his feet. On landing, the aircraft broke apart “with a crack ripping from the bulkhead to the cockpit.”

The star of It’s a Wonderful Life was promoted to brigadier general in the U.S. Air Force Reserve in 1959 and retired in 1968. He died at 89 in 1997.

Charles Bronson: Flew combat missions during World War II

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Charles Branson in 'Death Wish.'
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Drafted into the Army in 1943, Charles Bronson became a B-29 aerial gunner in B-29 bombers after a spell of punishment for punching a sergeant. He flew 25 combat missions in the Pacific and was awarded the Purple Heart for taking a bullet to his shoulder. His time in cramped gun turrets, combined with working as a miner as a boy, led to bouts of claustrophobia for the rest of his life.

Bronson used the GI Bill to study acting. Among his most famous movie roles was as a prisoner of war in 1963’s The Great Escape. He died at 81 in 2003.

Michael Caine: Surrounded by Chinese soldiers in Korea

spinner image Left to right: Gene Hackman as Major General Sosabowski, Ryan O'Neal as Brigadier General Gavin, Michael Caine as Lieutenant Colonel J.O.E. Vandeleur, Edward Fox as Lieutenant General Horrocks, and Dirk Bogarde (1921 - 1999) as Lieutenant General Browning, in a promotional portrait for 'A Bridge Too Far', directed by Richard Attenborough, 1977.
Michael Caine, (third from left), in 'A Bridge Too Far.'
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Called up for national service in the British Army, Michael Caine saw combat in the Korean War. At one point, he and two comrades found themselves surrounded by Chinese soldiers. “I was conscious of a growing fury — I was going to die before I’d even had a chance to live, before I’d had a chance to do all the things I wanted to do,” he later recalled. The three soldiers decided to charge the enemy and lived to tell the tale.

A star of A Bridge Too Far (1977), Sir Michael Caine is still acting at 89.

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Rob Riggle: Marine in Afghanistan after 9/11

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Rob Riggle in '12 Strong.'
Warner Bros Pictures/Everett Collection

Actor and comedian Rob Riggle, 52, served 23 years in the Marine Corps. He earned the Combat Action Ribbon in Kosovo after being shot at while out on patrol.

Riggle cleared rubble at Ground Zero on 9/11 before being deployed to Afghanistan in December 2001, where his commanding officer was Lt. Col. Max Bowers. In 2018, Riggle played Bowers in the movie 12 Strong, about Green Berets who fought on horseback at the start of the war.

James Doohan: Wounded on D-Day

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James Doohan as Lt. Commander Montgomery Scotty Scott with a communicator on 'Star Trek.'
CBS via Getty Images

Best known for playing Montgomery “Scotty” Scott, chief engineer of the Starship Enterprise, in Star Trek, James Doohan was a Canadian artillery officer who stormed Juno Beach on D-Day, shooting dead two German snipers.

That night, he was hit six times by machine gun fire. One bullet took off his right middle finger. Doohan had been a victim of friendly fire from a Bren gun wielded by a nervous Canadian sentry. Doohan died in 2005 at age 85.

J.W. Cortés: Platoon sergeant in Iraq invasion

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JW Cortes (left) and Todd Palin in 'Stars Earn Stripes.'
Tyler Golden/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images

J.W. Cortés, 47, was a Marine platoon sergeant during the invasion of Iraq. “Everything resonated with me: the hard work, esprit de corps, teamwork, tradition,” he later reflected.

Cortés retired as a gunnery sergeant and became a New York City police officer before landing the role of Detective Carlos Alvarez on the TV show Gotham.

Lee Marvin: Marine scout sniper in World War II

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Lee Marvin in 'The Dirty Dozen.'
Courtesy Everett Collection

During World War II, Lee Marvin was a Marine scout sniper in the Pacific. In a letter from Saipan, he described storming a Japanese machine gun nest, tripping and coming face-to-face with an enemy: “He tried to stick his bayonet in my eye. So I took it away from him. It wasn’t hard to do because he was just a little bastard, maybe 5 feet 2 or so. I shoved that goddamned thing into his chest all the way to the gun barrel.”

The star of The Dirty Dozen (with a supporting cast that featured Charles Bronson) was later wounded by a bullet that severed a nerve just below his spine. Marvin died at 63 in 1987.

Gregory Gadson: Lost both legs in Iraq

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Gregory Gadson in 'Battleship.'
Cinematic Collection/Alamy

A Gulf War veteran, Gregory Gadson, 56, was a U.S. Army battalion commander when he lost both his legs above the knee to a roadside bomb in Baghdad in 2007. He became the first person to use the completed version of the Power Knee 2, a next-generation prosthetic knee featuring new artificial intelligence and sensor technology.

Gadson retired from the Army as a colonel and made his acting debut in the role of Lt. Col. Mick Canales, a double amputee who takes part in an alien fight scene, in Battleship (2012).

Jessica Lynch: First female POW to be rescued

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Jessica Lynch promoting the movie 'Virtuous.'
Thomas Slusser/The Tribune-Democrat via AP

Jessica Lynch, now 39, became a national figure after she was wounded, captured and rescued at the start of the Iraq War. She later took up acting in Christian films. Her first role was as a military specialist trying to locate a female POW in the 2014 movie Virtuous.

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Christopher Lee: Hand-to-hand combat in World War II

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Christopher Lee in 'Lord of the Rings.'
Warner Bros/Everett Collection

During World War II, Christopher Lee served in British intelligence and Special Forces, fighting in North Africa and Italy.

While filming The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), director Peter Jackson wanted Lee to scream when his character was stabbed in the back. Lee took the director aside and said, “Have you any idea what kind of noise happens when somebody’s stabbed in the back? Because I do.” Jackson commented, “He seemed to have expert knowledge of exactly the sort of noise they make.”

Sir Christopher Lee, who famously played the title role in 1958’s Dracula, died in 2015 at 93.

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