These Stars Traded Hollywood Glamor for Wartime Glory
These Stars Traded Hollywood Glamor for Wartime Glory

These Stars Traded Hollywood Glamor for Wartime Glory

Khalid Elhassan - March 31, 2022

These Stars Traded Hollywood Glamor for Wartime Glory
Mel Brooks. New Jersey Performing Arts Center

6. A Hero Who Downplayed His Heroism

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).

These Stars Traded Hollywood Glamor for Wartime Glory
Mel Brooks. The SitRep

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.

These Stars Traded Hollywood Glamor for Wartime Glory
Lenny Bruce. News Day

5. A Pioneer of Modern Standup Comedy

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.

These Stars Traded Hollywood Glamor for Wartime Glory
Comedian Lenny Bruce, following one of his arrests. NPR

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.

These Stars Traded Hollywood Glamor for Wartime Glory
Lenny Bruce’s US Navy ID card. University of Missouri Kansas City School of Law

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.

These Stars Traded Hollywood Glamor for Wartime Glory
Lenny Bruce’s handwritten gay letter to the US Navy. The Smoking Gun

3. The Ruse That Inspired an Iconic TV Character

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.

These Stars Traded Hollywood Glamor for Wartime Glory
MASH’s Corporal Klinger. Reddit

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.

These Stars Traded Hollywood Glamor for Wartime Glory
Johnny Carson. Biography

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.

These Stars Traded Hollywood Glamor for Wartime Glory
Johnny Carson receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1992 from President George H.W. Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush. George H.W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum

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.

These Stars Traded Hollywood Glamor for Wartime Glory
Johnny Carson in the US Navy. Pinterest

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.

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Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Corkery, Paul – Carson: The Unauthorized Biography (1987)

Doohan, James – Beam Me Up Scotty: Star Trek’s ‘Scotty’ in His Own Words (1996)

Encyclopedia Britannica – David Niven

Goldman, Albert Harry – Ladies and Gentlemen, Lenny Bruce! (1971)

Grunge – The Truth About Mel Brooks’ Time in World War II

History Collection – 10 Famous Americans Buried at Arlington National Cemetery

History Network – The French Resistance’s Secret Weapon? The Mime Marcel Marceau

Imperial War Museums – Five Film Stars’ Wartime Roles

Internet Movie Database – James Doohan Biography

Military Network – Famous Veterans: Johnny Carson

Military Network – Famous Veterans: Mel Brooks

National WWII Museum – Bea Arthur, US Marine

Niven, David – The Moon’s a Balloon: Reminisces (1986)

History Collection – Historic Figures Who Set Out to Save Jews From the Holocaust

Paris, Barry – Audrey Hepburn (1996)

SitRep – Mel Brooks Talks About His Combat Experience in WWII

Smoking Gun – Lenny Bruce’s Gay Naval Ruse

History Collection – These Tragic and Triumphant Teenagers Who Fought in World War II

Times, The, September 24th, 2007 – Marcel Marceau, Celebrated French Mime Artist Whose Clowning Dramas Eloquently Expressed the Wonder and Terror Existence

US Department of Defense – Before Stage and Screen, Bea Arthur Shined as a Marine

Vintage News – Mel Brooks Fought in One of WWII’s Most Famous and Horrific Battles

War History Online – One of the Funniest Men Alive, Mel Brooks, Spent WWII Clearing Land Mines

War History Online – Star Trek Star Shot Two Snipers on D-Day and Was Shot Seven Times in WWII

History Collection – Famous People You Won’t Believe Are WWII Veterans

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