11 Air Force Veterans Who Made It Big in the Movies

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September 12, 2022
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An impressive list of Hollywood legends have served in the United States Air Force, even though the service branch is the youngest of the big four and didn’t come into existence until Sept. 18, 1947.

Of course, the USAF counts the World War II heroics of the Army Air Forces as part of its own history, but this list concentrates on the entertainers who served in the USAF after its official founding. That cutoff leaves us with plenty of great stories to tell.

Here are 10 of the very best movie actors to serve in the USAF.

1. Chuck Norris

Before Chuck Norris inspired a slew of jokes and memes, and before he starred as “Walker, Texas Ranger” on television, this Air Force veteran was a huge movie star in the 1980s

Norris joined the Air Force upon graduation from high school in 1958 and was stationed at Osan Air Base in South Korea. That’s where he began studying the Tang Soo Do martial art, earning a black belt. Upon his discharge in 1962, Norris opened a martial arts studio in Torrance, California, and founded his own Chun Kuk Do (“Universal Way”) discipline.

Norris competed in martial arts events during the decade, eventually becoming world champion at the International Karate Championships. During this time, he met Bruce Lee and began his Hollywood career with a small role in the Dean Martin/Sharon Tate film, “The Wrecking Crew,” in 1968.

He played Lee’s nemesis in “The Way of the Dragon” (1972) and then spent most of the decade trying to establish himself in movies. His breakthrough came with “Good Guys Wear Black” in 1978.

Norris hit the big time in 1984 with “Missing in Action,” in which he led a strike team into the jungle to free Vietnam War POWs. The prequel “Missing in Action 2: The Beginning” followed in 1985, and things peaked for Norris when he starred alongside Marine veteran Lee Marvin in “The Delta Force” in 1986.

Even though he was still kicking ass at the box office, Norris moved to television in 1993 with “Walker, Texas Ranger.” The show ran for eight seasons on CBS, and reruns have played in syndication ever since.

2. Morgan Freeman

Morgan Freeman joined the Air Force upon graduation from high school in 1955 and served as an automatic tracking radar repairman. Upon his discharge in 1959, he moved to Los Angeles and started taking acting classes.

His first big break was in 1971 as a cast member on the PBS children’s show, “The Electric Company.” He appeared mostly on stage for the next two decades, but had a small role in the Robert Redford movie “Brubaker” in 1980.

His movie career took off in 1989 with four memorable roles. Freeman was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his performances as driver Hoke Colburn in the Best Picture-winning “Driving Miss Daisy.” He also played Sgt. Maj. John Rawlins in the Civil War drama “Glory,” starred as hero high school principal Joe Louis Clark in the drama “Lean on Me” and Lt. A.Z. Drones in the Walter Hill crime drama “Johnny Handsome.”

He starred as Ned Logan in Army veteran Clint Eastwood’s Best Picture Oscar-winning western “Unforgiven” in 1992 before earning movie immortality as Red in the prison drama “The Shawshank Redemption.” Freeman earned a second Best Actor nomination for his performance, and the movie was up for Best Picture.

Freeman has made dozens of movies since. He won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in Eastwood’s second Best Picture-winning movie “Million Dollar Baby.” He also starred as DCI William Cabot in the Tom Clancy movie “The Sum of All Fears,” Lucius Fox in the Christopher Nolan “Batman” movies, and Allan Trumbull in the Gerard Butler “Has Fallen” series.

3. Roy Scheider

After high school, Scheider pursued an amateur boxing career and studied at both Rutgers University and Franklin & Marshall College, a private institution in Pennsylvania, before joining the Air Force in 1955. He served as a first lieutenant in air operations until his discharge in 1958. He continued to serve in the Air Force Reserve Command until 1964.

Acting is a tough gig, and Scheider didn’t get traction until he played recurring roles on the soap operas “The Secret Storm” and “Love of Life.” Things finally took off for him when he appeared alongside Marine veteran Gene Hackman in “The French Connection” in 1971. Scheider was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, Hackman won Best Actor and the movie won Best Picture. That same year, he appeared in the crime drama “Klute,” which won Jane Fonda a Best Actress Oscar at the same ceremony.

After starring in the police drama “The Seven-Ups” in 1973, Scheider achieved legendary status when he played Chief Martin Brody in Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws,” the movie whose runaway success created the idea of the summer blockbuster.

He appeared again as Brody in “Jaws 2,” got a Best Actor nomination for his performance in the Bob Fosse movie “All That Jazz” and continued to work steadily until his death from multiple myeloma in 2008.

4. Tom Skerritt

After graduating from high school in 1951, Tom Skerritt enlisted in the Air Force and served a four-year tour of duty as a classifications specialist, mostly at Bergstrom Field in Austin, Texas.

He made notable appearances in movies like “M*A*S*H” (1970), Cheech & Chong’s “Up in Smoke” (1978) and “Alien” (1979) before his memorable appearance as Maverick’s mentor, Cmdr. Mike “Viper” Metcalf, in “Top Gun” (1986).

Skerritt has gone on to star in “Steel Magnolias” (1989), “A River Runs Through It” (1992), the television series “Picket Fences” (1992-1996) and “Tears of the Sun” (2003). He continues to work, recently acting alongside Tom Hanks in “A Hologram for the King” (2016).

5. George Carlin

George Carlin was a troublemaker in high school, and someone must’ve thought the Air Force could straighten him out. The USAF trained him as a radar technician, but he used his time at Barksdale Air Force Base in Bossier City, Louisiana, to get a side gig as a disc jockey at KJOE across the river in Shreveport.

His superiors soon had their fill of Carlin, and he was given a general discharge in 1957 after being labeled an “unproductive airman.” He was only 20 years old.

Carlin soon found his way as a standup comic, first gaining stardom as a clean-cut observational comedian and then superstardom as a long-haired hero of the ’60s counterculture.

His first big movie appearance was as the clean-cut Herbie Fleck in the 1968 movie “With Six You Get Eggroll,” starring Doris Day and World War II Marine vet Brian Keith and directed by WWII Army vet and comedy legend Howard Morris. He later made a brief appearance in the hit comedy “Car Wash” (1976) and played a supporting role in the Shelley Long and Bette Midler comedy “Outrageous Fortune.”

Carlin achieved movie immortality as Rufus, the time-traveling mentor to Bill S. Preston, Esq. and Ted “Theodore” Logan in the 1989 comedy classic “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” starring Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter. He did the voice of Rufus in the animated series based on the movie and reprised the role in the sequel “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey” in 1991.

He also became known to a generation of small children as the American narrator for the Thomas the Tank Engine shows and had a two-season run with “The George Carlin Show” on Fox. Standup comedy remained his first love and he continued to perform until his death in 2008.

6. Johnny Cash

J.R. Cash joined the Air Force in 1950 out of high school. He showed real talent with Morse code and was assigned to an intelligence unit. He spent most of his Air Force crew intercepting Soviet transmissions at Landsberg, Germany. In addition to giving the small-town Arkansas boy a sense that there was a big world out there for an ambitious young man, the USAF gifted him his first name. The recruiter told him that he had to have a first name to enlist, so young J.R. picked John on the spot.

Johnny Cash returned home, became the biggest artist on Sun Records and later the best-selling country singer in the world after releasing his “Live at Folsom Prison” and “Live at San Quentin” albums.

Cash desperately wanted to follow his Sun Records predecessor and Army veteran Elvis Presley into the movies, but Hollywood didn’t see the rough-and-tumble Cash as a romantic leading man like Elvis.

Out of desperation to make it in Hollywood, Cash agreed to appear as the heavy in the 1961 low-budget crime movie “Five Minutes to Live.” Cash teamed with Navy veteran Vic Tayback (in his first big role) to play a pair of bank robbers. Cash’s Johnny Cabot was set to take the bank manager’s wife hostage at home while Tayback’s Fred Dorella did the dirty business of getting the money at the bank branch.

The producers ran out of money, and Cash, who was making $750 a week on the film, ended up loaning the production $20,000 to finish the movie. It was a flop, and producers tried reissuing the picture with the embarrassing title “Door-to-Door Maniac.” Cash’s menacing performance has made the movie a cult classic that regularly airs on Turner Classic Movies.

Cash went on to star opposite WWII Navy veteran Kirk Douglas in the fascinating 1971 western “A Gunfight” and as corrupt country singer Tommy Brown in what may be the best episode ever of “Columbo.” That led to a series of television movies in the late ’70s and all through the ’80s.

The music career went off the rails for a long while, but Cash enjoyed a major comeback when he hooked up with producer Rick Rubin and began a run of beloved and successful albums in 1994 with “American Recordings.” Cash died at age 71 in 2003.

7. Melvin van Peebles

Melvin Peebles enlisted in the Air Force upon graduation from Ohio Wesleyan University in 1953. He spent three years serving as a navigator and bombardier in the U.S. Air Force Strategic Air Command. After adding the “van” to his name while living in the Netherlands after he left the service, Van Peebles went on to become one of the most controversial and fascinating figures in Hollywood history.

Related: How Air Force Vet Melvin Van Peebles Changed Hollywood Forever

Van Peebles wrote and recorded his own music while living in Europe, wrote a novel, taught himself filmmaking and got the cinema community’s attention with “The Story of a Three Day Pass.”

That movie earned him a job directing the comedy “Watermelon Man” for Columbia Pictures. “Watermelon Man” made money, and the studio tried to give Van Peebles a three-picture contract.

The renegade actor/director turned them down, raised his own money and made the Black gangster movie “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.” The movie’s success made Van Peebles a wealthy man and kicked off a run of so-called “Blaxploitation” movies that included “Shaft” and “Superfly.”

Van Peebles directed more movies, did some acting, made some albums with his band and pursued a career in visual arts before his death at age 89 in September 2021. He may have never again achieved the commercial heights of “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” but he totally rocked the industry with that one huge success.

8. Fred Ward

Fred Ward enlisted in the Air Force after graduation from high school and served as an airman first class at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio and as a radar technician in Labrador, Canada.

He worked a series of blue-collar jobs after his service and didn’t see his career take off until he was almost 40. He starred in Walter Hill’s classic National Guard action picture “Southern Comfort” in 1981 and followed that with an iconic role as astronaut Gus Grissom in the 1983 movie “The Right Stuff.”

Related: Air Force Vet Fred Ward Had One of the Greatest Faces in the Movies

He’s unforgettable as a Vietnam vet and former tunnel rat suffering from PTSD alongside Marine veteran Gene Hackman in “Uncommon Valor” (1983). He had a shot at an action picture franchise when he starred in “Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins” in 1985, but the adventure also ended with that movie and there was never a sequel.

Ward made for a hilarious comedy team with Kevin Bacon in the sci-fi cult classic “Tremors.” He worked steadily until his death at age 79 in May 2022.

9. David Huddleston

David Huddleston graduated from Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia in 1949. Anyone who grew up reading “Boys’ Life” magazine remembers the school’s tiny ads in the back of each issue, so it’s great to finally encounter someone who actually graduated from FUMA.

Huddleston enlisted in the Air Force and was trained as an aircraft engine mechanic. Upon his discharge in 1955, he used the GI Bill to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City.

Once he started getting television guest roles in 1960, Huddleston worked steadily as a character actor, appearing on shows like “Cannon,” “Bewitched,” “McMillan & Wife” and “Gunsmoke.”

He crossed over to movies and appeared in the sci-fi conspiracy thriller “Capricorn One” (1977), “Smokey and the Bandit II” (1980). He starred in the television series “Hizzonner” in 1979 and continued to make TV guest appearances before movie immortality called.

Huddleston played Jeffrey Lebowksi in the 1998 cult classic directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. That’s Jeffrey “The Big” Lebowski, not Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski played by Coast Guard Reserve veteran Jeff Bridges. The movie has a convoluted plot that kicks off when goons working for a porn kingpin urinate on the wrong Jeffrey Lebowski’s rug.

“The Big Lebowski” baffled audiences and critics in 1998 but has gone on to become one of the most fiercely beloved movies of all time, inspiring annual Lebowski Fests around the country where the movie’s fans dress up as characters from the movie. It’s not a movie for everyone, but the people who enjoy it can quote almost every line.

Huddleston returned to his television career and worked until his death in 2016, knowing that he’ll always be remembered as the Big Lebowski.

10. Jimmy Dean

Air Force veteran Jimmy Dean may live forever as the man who brought you Jimmy Dean sausage. Even though the entertainer died in 2010, the company is currently using voiceovers recorded during his lifetime in its television commercials.

Dean dropped out of high school in Plainview, Texas, and enlisted in the Air Force in the late 1940s. He became a successful country music artist in the 1950s but really hit the big time with his No. 1 country and pop hit “Big Bad John” in 1961.

The singer was a canny entertainer and used that fame to cross over to television. He guest-hosted “The Tonight Show” in the 1960s and starred in his own variety show that ran on ABC for three seasons in the early ’60s and continued in syndication until 1975. He gave Jim Henson a big break when he introduced the Muppet Rowlf the Dog as his sidekick on the show.

He founded the Jimmy Dean Sausage Company in 1969 and actually ran it until selling to Consolidated Foods in 1984.

Dean made exactly one Hollywood movie, but his role was truly iconic. He played casino owner Willard Whyte in the 1971 James Bond movie “Diamonds Are Forever.” As a kind of southern-fried Howard Hughes, Dean had a relatively brief supporting role, but he created one of the most memorable characters in the Bond universe.

11. Willie Nelson

Willie Nelson joined the Air Force after graduation from high school and served at Lackland Air Base in San Antonio, but his service was cut short after nine months when he developed back problems.

After receiving a medical discharge, Nelson kicked around trying to establish his career as a singer and songwriter. After moving to Nashville, Tennessee, in 1960, he managed to get Billy Walker to record “Funny How Time Slips Away” and Patsy Cline to record “Crazy.” Both were massive hits, but Nashville executives were never convinced that Nelson had the makings of a successful recording artist.

He eventually gave up after mixed success and moved to Austin, Texas, in 1972. That’s when the world discovered Willie and Waylon Jennings and decided they were the leaders of an outlaw country music. Both men topped the charts in the 1970s with albums that were far more personal and more honky tonk than what was coming from their Nashville contemporaries.

Nelson became an icon and transitioned to movies when he starred alongside Robert Redford and Jane Fonda in the 1979 hit “The Electric Horseman.” Hollywood fell in love with Nelson, and he became a full-time movie actor for a few years, starring in “Honeysuckle Rose” (1980) with WWII Army Air Forces vet Slim Pickens, “Thief” (1981) with James Caan, “Barbarosa” (1982) with Gary Busey, and “Songwriter” (1984) with Army veteran Kris Kristofferson.

That was quite a run, but Nelson’s first love has always been music and the singer soon returned to the stage and the recording studio. He’s made mostly small guest appearances, but he did a hilarious turn as Uncle Jesse in the 2005 movie version of “The Dukes of Hazzard.”

Nelson is still writing, recording and touring at age 89.

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