Of the 29 American presidents who served in the military, there have been exactly zero with Marine Corps experience. On the other hand, no branch of the United States military has the Corps’ track record when it comes to turning out movie stars.
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Some of the greatest tough-guy actors in Hollywood history got their start in the Marines. Marines love to help other Marines and, as we make our way through the list, notice just how many actors and directors served together in the Corps and how many of these Marines appeared together in movies.
Here are 10 of the very best movie actors to serve in the USMC.
1. Gene Hackman
Gene Hackman dropped out of high school at age 16 and lied to the recruiter about his age to join the Marines, part of a tradition now lost in the modern military with all its birth certificate requirements and modern databases. Hackman served in China until the Communist revolution and finished his service in Japan and Hawaii before his discharge in 1951.
The Marine’s acting career got off to a very slow start with only a handful of minor movie roles and television guest appearances until he finally had a breakthrough at age 37 as Buck Barrow in 1967’s “Bonnie and Clyde” alongside Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. Hackman was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, and the influential gangster was a sign that big changes were coming to Hollywood movies.
Hackman won a Best Actor Oscar for playing NYPD Det. Popeye Doyle in the 1971 movie “The French Connection,” which won five total Oscars, including Best Picture. That kicked off an incredible decade with lead roles in the weird 1972 gangster flick “Prime Cut” alongside fellow Marine Lee Marvin, 1972’s disaster movie blockbuster “The Poseidon Adventure,” Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 Best Picture Oscar nominee “The Conversation,” the 1975 noir classic “Night Moves,” a repeat performance as Doyle in 1975’s “French Connection II” and 1977’s World War II classic “A Bridge Too Far.”
He played Lex Luthor in three Christopher Reeve Superman movies, a Marine veteran searching for his POW son in 1983’s “Uncommon Valor,” an inspirational high school basketball coach in 1986’s “Hoosiers,” a corrupt defense secretary in the 1987 spy thriller “No Way Out,” a USAF colonel in the 1988 Vietnam War movie “Bat*21,” a Green Beret in 1989’s “The Package,” a corrupt lawyer in 1993’s “The Firm” and a Navy submarine commander in 1995’s “Crimson Tide.”
That’s an incredible run, but it leaves out his Best Actor Oscar-nominated role as an FBI agent in the 1988 civil rights drama “Mississippi Burning” and his Best Supporting Actor Oscar win in Clint Eastwood’s blockbuster 1992 western and Best Picture “Unforgiven.”
Hackman retired from acting in 2004 after a legendary late-career performance in the 2001 Wes Anderson classic “The Royal Tenenbaums,” giving a moving performance in a role that would have been farce in lesser hands. Hackman is still with us at age 92 and, if he’s reading this, we’d love to have a conversation about his days in the Corps.
2. Adam Driver
Adam Driver is the youngest actor on this list and one of the few contemporary Hollywood stars with military experience. He graduated from high school in 2001 and enlisted in the Marine Corps after the Sept. 11 attacks, training as an 81mm mortar man and serving with the Weapons Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines. His career was cut short just before his unit shipped out to Iraq when he fractured his sternum in a mountain biking accident. He was medically discharged as a lance corporal.
He graduated from Julliard in 2009, and his career took off soon after when he was cast as Adam Sackler in the HBO series “Girls” in 2012. High-profile roles in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” and the Coen Brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis” quickly followed.
Driver is best known for playing Ben Solo, aka Kylo Ren, in the three “Star Wars” sequels released starting in 2015. That made him one of the most famous actors in the world, but he has preferred to concentrate on offbeat and indie movies rather than make a career in Marvel movies or action thrillers.
He was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for the 2019 divorce drama “Marriage Story” and a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Spike Lee’s 2018 drama “BlacKkKlansman.” Other career highlights include Jim Jarmusch’s 2016 drama “Paterson,” Martin Scorsese’s 2016 historical drama “Silence,” Steven Soderbergh’s 2017 NASCAR heist comedy “Logan Lucky,” Jarmusch’s 2019 zombie comedy “The Dead Don’t Die,” the 2019 9/11 investigation drama “The Report,” and a pair of 2021 Ridley Scott dramas, “The Last Duel” and “Gucci.”
Driver is currently filming “Ferrari” for Michael Mann, in which he plays the legendary automotive designer and will follow that with Francis Ford Coppola’s planned epic, “Megalopolis.”
3. Steve McQueen
Steve McQueen joined the Marine Corps in 1947 at age 17 after his mother signed the papers that let him make an underage enlistment. He struggled at first with military discipline and did a stint in the brig after some unauthorized leave. McQueen got the message and turned things around, saving the lives of five Marines when he rescued them from a tank about to break through the ice on an Arctic mission.
McQueen used his GI Bill to study acting in NYC and became a successful motorcycle racer as a way to earn money while he waited for the acting career to take off. He got an early break in the 1958 teen sci-fi movie “The Blob,” but his career really kicked into gear when he was cast in the lead role in the 1958 CBS television series, “Wanted: Dead or Alive.”
Then came a breakout movie role in WWII Army Air Corps veteran John Sturges’ 1960 western, “The Magnificent Seven;” Don Siegel’s 1962 WWII drama, “Hell Is for Heroes;” and another 1962 WWII drama, “The War Lover.”
McQueen became a superstar as “The Cooler King” in Sturges’ 1963 WWII POW drama, “The Great Escape.” The Marine was magnetic as Army Air Force Capt. Virgil Hilts, and McQueen is the epitome of ’60s cool. There’s a reason Quentin Tarantino made this the role that got away from fictional hero Rick Dalton in “Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood.”
Just when you think an actor couldn’t be more magnetic in a movie, McQueen shows up in 1968’s “Bullitt,” a movie that may be both the best car-chase movie and the best badass police detective movie ever made. The movie’s green 1968 Mustang GT may be the most iconic car in movie history, but the car’s cool factor pales when compared to the icy performance by McQueen as Lt. Frank Bullitt.
McQueen got his only Oscar nomination for playing a Navy engineer in the war drama, “The Sand Pebbles.” He co-starred with Dustin Hoffman in the hit 1973 prison drama “Papillon” and played a lead role in the 1974 disaster movie blockbuster “The Towering Inferno.”
That list of roles is shorter than it should be, because McQueen died at age 50 from mesothelioma, a cancer he blamed on asbestos exposure he got when removing insulation from a troop ship while in the Marines.
4. Lee Marvin
Nicknamed for his distant cousin, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, Lee Marvin left school in 1942 to enlist in the Marines. During WWII, Marvin was injured in combat on Saipan in June 1944 and was discharged from the Corps a year later after medical treatment. Fans of the actor will not be surprised to learn that he left the Corps as a private, having been demoted from corporal because of his attitude problems.
After studying acting on the GI Bill, Marvin had a huge breakout year in 1953 with roles as villain Vince Stone opposite fellow Marine Glenn Ford in Fritz Lang’s noir “The Big Heat” and Chino opposite Marlon Brando in “The Wild One.” Marvin is absolutely electric in both movies, bringing a feral energy almost never previously seen in Hollywood movies.
He appeared in classic movies like Edward Dmytryk’s “The Caine Mutiny” (1954) and John Sturges’ “Bad Day at Black Rock” (1955) before taking the lead role in the NBC crime series “M Squad” in 1957.
The movie career got back on track when Marvin starred as the title character opposite WWII Army Air Force veteran James Stewart and John Wayne in WWII Navy veteran John Ford’s towering western, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” Once again, he brings a shocking intensity that contrasts with the old-school Hollywood acting from Stewart and Wayne.
Marvin starred as a hitman alongside fellow Marine Clu Gulager in Don Siegel’s 1964 noir “The Killers” and won a Best Actor Oscar for the 1965 western comedy “Cat Ballou” before taking on his most iconic role, OSS Maj. John Reisman in Robert Aldrich’s classic WWII action movie “The Dirty Dozen.”
The actor went on to make some daring choices, including John Boorman’s extremely arty film noir “Point Blank” in 1967, the previously mentioned 1972 weirdo gangster movie “Prime Cut” opposite fellow Marine Gene Hackman, and a four-hour 1973 movie version of Eugene O’Neill’s play “The Iceman Cometh” opposite fellow Marine Robert Ryan and directed by Air Force veteran John Frankenheimer.
Marvin starred in WWII Army vet Samuel Fuller’s semi-autobiographical 1980 WWII drama “The Big Red One” and the 1983 spy thriller “Gorky Park” before making his final appearance opposite Air Force veteran Chuck Norris in the 1986 spec ops thriller “The Delta Force.” The Marine veteran died at the age of 63 from complications related to a fungal infection called coccidioidomycosis.
5. George C. Scott
Upon graduation from high school, George C. Scott enlisted in the Marine Corps and served from 1945-1949. He was an honor guard for military funerals at Arlington National Cemetery and attributed his drinking habit to that experience.
Scott studied journalism and theater at the University of Missouri on the GI Bill. He performed in New York City theater before earning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination out of the gate in the 1959 courtroom drama “Anatomy of a Murder,” opposite WWII Army Air Force veteran James Stewart, WWII Army veteran Arthur O’Connell, Army veteran Orson Bean and WWII Army Force veteran Howard McNear.
Scott became an icon with a hilarious performance as Gen. Buck Turgidson in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 military satire “Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” opposite fellow Marine Sterling Hayden.
He later proved that it takes a Marine to portray a real-life Army icon like Gen. George S. Patton, as evidenced by the legendary opening scene where Scott addresses the troops in front of a giant American flag. Scott won a Best Actor Oscar for his performance in the 1970 movie “Patton,” which won a total of seven Oscars, including Best Picture.
6. Sterling Hayden
Sterling Hayden dropped out of high school and went to sea and worked as a fisherman. Scouts from Paramount Pictures saw a photo of Hayden taken at an annual Fisherman’s Race in Gloucester, Massachusetts. They brought him to Hollywood for a screen test, and the sailor-turned-actor made a couple of movie appearances before World War II broke out. He joined the Army, promptly broke an ankle and was medically discharged.
Hayden wasn’t done with the military. He then enlisted in the Marine Corps under the fake name John Hamilton and was recommended for Officer Candidate School after boot camp at Parris Island. After graduation from OCS, Marine officer Hamilton was assigned to the OSS and carried out missions behind enemy lines. He was awarded the Silver Star and left the service as a captain.
He got his first big movie break as the lead in WWII Army veteran John Huston’s heist thriller “The Asphalt Jungle” opposite fellow Marine WWII veteran James Whitmore and WWI Army veteran Louis Calhern.
Hayden became a big star after another heist picture, this time Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 movie “The Killing” in which he played opposite WWII Army vet Elisha Cook Jr. and Joe Turkel. The movie was a big hit and led to a reunion with Kubrick for 1964’s “Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” in which he played Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper, one of the most memorable characters in military movie history. And, of course, he played alongside fellow Marine George C. Scott.
Hayden played two more iconic roles in his later career, most memorably the corrupt NYPD Capt. McCluskey in “The Godfather” (1972) and later Roger Wade in Robert Altman’s noir classic “The Long Goodbye” (1973). Hayden died of prostate cancer at age 70 in 1986.
7. Glenn Ford
Born in Canada in 1916 and raised in Southern California, Glenn Ford was just starting his career in Hollywood when World War II loomed. Ford joined the Coast Guard Auxiliary in 1941 before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
During the first year of the war, Ford traveled the country to sell war bonds but didn’t think he was doing enough, so he joined the Marine Corps Reserve in December 1942. Ford and fellow actor Tyrone Power hosted a weekly Marines radio show called “Halls of Montezuma” while he waited to be shipped out for combat.
Unfortunately, Ford developed ulcers and was hospitalized before a medical discharge in December 1944. He continued to serve in the Naval Reserve for more than two decades, well into the Vietnam War era.
Back at the movies, Ford became a huge star alongside Rita Hayworth in the influential film noir “Gilda” in 1946. Highlights include the lead role in another influential noir, “The Big Heat” (1953), which featured fellow Marine Lee Marvin as a villain.
Ford worked with writer/director and WWII Marine veteran Richard Brooks on “Blackboard Jungle” (1955), an influential drama about juvenile delinquency in which Ford was the teacher trying to connect with a class of dangerous inner-city youth. Ford became a staple in westerns like “3:10 to Yuma” (1957) and “Cimarron” (1960) and war movies like “Torpedo Run” (1958), ”
Is Paris Burning?” (1966) and “Midway” (1976). Ford also played Pa Kent in “Superman” (1978).
The actor retired from the screen in 1991 and died in 2006 at age 90 in Beverly Hills, California.
8. Robert Ryan
Robert Ryan grew up in Chicago, graduated from Dartmouth College in 1932 and kicked around as a ranch hand and seaman before becoming an actor. He was just getting started in Hollywood when WWII started.
Initially, he was acting on the home front, but after making the war movie “Marine Raiders,” Ryan enlisted in the Marines and served as a drill instructor at Camp Pendleton, where he became friends with the future movie director Richard Brooks. If you’re keeping track, you’ll remember that’s the same guy who would later direct Glenn Ford in “Blackboard Jungle.”
After completing his service, Ryan played an anti-Semitic soldier in the influential noir “Crossfire” (1947), which was based on a novel by his fellow Marine Brooks. The movie was a sensation and the first B movie to receive a Best Picture nomination. Ryan was also nominated for Best Supporting Actor.
He went on to star in “Clash by Night” (1952) with Barbara Stanwyck, “Bad Day at Black Rock” (1955) with WWI Navy vet Spencer Tracy, the D-Day epic “The Longest Day” (1962) and “Battle of the Bulge” (1965) before playing what may be his most iconic role.
Ryan is unforgettable as Col. Everett Dasher Breed in 1967’s “The Dirty Dozen.” Ryan’s Breed is the by-the-book officer who hates everything that Maj. John Reisman (fellow Marine Lee Marvin) and his ragtag unit stand for.
Ryan joined a group of fellow veterans to make the revisionist and incredibly violent western “The Wild Bunch” in 1969. Director Sam Peckinpah was a WWII Marine veteran, and the movie also starred WWII Army Air Force veteran William Holden, WWII Navy veteran Ernest Borgnine, WWII Army Air Force veteran Edmond O’Brien, Marine veteran Warren Oates, WWII Navy veteran Strother Martin, Navy veteran L.Q. Jones and Army veteran Bo Hopkins. That’s decades of service on the screen.
9. Warren Oates
Warren Oates was born and raised in Depoy, Kentucky, and enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1946. He served as an aircraft mechanic and left the service in 1948 as a corporal. After studying acting at the University of Louisville, he migrated to Hollywood and spent the 1950s and early 1960s playing guest roles on dozens of TV episodes, usually westerns.
Fellow Marine Sam Peckinpah directed Oates on “The Rifleman,” they struck up a friendship and the director later cast Oates in his movies “Ride the High Country” (1962), “Major Dundee” (1965), “The Wild Bunch” (1969) and “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” (1974).
Oates might be best remembered as Sgt. Hulka, the Army drill instructor in “Stripes.” Of course, they had to hire a real Marine to play the role of the sergeant determined to break Bill Murray’s slacker recruit.
Oates died of a heart attack in 1982 at age 53. He was the kind of ageless actor who could’ve probably worked for at least another 25 years without seeming to grow any older.
10. Tim Matheson
Tim Matheson was at least a little famous as a child actor when he enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve in 1968, the same year he starred alongside WWII Navy vet Henry Fonda and Lucille Ball in the blended family comedy “Yours, Mine and Ours.” His movie character also joined the Corps at the end of the film.
His first memorable adult role was as Officer Phil Sweet, one of the vigilante cops that Det. Harry Callahan (Army vet Clint Eastwood) takes down in “Magnum Force” (1973).
Matheson was both talented and fortunate enough to land a role in one of the most iconic comedies of all time, 1978’s “National Lampoon’s Animal House.” He’s unforgettable as Eric “Otter” Stratton, the crafty leader of the outcasts in the Delta Tau Chi fraternity.
He’s gone on to a successful career in television, playing Vice President John Hoynes on “The West Wing” (1999-2006), Larry Sizemore on “Burn Notice” (2008-2013) and Dr. Brick Breeland on “Hart of Dixie” (2011-2015). He’s currently starring as Dr. Vernon Mullins in the Netflix series “Virgin River.”
Related: ‘Animal House’ Star Tim Matheson Talks Marine Corps Service
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