15. A Movie Star Who Started His Career in the British Army
British movie star David Niven (1910 – 1983) led a rich life as a memoirist and novelist, and most significantly as a perennially popular character actor. His accolades include an Oscar for Best Actor for his role in the 1958 movie Separate Tables. He also won acclaim for his roles as Phileas Fogg in Around the World in Eighty Days, as The Phantom in the Pink Panther, and as a squadron leader in A Matter of Life and Death. He was born into a comfortable bourgeoisie family, whose antecedents included a lieutenant general in the British Army. Niven lost his father in 1915 when the latter was killed in the Gallipoli Campaign. His mother remarried a knight with whom she had been having an affair before she was widowed, and who was probably David’s biological father.
The young Niven exhibited a wicked sense of humor from early on. Perhaps too much so, as his propensity for pranks often earned him corporal punishment at his preparatory school. He took his licks and kept pranking until administrators expelled him when was ten. That doomed his chances of getting into Eton, the elite private school his parents had hoped to send him to. So they sent him to the era’s dumping ground for the unpromising scions of Britain’s elite: the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, from which he graduated in 1930. After two years in the military, Niven resigned his commission and left for Hollywood to become an actor.
14. In WWII, This Thespian Alternated Between Acting and Service With the Commandos
David Niven got a series of bit parts in the 1930s. However, just when he began to attract attention in Hollywood as a potential star and was about to break through WWII broke out first. Niven returned home, and rejoined the British Army as a lieutenant in a motor training battalion. He craved more excitement, however, so he transferred to the elite Commandos. There, he was assigned to the GHQ Liaison Regiment – a special reconnaissance unit known as the Phantom Signals Unit. Along the way, he put his acting experience to use and was temporarily detached to the Army Film Unit, where he acted in two war films. He returned to the Commandos for the 1944 Normandy Campaign.
In Normandy, Niven located and reported on German positions, and liaised with commanders in the rear to apprise them of frontline conditions. Despite his reputation as a great storyteller and exceptional raconteur, Niven remained tight-lipped about his wartime experiences until his dying day and was contemptuous of those who glorified their service. He once explained that reluctance thus: “I will, however, tell you just one thing about the war, my first story and my last. I was asked by some American friends to search out the grave of their son near Bastogne. I found it where they told me I would, but it was among 27,000 others, and I told myself that here, Niven, were 27,000 reasons why you should keep your mouth shut after the war.”
Brooklyn-born star comedian Mel Brooks is best known for directing hilarious comedies like Spaceballs, Blazing Saddles, The Producers, and Robin Hood: Men in Tights. He is not somebody most people would associate with life and death type of dangerous work. Yet, that is precisely what Mel Brooks did in WWII, when he fought the Nazis as a combat engineer who cleared minefields under enemy fire and was in the thick of the Battle of the Bulge. As he put it: “I was a combat engineer. Isn’t that ridiculous? The two things I hate most in the world are combat and engineering“.
He was born Melvin James Kaminsky in 1926, descended from German Jews on his father’s side and Ukrainian Jews on his mother’s. Brooks was raised in poverty after his father’s untimely death when the future comedian was only two years old. Understandably, growing up without a father was rough, and it left its mark on Brooks as a child and into his adulthood. As he put it decades later: “There’s an outrage there. I may be angry at God, or at the world for that. And I’m sure a lot of my comedy is based on anger and hostility“.
Mel Brooks grew up small and sickly in a borderline slum in Brooklyn, where he developed a sense of humor and a precocious comedic talent early on. It came in handy, and helped him defuse confrontations and avoid getting picked on and beaten up. Most people in his neighborhood worked in New York’s Garment District, but when Brooks was nine, an uncle took him to see a musical comedy on Broadway. After the show, the awestruck child declared his determination to never end up in the Garment District, but to become a showbiz star instead.
It was not just a child’s brief flight of fancy: from then on, Brooks rolled up his metaphorical sleeves and set about making his wish come true. By the time he was fourteen, he had secured himself a gig as an entertainer at a swimming pool and kept the crowds in stitches with his slapstick routines. At fourteen, Brooks also apprenticed with jazz bandleader and drummer Buddy Rich, who taught him how to play the drums. Brooks thus added “musician” to his repertoire. He also changed his name from Mel Kaminsky to Mel Brooks, to avoid getting confused with jazz bandleader Max Kaminsky.
11. A Self-Described “Peacenik” Who Set His Beliefs Aside to Fight Hitler
Music gave Mel Brooks an unexpected entry into the world of standup comedy. When he was sixteen years old, he was doing a gig as a drummer when an MC came down with an illness and was unable to perform. Brooks stepped in as a pinch hitter, and he hit it out of the park. Things were going well for the young comedian, and he was en route to realizing his childhood dream of becoming a professional entertainer. Then his budding showbiz career was interrupted by WWII. Brooks graduated high school in 1944, with nebulous plans to go to college and study psychology, but then decided to join the US Army.
As the future comedy star described his decision: “I enlisted to go to college, not to be in, you know, foxholes and shot at. But listen, that’s what happens in a war. Being a kid of seventeen, eighteen, I was a peacenik, I was against war, but I knew what Hitler was doing to Jews. So, I really did feel this was a proper and just war, and a war that should be fought. My mother had four stars in her window. I think the limit was three if you had children in the army – that is, I think I could have gotten out of it, but I was gung ho at being a soldier“.
Like many American Jews, Mel Brooks was extra fired up to fight the Nazis. He was also well aware of the extra risks faced by Jews if captured by the Germans. As he put it: “My brother Lenny was an engineer gunner in a B-17, and in his 35th or 36th mission, his Flying Fortress B-17 was hit, and they all bailed out, and they landed in Austria. He knew he had an ‘H’ [on his dog tags, for ‘Hebrew’] and he had heard rumors that the Germans were taking Jewish troops and sending them to concentration camps. So in his way down, while still in his parachute, he ripped [his dog tags] off. ”
Brooks scored high in the Army’s aptitude and IQ testing and wound up in the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP). There, he was sent to learn important skills such as engineering, and some skills that were of dubious value in 1944, such as horseback riding and fencing. He did not get to complete ASTP, however, because the combat arms complained of the program’s absurdity, and that it deprived them of the brightest recruits. ASTP was duly terminated, and Brooks was sent to Fort Sill, Oklahoma. There, he received training better suited to the needs of the war effort, as an artillery observer.
9. Before Blazing Saddles, Mel Brooks Was a WWII Combat Engineer
Mel Brooks was sent to Europe in 1944, and there, the qualifications that got him into ASTP marked him out as a soldier of high intelligence. So his first assignment was as a forward artillery observer – a job that requires an ability to think quickly and on the fly. He was then assigned to a combat engineer unit, the 1104th Engineer Combat Battalion (ECB), attached to the 78th Infantry Division. Combat engineers often went out ahead of the main assaults, to clear out obstacles for follow on troops.
Brooks’ unit used demolitions to blast a path clear for the main forces, repaired bridges destroyed by the Germans in a bid to slow the Allied advance, and built bridges from scratch. They also helped lay out and construct field fortifications, and otherwise offered whatever support they could. The combat engineers often did their work under the enemy’s noses, while artillery shells rained down on them, and German snipers did their best to pick them off. The 1104th ECB became the first unit to throw a bridge across the Roer River, and later on, it built bridges across the Rhine. Brooks’ tasks included minefield clearance and defusing land mines.
8. This Comedy Star Had a Hairy Job Clearing Mines
Mel Brooks had a hairy job, made even hairier when he had to do it while exposed to German fire. As the future star described it to Conan O’Brien on his show: “You take a bayonet, and you look for mines – planted mines. And they could blow a tank, I mean they’re big. … You find them, unearth them … if it could blow up a tank, it could certainly take away a Jew in no time“. On at least five occasions, Brooks’ unit had to put down their tools and pick up rifles to fight as infantrymen and took casualties as they did so. He also fought in the Battle of the Bulge during the winter of 1944-1945.
When he recalled his WWII experience decades later, Brooks observed that: “War isn’t hell. War is loud. Much too noisy. All those shells and bombs going off all around you. Never mind death. A man could lose his hearing“. He distilled his wartime experience to its essence when asked what he thought during the war about saving Europe and the world: “You thought about how you were going to stay warm that night. How you were going to get from one hedgerow to another without a German sniper taking you out. You didn’t worry about tomorrow“.
7. A Jarring Contrast Between a Comedic Persona and Serious Wartime Experiences
Mel Brooks was aware of the jarring contrast between his comedic persona and his serious wartime experiences. He once mused to reporters: “I was a combat engineer. Isn’t that ridiculous? The two things I hate most in the world are combat and engineering“. On a more serious note, though, as a Jew, WWII had a special resonance for Brooks: it mattered to him that he had played his part in freeing Jews from the horrors of Nazism. His unit did not liberate any concentration camps, but Brooks came across many Jewish refugees who had survived the Third Reich, and their plight affected him.
The end of the war in Europe came while Brooks and the 1104th Engineer Combat Battalion were engaged in reconnaissance in the Harz Mountains of northern Germany. Brooks, who by then had been promoted to corporal, had survived the war, healthy and hale. He had grown up and matured real fast from the teenager who had enlisted just a year earlier. He closed his days in Europe by taking part in organizing shows and entertainments for American soldiers, as well as for Germans.
The time finally came for Mel Brooks to return to civilian life and resume his quest to become a professional funnyman. After the war, he was discharged from the Army and went back to entertainment. He played drums and pianos in Borscht Belt resorts, and gradually worked his way to become a standup comic. He eventually made his way into the then-new medium of television and wrote for programs such as The Show of Shows and The Admiral Broadway Revue. From there, his career expanded and he became an actor, producer, and director. He eventually became one of the most successful comic movie directors of all time. His long resume of hits includes The Producers (1967), Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein (1974), Spaceballs (1981), and Robin Hood, Men in Tights (1993).
Brooks is one of the few performers to have earned an Oscar, an Emmy, a Tony, and a Grammy. Like most WWII veterans, this comedy star never viewed himself as a hero and went out of his way to downplay his wartime experience. He simply saw himself as one of the many millions from his generation who had answered their country’s call. They donned uniforms and did their part, then returned home, happy to be alive. However, decades after the war, Brooks took one last shot at the Third Reich with his 1967 Hollywood hit, The Producers, which satirized Hitler and the Nazis.
Leonard Alfred Schneider, stage name Lenny Bruce (1925 -1966), was an early star of modern standup comedy. In a departure from the vanilla fare routinely dished out by standup comedians until then, Bruce was edgy. His comic routines combined satire, politics, religion, sex, and vulgarity. He became a poster boy for freedom of speech after prosecutors persecuted him with obscenity charges, of which he was convicted in 1964. Before his meteoric comic career, Lenny Bruce had served his country in WWII.
Born in Mineloa, New York, to Jewish parents, Lenny lived a chaotic childhood after his parents’ divorce. Raised in the homes of various relatives after his parents’ marriage fell apart, he saw little of his father, but was strongly influenced by his mother, a stage performer. Early in 1942, soon after the US entered WWII, a sixteen-year-old Lenny lied about his age to join the US Navy. He was assigned to the light cruiser USS Brooklyn, aboard which he saw combat in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.
4. A Future Comedy Star Used a Slapstick Ruse to Get Out of the Navy
The USS Brooklyn was tasked with convoy escort and fire support for amphibious landings. It saw action in the Torch landings in North Africa, the invasion of Sicily, the Anzio landings, and Operation Dragoon, the Allied landings in southern France. However, as the war drew to a close, Lenny Bruce grew bored with the Navy. He had lied to get in, and now he decided to lie in order to get out. He got the idea when a slapstick performance in which he dressed in drag upset his officers.
That got Bruce thinking. So after 30 months of service in the Navy, he checked into the Brooklyn’s sickbay to report that he was feeling gay. In a handwritten letter, he stated that he had been normal when he joined the Navy. However, his shipmates gave him “abnormal attention”. Said attentions included feeling his body and kissing him, and after 15 months aboard the ship, he became attracted to some of his fellow sailors. The medical officer reported to the captain that the by-then-nineteen-year-old Lenny was suppressing homosexual tendencies, but the desire and temptation continued to grow ever stronger.
The US Navy sent Lenny Bruce to undergo a psychiatric evaluation because he had “a tremendous amount of homosexual drive“. The evaluators noted that Lenny was the kind of homosexual who could adjust to heterosexual relations if given the opportunity. However, they concluded that if he remained aboard a ship filled with men, he would “eventually give way to the performance of homosexual acts“. The USS Brooklyn’s captain concurred, and wrote that Lenny might give in to his gay urges at any moment with an explosion of homosexuality. As such, the future standup comedy star was “potentially dangerous socially” to his ship.
The captain recommended that Lenny should either be separated from the Navy or at least get assigned to a shore installment with access to heterosexual relations. He urged prompt action before Lenny engaged in “scandalous action [that would bring] discredit to the ship in particular and to the naval service in general“. The Navy quickly gave Lenny a dishonorable discharge, but he successfully appealed to have it altered to a discharge under honorable conditions for unsuitability to serve. His ruse to get out of the Navy became the inspiration for TV’s Corporal Klinger, the cross-dressing MASH character desperate to get kicked out of the Army for being gay.
2. America’s Greatest Talk Show Host Was a WWII Veteran
Acclaimed star talk show host and comedian Johnny Carson (1925 – 2005) helmed The Tonight Show from 1962 to 1992. His stint there got him inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame, won him a Peabody Award, and six Emmys. Carson also received a Kennedy Center Honor and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom – America’s highest civilian award. Less known about him is that he was also a WWII US Navy veteran. From early childhood, Carson exhibited a talent for reeling them in. When he was twelve years old, he came across a book on magic tricks and decided he would become a magician.
Carson bought a mail-order magician’s kit, and began to do tricks to entertain family and friends. His favorite were card tricks, and he often followed people around with a deck of cards as he pestered them to “pick a card. Any card“. That became a signature expression in his TV career. After he graduated from high school, seventeen-year-old Carson joined the US Navy in 1943. He sought to enter a pilot training program, but the Navy had other ideas. He was sent instead to the Navy College Training Program, which put tens of thousands of officer candidates through a course of study in colleges and universities before they were commissioned.
1. WWII’s Sudden but Welcome End Spared Johnny Carson From Combat, but Not From Dealing With Combat’s Aftermath
Johnny Carson was sent to Columbia University, and after he completed his course, he was commissioned as an ensign in 1945. He was dispatched to the Pacific and assigned to the battleship USS Pennsylvania as a communications officer. Carson also took up amateur boxing while in the Navy, and ran up a 10-0 record, with most of the matches taking place aboard the Pennsylvania. He had been en route to the combat zone in August of 1945 when the war ended, so he saw no combat. However, he did see its aftermath: the Pennsylvania had been torpedoed just two days before he joined the ship.
The damaged vessel sailed to Guam for repairs, and as the newest and most junior officer, Carson was tasked with the removal of twenty dead sailors. When he reminisced about his naval experience, the star talk show host thought that the highlight of his naval career came when he performed a card trick for James Forrestal, the notoriously cantankerous Secretary of the Navy. Forrestal was amused, and the realization that he could entertain somebody so crabby boosted Carson’s confidence. After the war, he graduated college and then went to work for Red Skelton’s show as a TV writer. He eventually moved to New York City, became the host of The Tonight Show in 1962, and the rest is history.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading