These Stars Traded Hollywood Glamor for Wartime Glory

These Stars Traded Hollywood Glamor for Wartime Glory

Khalid Elhassan - March 31, 2022

Movie star Audrey Hepburn (1929 – 1993) turned heads on screen and in real life with her radiant beauty, grace, and style. She managed to mix an air of sophistication with innocent charm in a combination that endeared her to millions around the world. When not acting, Hepburn was known for her tireless efforts on behalf of children in need. It was a drive rooted in her own experience as a child in World War II when she endured Nazi occupation and risked her life to help the Dutch Resistance. Below are thirty things about her and other stars in real-life war.

These Stars Traded Hollywood Glamor for Wartime Glory
Audrey Hepburn. Imgur

30. Before She Became an International Star, Audrey Hepburn Helped the Dutch Resistance in WWII

British movie star Audrey Hepburn was an icon of both fashion and Hollywood’s Golden Age. She was inducted into the International Best Dressed List Hall of Fame and was ranked by the American Film Institute as one of the greatest female screen legends of classical Hollywood. Her rise to international stardom began in 1953 when she appeared alongside Gregory Peck in the romantic comedy Roman Holiday, and became the first actress to win an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and a BAFTA for a single performance.

These Stars Traded Hollywood Glamor for Wartime Glory
Audrey Hepburn. Pinterest

Less known about her is that before she rose to fame and fortune, a teenaged – nay, child – Audrey Hepburn had helped the Dutch Resistance in WWII. She was born Audrey Kathleen Ruston in 1929 in Brussels, to a British father and a Dutch aristocratic mother. Her parents eventually divorced, and in 1939, ten-year-old Audrey, her siblings, and her mother moved to Arnhem, in the Netherlands. When the Germans invaded and conquered that country in 1940, Audrey found herself under Nazi occupation. As seen below, despite her tender years, she decided to do something about that.

These Stars Traded Hollywood Glamor for Wartime Glory
Audrey Hepburn in childhood. Vintage Every Day

29. This Star Had a Rough Childhood Under the Nazis

When WWII began in 1939, Audrey Hepburn’s mother moved her family from Belgium to the Netherlands in the hope that, as had happened in WWI, the Dutch would remain neutral. Hepburn was enrolled in a conservatory, where she was taught and honed her skills as a ballerina. Unfortunately for the Netherlands’ neutrality, Hitler and the Nazis had other ideas, and on May 10th, 1940, the Germans invaded. After a brief resistance, the massively outnumbered and overwhelmed Dutch were forced to surrender four days later. Like the rest of the Dutch, Hepburn and her family suffered great privations under Nazi occupation.

These Stars Traded Hollywood Glamor for Wartime Glory
Germans storm into the Netherlands. YouTube

In 1942, the Germans executed her uncle in retaliation for sabotage by the resistance, even though he had not been involved. Hepburn’s half-brother was deported to Germany to toil for the Nazis as a slave worker, and another sibling went into hiding to avoid the same thing happening to him. As Hepburn recalled years later: “had we known that we were going to be occupied for five years, we might have all shot ourselves. We thought it might be over next week… six months… next year… that’s how we got through“. It was thus understandable that Hepburn wanted to do what she could against the Nazis. She had trained as a ballerina and dancer from a young age, and she put those talents to use to help the Dutch Resistance.

These Stars Traded Hollywood Glamor for Wartime Glory
Audrey Hepburn in ‘Roman Holiday’. Pinterest

28. A Star Who Supported the Resistance Through Dance

Audrey Hepburn danced and performed in illegal underground recitals known as zwarte avonden (“black evenings”), and donated her earnings to the resistance. This despite her enfeebled physical condition, after the Nazis squeezed the Netherlands hard for resources to fuel their war effort. Within a few years, Hepburn, like many other Dutch, began to suffer from malnutrition. She still danced, however. As she put it: “it was some way in which I could make some kind of contribution“. She also acted as a child courier, used because her youth made her less suspicious in the eyes of German occupiers. She carried documents, coded messages, and other items between various resistance groups. On one occasion, she recalled: “I had to step in and deliver our tiny underground newspaper, I stuffed them in my woollen socks and my wooden shoes, I got on my bike, and delivered them“.

These Stars Traded Hollywood Glamor for Wartime Glory
Audrey Hepburn receiving UNICEF’s International Danny Kay Humanitarian Award in 1989. Wikimedia

In the last few months of the war, a German blockade of food to the Netherlands led to a famine known as the Hunger Winter. Hepburn and her family subsisted on minuscule food amounts, including tulip bulbs. By the time the Netherlands was liberated at the war’s end, she and her family were close to starvation. As she put it: “We lost everything, of course… but we didn’t give a hoot. We got through with our lives, which was all that mattered.” Soon after the war, she moved to Britain, got her first film role in 1948, and went on to star in dozens more movies. She never forgot her childhood experience in wartime. Hepburn eventually became a special ambassador for United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), an organization dedicated to providing humanitarian aid to children worldwide.

These Stars Traded Hollywood Glamor for Wartime Glory
Bea Arthur in The Golden Girls. Amazon

27. A Star Comedienne Who Was Once a US Marine

Star comedienne, actress, and singer Beatrice “Bea” Arthur (1922 – 2009) had a rich career in entertainment that spanned seven decades. In that stretch, she became famous for her signature sitcom roles as Maude Findley in All in the Family and its spinoff Maude, and as Dorothy Zbornak in The Golden Girls. Before that, however, she had been a WWII US Marine. Bea attended a girls’ boarding school where she was the tallest pupil and was also voted “wittiest girl” by her classmates. She became an avid participant in drama programs and theatrical productions. Arthur entertained her friends with imitations of Mae West and fantasized about a career in show business, but did not think that her parents would support her dreams.

These Stars Traded Hollywood Glamor for Wartime Glory
Bea Arthur’s US Marine Corps enlistment photo. National WWII Museum

Arthur downplayed her WWII contributions and often denied that she had served. She often steered questioners away by pointing out that others had done far more in the war. However, the documentary record shows that in 1943, when she was twenty-one, Arthur enlisted in the US Marine Corps under her birth name, Bernice Frankel. She worked as a typist and truck driver and moved up the ranks from private to staff sergeant before her honorable discharge in 1945. While serving in the Marines during the war, she met and married her husband, Robert Arthur, whose last name she took. The marriage was short-lived, but she kept the name and became Beatrice “Bea” Arthur. In hindsight, admirers of her no-nonsense character would probably nod their heads at how apt it is that Maud or Dorothy Zbornak had been a United States Marine sergeant.

These Stars Traded Hollywood Glamor for Wartime Glory
James Doohan as Star Trek’s Scotty. CBS

26. The Man Behind an Iconic Star Trek Phrase

Beam me up, Scotty” is probably Star Trek’s most iconic phrase. To hear it instantly conjures up the Enterprise’s miracle worker chief engineer, who commanded the spaceship and recorded its log when the captain and first officer were absent. The franchise’s second-most memorable phrase is probably “I’m giving it all she’s got, captain! She can’nae take any more!“, delivered in a thick Scottish burr by the Enterprise’s engineer. It is ironic, because the actor who played Montgomery “Scotty” Scott did not have a Scottish accent in real life.

For that matter, James Montgomery Doohan (1920 – 2005) was not even from Scotland. Instead, Doohan was a Canadian who had earned a reputation as the most versatile voice actor in the business before he was cast for his defining role in Star Trek. Before he took up acting, however, Doohan had been a real-life, honest-to-goodness World War II hero who personally killed Nazis in combat, was struck by bullets multiple times on D-Day, and had a middle finger shot off.

These Stars Traded Hollywood Glamor for Wartime Glory
Colorized photo of James Doohan in WWII. All That is Interesting

25. Scotty Went From Playing Soldier in High School to the Real Thing

Jimmy Doohan was the youngest of four children born to Irish immigrants in Vancouver, British Colombia. His mother was a homemaker, while his father earned money as a dentist, a veterinarian, and a pharmacist who owned and operated a chemist shop. Doohan’s dad was an enterprising and talented amateur scientist, who reportedly invented an early form of octane gas in 1923. However, he was also a serious alcoholic, and the heavy boozing got in the way of success and kept him from following up on his discovery and cashing in.

The future Star Trek icon took up after his father in his love of science and enrolled in a technical high school where he excelled at science and mathematics. He also joined the Royal Canadian Cadet Corps – Canada’s version of high school ROTC – in 1938. WWII kicked off a year later, and Doohan went from playing soldier in high school to the real thing. He joined the Royal Canadian Artillery early in the conflict. He was first assigned to the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division’s 14th (Midland) Field Battery, before he was commissioned as a lieutenant and assigned to the 3rd Canadian Division’s 14th Field Artillery Regiment.

These Stars Traded Hollywood Glamor for Wartime Glory
Canadian troops hit Juno Beach on D-Day. Huffington Post Canada

24. “We Were More Afraid of Drowning Than We Were of the Germans

Jimmy Doohan’s unit was shipped to England in 1940. Over the next few years, the Canadians garrisoned the British Isles against a threatened German onslaught and trained for an eventual invasion to retake Europe from the Nazis. Aside from a failed raid on Dieppe in 1942 that turned into a catastrophe, and which Doohan luckily missed, the Canadian ground forces saw next to no combat. Eventually, they began to get antsy after years of constant training with little action, and from the snide comments directed their way, that sarcastically referred to them as “the world’s best-trained soldiers“.

Doohan and the Canadian ground formations finally got their first taste of combat in the Normandy Invasion, when they landed at Juno Beach on D-Day, June 6th, 1944. They were supposed to disembark in the predawn darkness, but rough sea conditions delayed their amphibious assault until well after sunrise. Doohan and his comrades were undaunted. Years later, the Star Trek engineer described the experience of being on a landing craft as it approached the enemy shore: “We were more afraid of drowning than we were of the Germans“.

These Stars Traded Hollywood Glamor for Wartime Glory
Canadian soldiers on D-Day. Canada’s History

23. Before Star Trek, There Was the Normandy Campaign

Jimmy Doohan had cause for confidence, as the superbly trained Canadians turned out to be more than a match for the German defenders. However, it was no cakewalk. For one thing, the invasion planners had overestimated the effectiveness of heavy aerial bombardment that had targeted the beaches in the days and weeks before the invasion. It was assumed that the aerial raids would have destroyed or seriously damaged the German fortifications and inflicted such heavy losses so as to enable the attackers to advance against relatively little opposition. Those estimates turned out to be overly optimistic, and things did not work out quite that way on the actual day of battle.

Intense Allied aerial attacks in the runup to D-Day wreaked havoc on German infrastructure, road and rail transport, and communications hubs throughout Normandy and Northern France. However, bombing proved largely ineffective against the actual defenders on the beaches targeted for amphibious attacks on June 6th and left them mostly unscathed. The first wave of Canadians to disembark from their landing craft were mowed down by Germans who fired from heavily fortified and well-situated positions that overlooked the beaches. Fortunately for Star Trek fans, Doohan was not among those killed that day.

These Stars Traded Hollywood Glamor for Wartime Glory
James Doohan in WWII. The Firearm Blog

22. Scotty Had His Hands Full on D-Day

Jimmy Doohan and his fellow Canadian attackers were temporarily pinned down by intense fire. Their advance came to a halt until they were saved by the timely intervention of a British light cruiser, HMS Ajax. The Ajax’s guns blasted the defenders and wrecked their positions from what amounted to point-blank range for naval fire. She kept at it long enough for the Canadians on the beaches to move inland. Doohan led his men over the wet sands, which were strewn with antitank mines that luckily did not go off because the men did not weigh enough to trigger them.

These Stars Traded Hollywood Glamor for Wartime Glory
HMS Ajax bombarding German positions in Normandy. Imperial War Museums

The future Star Trek star and his unit were ordered to secure the Caen-Bayeux road. They were also tasked with seizing an airport west of Caen, a key city in the path of an Allied advance. Caen’s German defenders would give the Allies serious headaches for a considerable time to come. As Doohan’s unit made its way off Juno Beach and to higher ground inland, he came across and personally killed a pair of German snipers. Despite the early difficulties on the beach that morning, he and his men managed to secure their assigned D-Day objectives by noon on June 6th.

These Stars Traded Hollywood Glamor for Wartime Glory
Canadian troops on D-Day. The Star

21. Star Trek’s Iconic Engineer Was Shot Six Times by His Own Side

Chaos reigned on the beaches behind Jimmy Doohan and his men. Reinforcements and follow-up units arrived faster than the beach masters, tasked with directing them to their destinations, could handle. Soon, there was a huge snarl on the beaches and throughout much of the ground recently liberated by the Allies, as different units were jammed next to and mixed with each other. It was not just messy, but also dangerous. Without well-defined unit boundaries, jittery troops, many of them experiencing combat for the first time, were liable to shoot up their comrades as they mistook them for Germans. Doohan would experience that firsthand.

Around 11:30 PM on D-Day, as Star Trek’s iconic engineer made his way to a command post, a nervous Canadian sentry opened up on him with a burst from a Bren gun. Doohan was struck by six bullets. Four of them hit his legs, one struck his chest, and another shot off the middle finger of his right hand. It could have been worse: the bullet that hit him in the chest was deflected by a silver cigarette case, a gift from his brother. As Doohan joked about it in later years, smoking had actually saved his life. It was no laughing matter at the time, however, as he writhed in pain while being rushed to a hospital to get his wounds treated.

These Stars Traded Hollywood Glamor for Wartime Glory
A Taylorcraft Auster airplane, of the type flown by Doohan in WWII. Wikimedia

20. “The Craziest Pilot in the Canadian Air Force

After he recovered from the injuries sustained in Normandy, Jimmy Doohan signed up to train as a pilot and fly an artillery observer aircraft. Soon as he got his wings, he was assigned to fly a Taylorcraft Auster Mark V plane for No. 666 Aerial Observation Post Squadron. He served in that billet until war’s end. Although he was technically not a member of the Royal Canadian Air Force, Doohan earned a reputation as “the craziest pilot in the Canadian Air Force“.

Among other things, Star Trek’s engineer once got in serious trouble after he slalomed his plane between telegraph posts, just “to prove it could be done“. When the war ended, Doohan was demobilized and sent back home, where he resumed his technical education. One day, after he heard a crappy voice acting in a radio drama, he figured that he could do better. He turned out to be right, helped in no small part by a talent for accents that he had since childhood. So Doohan went to a drama school in Toronto, then earned a scholarship to study drama in New York City.

These Stars Traded Hollywood Glamor for Wartime Glory
James Doohan in a 1953 production. Pinterest

19. From the Terrors of War to Star Trek

By 1946, Jimmy Doohan had secured several radio roles with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). Over the next few years, he shuttled between Toronto and NYC as work demanded, and eventually performed in what he estimated to have been about 4000 radio gigs, and 450 TV ones. By the 1960s, he was making regular appearances on TV, with credits that included The Twilight Zone, Bonanza, Bewitched, The Fugitive, The Outer Limits, and Hazel. His big break came when he auditioned for the role of chief engineer in Star Trek, and producer Gene Rodenberry asked him what accent best suited the role. “If you want an engineer, in my experience the best engineers are Scotsmen“, was Doohan’s reply.

And that is why Star Trek’s engineer had such a thick Scottish accent. Doohan was cast as the Enterprise’s engineer in the series’ second pilot, Where No Man Has Gone Before, with the name Montgomery “Scotty” Scott, after the actor’s grandfather. Scotty spoke in an Aberdeen accent that Doohan had once heard, but he almost ended up cut from the show after Rodenberry had second thoughts, and wrote to tell him “We don’t think we need an engineer in the series“. The character remained only after Doohan’s agent intervened.

These Stars Traded Hollywood Glamor for Wartime Glory
Star Trek’s Scotty. Pinterest

18. WWII Eventually Claimed Scotty, But Not Until He Was 85

Scotty became one of Star Trek’s defining characters. He possessed a depth of technical savvy that frequently allowed him to come up with creative and unconventional fixes to solve seemingly insurmountable problems. He frequently bridged the gap between Captain Kirk’s ambitious plans and his ship’s capabilities, encapsulated by the iconic phrases: “I’m giving it all she’s got, captain! She can’nae take any more!” Moreover, with an identity strongly connected to the Enterprise, Scotty brought the inanimate ship to life as a character in its own right.

These Stars Traded Hollywood Glamor for Wartime Glory
James Doohan in later years. Star Trek

By the third season, Rodenberry was glad that he had kept him in the show. He wrote in a memo that Doohan was: “capable of handling everything we throw at him“, and praised “the dour Scott“. After the series ended, however, Doohan discovered that rather than further his career, his successful role as Scotty had typecasted him, and he found it difficult to land different roles. He eventually accepted that he would “always be Scotty“, and made a living from personal appearances. Indeed, he was one of the few cast members who actually enjoyed meeting fans and talking about the Star Trek days. He lived to age 85 and died in 2005 from pulmonary fibrosis, caused by exposure to harmful substances in WWII.

These Stars Traded Hollywood Glamor for Wartime Glory
Marcel Marceau. Emaze

17. Before He Became a Global Star, the World’s Most Famous Mime Fought in the Resistance

Marcel Marceau (1923 – 2007) became an international star as the world’s most famous mime. His white-faced character, the melancholy vagabond Bip, became globally famous from TV and stage appearances. Among many accomplishments in his long and eventful career, Marceau won an Emmy Award and got declared a national treasure in Japan despite the fact that he was not even Japanese. He was also admitted to the Berlin Academy of Fine Arts as a member, and became a decades-long friend of Michael Jackson. Indeed, the King of Pop borrowed some of Marceau’s moves and used them in his dance routines.

These Stars Traded Hollywood Glamor for Wartime Glory
Marcel Marceau and Michael Jackson. YouTube

Before he became world-famous, however, Marceau spent most of the Second World War in hiding and working for the French Resistance. After the Allies landed in France in 1944, he gave his first major performance before an audience of 3000 troops in recently-liberated Paris. He then joined the Free French army for the remainder of the war. Marceau’s talent for languages and near fluency in English and German led to his appointment as a liaison officer with General George S. Patton’s Third US Army.

These Stars Traded Hollywood Glamor for Wartime Glory
Marcel Marceau. Wikimedia

16. Marceau’s Talent as a Mime Saved Lives

The world’s most famous mime was born Marcel Mangel into a Jewish family in Strasbourg, France. His father was a kosher butcher originally from Poland, and his mother hailed from what is now Ukraine. The family had to hide its Jewish origins when the Nazis invaded and conquered France in 1940. They fled to central France, but the father was captured in 1944 and sent to Auschwitz, where he perished. Marcel moved to Paris with a new name and forged identity papers.

The future star went underground in the French capital, adopted the surname “Marceau” after a French Revolutionary War general, and joined the resistance. His underground activities included the rescue of many Jewish children from German clutches. His talent for miming – a career to which he had aspired ever since he first saw a Charlie Chaplain movie when he was five years old – came in handy. He used it to distract and quiet the children as he smuggled them past German guards and across the border to safety in Switzerland.

These Stars Traded Hollywood Glamor for Wartime Glory
David Niven. Internet Movie Database

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.

These Stars Traded Hollywood Glamor for Wartime Glory
A young David Niven in the Highland Light Infantry. Pinterest

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.

These Stars Traded Hollywood Glamor for Wartime Glory
David Niven in uniform. WWII Tags

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.

These Stars Traded Hollywood Glamor for Wartime Glory
Mel Brooks, center, in Blazing Saddles. YouTube

13. A Star Comedian Who Fought the Nazis

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“.

These Stars Traded Hollywood Glamor for Wartime Glory
Mel Brooks in high school. Frieda Vizel

12. A Precocious Comedic Talent

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.

These Stars Traded Hollywood Glamor for Wartime Glory
A young Mel Brooks. GI Jews

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.

These Stars Traded Hollywood Glamor for Wartime Glory
Mel Brooks. Table Magazine

10. A Future Star in a Bizarre Military Program

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.

These Stars Traded Hollywood Glamor for Wartime Glory
Mel Brooks in WWII. Pinterest

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.

These Stars Traded Hollywood Glamor for Wartime Glory
Mel Brooks in WWII. History Network

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“.

These Stars Traded Hollywood Glamor for Wartime Glory
‘A Star is Born’, blurb on Mel Brooks performing for fellow GIs towards the end of his time in uniform. Colonel Milquetoast

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.

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.


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