After Wonder Woman’s box office success, a number of stories surfaced about the movie’s lead actress who, despite expertly carrying her own blockbuster feature film, was a relative unknown to American audiences before she first donned the bullet-proof bracelets. Gal Gadot, many soon learned, isn’t just a badass on screen – like all Israeli citizens, she also spent time serving in the military.
Aside from serving as Miss Israel in the 2004 Miss Universe pageant, Gadot also represented her country as a combat trainer for two years is the Israeli Defense Force. According to Gadot herself, the soldiers she trained were fans of hers well before she started her career on the big screen.
“The soldiers loved me because I made them fit,” Gadot explained to Maxim in an interview about her service. While I’m sure Gadot took her role as a gymnastics and calisthenics instructor as seriously as anyone else, it seems likely that some of the male soldiers may have loved her for more than just her ability to carry out her duties as a coach…
Gadot, class act that she is, says that her time in uniform helped better prepare her for the fast paced life of being a Hollywood actress, and even credited the familiarity she gained with firearms in service with landing her a role in the Fast and Furious franchise. Of course, in today’s complex sociopolitical world, military service can be polarizing for an actress, and Gadot’s nationality and military service even resulted in some nations banning the release of Wonder Woman all together. When asked about what Gadot gained from her time in uniform, she responded with a measured and practiced response that I’ve heard echoed across uncomfortably politically charged Thanksgiving dinner tables every year since I first stepped foot on the yellow footprints of Parris Island.
“Let me start by saying, I wish no country had the need for an army,” she told Glamour Magazine. “But in Israel serving is part of being an Israeli. You’ve got to give back to the state. You give two or three years, and it’s not about you. You give your freedom away. You learn discipline and respect.”
This got me wondering… what other celebrities can credit their success (at least in part) to their time serving their country? Leading up to my father’s generation, the list of celebrities that have spent time in uniform is rather extensive, due in large part to somewhat regular drafts starting in 1940 and continuing into the early seventies to support a number of wars and conflicts ranging from World War II to Vietnam. Bob Barker, Clark Gable, Henry Fonda, and Johnny Carson all represented the U.S. of A. in one of the four branches of the military. As did Chuck Norris, Morgan Freeman, Jimi Hendrix and Clint Eastwood. Heck, before (and while) Hugh Hefner and Elvis Presley were young and strapping enough to break hearts, they broke hearts for Uncle Sam.
That list gets quite a bit shorter, though, when I start looking for veterans of my generation. Granted, part of that is because there was no draft to serve as a bit of a financial and cultural equalizer, leaving just us poor plebs in boots. I like that theory, but my time serving under Colonel Burke Whitman (now commanding general of the 4th Marine Division) – who is the heir to the Whitman’s chocolates fortune – proved to me that it’s not just us kids in the “free lunch” line at school that end up in a recruiter’s office. The urge to serve, or to get away, can infiltrate even the most well-dressed among us. Despite the failings of my favorite theory, the list of celebrities that served their country thins considerably when you start looking for anyone born after 1970. Every list on the internet is full of folks from the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boomers, leaving Generation X and millennials woefully behind (as I’m sure the senior generations will find as no surprise at all).
Adam Driver, who has gained quite a bit of fame playing a goth/emo Darth Vader for a new generation of Star Wars nerds (I’m allowed to say that because I’m one of them), was a Marine mortarman for three years before fracturing his sternum in a mountain biking accident and being medically discharged. He’s also one of the only legitimate movie stars of the 21st century that can claim service during the War on Terror.
Driver still talks to this day about his regrets in terms of not finishing his contract after his injury – particularly because his unit deployed without him soon after his separation. Despite those regrets, Driver credits his service with blessing him with a strong sense of perspective when facing the challenges of an actor.
“After I got out, I suddenly realized that I could handle civilian problems. They all seemed pretty small by comparison.” Driver said.
Rob Riggle, star of Judd Apatow comedies like Step Brothers, also served in Marine Corps aviation and later as a public affairs officer. He retired from the Corps in 2013 after completing 23 years of combined active duty and reserve service. Riggle, perhaps better than many, can truly appreciate what it’s like to maintain a very different life in uniform and out – serving as a Lieutenant Colonel prior to his retirement while also taking time out of his service to crack fart jokes with guys like Will Ferrell.
“I don’t think anybody is just one thing,” Riggle says. “When I put on my Marine cover, I’m a Marine and I act accordingly.”
So why are there so few famous actors or actresses of my generation with their names up in lights? Well, we could go back to the draft theory, or one could easily attribute it to the shrinking number of service members since the 1960s and its inverse relationship to population growth, or you could take the lazy New York Times editorial route and blame it on the narcissism of my generation… and to be honest they may all be true – but I think there’s one more ingredient in that mix that often gets overlooked: my generation of veterans are among the first to create our own celebrities.
War heroes have always been heralded in this great country, but never before have we seen so many veterans claim the spotlight based in large part on their service and catering specifically to an audience that has either spent time in uniform themselves, or are eager to learn more about the experiences of America’s war fighters. Media moguls like Brandon Webb create websites like this and become pop-culture personalities because of their unique experiences gained in uniform. Mat Best, the former Army Ranger turned clothing line and coffee entrepreneur/YouTube star is another great example of GWOT celebrities trading on their service, rather than keeping it separate from their media efforts like LtCol Riggle.
Maybe in the years to come, we’ll start adding to the list of GenX and millennial war fighters that reach the all-important level of notoriety where TMZ starts rooting through their trash. I’m not sure I’d wish that upon anyone, but the money that comes along with it seems to be worth the hassle.
And if it isn’t, at least they’ll know how to shoot at the trespassers.
Images courtesy of Inuth, Hollyfeed, New York Post, Controversial Times, Street Justice Films, Instagram, Time