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
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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