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20 Classic TV Stars Who Served in the Military: Remembering Them for Memorial Day

You may never look at shows like 'The Munsters' or 'Green Acres' the same way again

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Memorial Day is all about remembering and honoring the brave service men and women who fought and died for our country. Many film actors have been part of the heroes who have put their lives on the line, but among them, what’s surprising is the number of classic TV stars who were in the military from over the years.

We’re talking about people like The Rockford Files’ James Garner, The Munsters’ Fred Gwynne, The Odd Couple’s Jack Klugman, The Incredible Hulk’s Bill Bixby, Leave It to Beaver’s Jerry Mathers, The Jeffersons’ Sherman Hemsley and, would you believe, Get Smart’s Don Adams, among many others.

What follows is a look at 20 classic tv stars in the military, providing a sense of what role they played away from the cameras in helping to defend the United States.

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1. Don Adams: Classic TV Stars in the Military

Don Adams, 1944, 1966, 2003
Don Adams, 1944, 1966, 2003L-R: U.S. Marine Corps, ©NBCUniversal; Gregg DeGuire/Wireimage

BORN: April 13, 1923 in New York City

DIED: September 25, 2005 age 82

BEST KNOWN FOR: Playing Maxwell Smart, Secret Agent 86 on Get Smart (1965 to 1970)

MILITARY BACKGROUND: At the age of 16 — and lying about how old he was — Don Adams joined the U.S. Marines during World War II. Part of the invasion of Guadalcanal, he was the only survivor of his platoon, but contracted blackwater fever and nearly died after being hospitalized for more than a year.

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2. Eddie Albert

Eddie Albert, 1943 and 1968
Eddie Albert, 1943 and 1968L-R: William Grimes/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images; Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

BORN: April 22, 1906 in Rock Island, Illinois

DIED: May 26, 2005 at age 99

BEST KNOWN FOR: Many big and small screen appearances, but classic TV fans know him as Oliver Wendell Douglas in Green Acres (1965 to 1971)

MILITARY BACKGROUND: Although his acting career was already in full swing (and had been used by U.S. Army intelligence as a cover in Mexico to gather information on German U-boats), in 1942 Eddie Albert enlisted in the Navy and was discharged a year later to accept the rank of lieutenant in the U.S. Naval Reserve. He was awarded the Bronze Star for his actions during World War II.

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3. James Arness: Classic TV Stars in the Military

James Arness, 1943 and 1960
James Arness, 1943 and 1960L-R: U.S. Army; Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

BORN: May 26, 1923 in Minneapolis, Minnesota

DIED: June 3, 2011 at age 88

BEST KNOWN FOR: Playing Marshal Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke (1953 to 1973)

MILITARY BACKGROUND: Drafted by the Army. James Arness reported to Fort Snelling, Minnesota in March 1943. He became a rifleman with the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division, and was badly injured during Operation Shingle at Anzio, Italy. The resulting damage to his leg would affect him for the rest of his life.

4. Ed Asner

Ed Asner, 1956 and 1976
Ed Asner, 1956 and 1976L-R: Department of Defense; ©20th Television, Courtesy MovieStillsDB.com

BORN: November 15, 1929 in Kansas City, Missouri

DIED: August 19, 2021 at age 91

BEST KNOWN FOR: News producer and reporter Lou Grant on The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970 to 1977) and its spinoff, Lou Grant (1977 to 1982)

MILITARY BACKGROUND: From 1951 to 1953, Ed Asner served as a part of the U.S. Army Signal Corps, which allowed him to appear in plays that toured Army bases located throughout Europe. After his time with the Army, he would continue to be featured in government propaganda films, such as 1956’s CIA training flick Suspects and Witnesses (image above).

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5. Bill Bixby: Classic TV Stars in the Military

Bill Bixby in the early 1950s and the early 1980s
Bill Bixby in the early 1950s and the early 1980sL-R: Courtesy David Grove and John Schubert; Ralph Dominiquez/Media Punch via Getty Images

BORN: January 22, 1934

DIED: November 21, 1993 at age 59

BEST KNOWN FOR: My Favorite Martian (1963 to 1966), The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (1969 to 1972) and The Incredible Hulk (1978 to 1982)

MILITARY BACKGROUND: Shortly after his 18th birthday, Bill Bixby was drafted into the United States Army, but instead joined the United States Marine Corps Reserve, largely working in the personnel management field with Marine Attack Squadron 141 at Naval Air Station Oakland. He attained the rank of private first class prior to his being discharged in 1956.

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6. Dan Blocker

Dan Blocker in 1944 and 1970
Dan Blocker in 1944 and 1970L-R: Texas Military Institute; Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

BORN: December 10, 1928 in DeKalb, Bowie County, Texas

DIED: May 13, 1972 at age 43

BEST KNOWN FOR: Eric “Hoss” Cartwright on Bonanza (1959 to 1972)

MILITARY BACKGROUND: When he was 16, Blocker attended the Texas Military Institute. Later, he was drafted into the U.S. Army during the Korean War, serving from 1951 to 1952 and during that time was the recipient of numerous medals, including the Purple Heart for wounds suffered in combat.

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7. Ernest Borgnine: Classic TV Stars in the Military

Ernest Borgnine, 1943 and 1964
Ernest Borgnine, 1943 and 1964L-R: U.S. Navy; ©NBCUniversal/courtesy MovieStillsDB.com

BORN: January 24, 1917

DIED: July 8, 2012 at age 95

BEST KNOWN FOR: Winner of the 1956 Academy Award for Best Actor in Marty, Ernest Borgnine had an extensive career on the big screen and the small. In terms of the latter, he’s best remembered for the lead role in McHale’s Navy (1962 to 1966) and as Dominic Santini in Airwolf (1984 to 1986).

MILITARY BACKGROUND: He joined the U.S. Navy in 1935 following his high school graduation, serving aboard the USS Lamberton. Although he was honorably discharged in October 1941, he re-enlisted three months later following the attack on Pearl Harbor. During World War II he served on the USS Sylph, an anti-submarine warfare vessel. He was again honorably discharged in September 1945.

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8. Bob Crane

Bob Crane and cast members from Hogan's Heroes, 1967: Classic TV Stars in the Military
Bob Crane and cast members from Hogan’s Heroes, 1967©CBS/courtesy MovieStillsDB.com

BORN: July 13, 1928 in Waterbury, Connecticut

DIED: Murdered June 29, 1978 at age 49

BEST KNOWN FOR: Colonel Robert Hogan on the sitcom Hogan’s Heroes (1965 to 1971)

MILITARY BACKGROUND: Two years after his high school graduation in 1946, Bob Crane enlisted in the Connecticut Army National Guard. Then, in 1950, he was honorably discharged.

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9. James Garner: Classic TV Stars in the Military

James Garner, 1940s and the 1970s
James Garner, 1940s and the 1970sL-R: U.S. Gov/©NBCUniversal/courtesy MovieStillsDB.com

BORN: April 7, 1928

DIED: July 19, 2014 at age 86

BEST KNOWN FOR: Although he appeared in dozens of movies between 1956’s Toward the Unknown and 2007’s The Ultimate Gift (many of those films deemed classics), on television he starred in Maverick (1957 to 1961), Nichols (1971 to 1972) and as Jim Rockford in what was probably his most popular role, The Rockford Files (1974 to 1980).

MILITARY BACKGROUND: Towards the end of World War II, James Garner joined the U.S. Merchant Marine when he was 16, but only lasted a year there due to constantly being seasick. He also enlisted in the California National Guard, which saw him deployed to Korea during the Korean War, where he was wounded twice. He would ultimately be awarded two Purple Hearts.

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10. Peter Graves

Peter Graves in Mission Impossible, 1967: Classic TV Stars in the Military
Peter Graves in Mission Impossible, 1967©Paramount Pictures/courtesy MovieStilsDB.com

BORN: March 18, 1926 in Minneapolis, Minnesota

DIED: March 4, 2010 at age 83

BEST KNOWN FOR: Portraying Jim Phelps, director of the IMF on the original Mission Impossible (1968 to 1973) and the revival series that aired from 1988 to 1990.

MILITARY BACKGROUND: From 1944 to 1945 he served in the United States Air Force during World War II, achieving the rank of corporal and was the recipient of the World War II Victory Medal and the American Campaign Medal.

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11. Fred Gwynne: Classic TV Stars in the Military

Fred Gwynne, 1940s and the 1960s
Fred Gwynne, 1940s and the 1960sL-R: U.S. Navy; Getty Images (2)

BORN: July 10, 1926 in New York City

DIED: July 2, 1993 at age 66

BEST KNOWN FOR: He is forever remembered as Herman Munster in the sitcom The Munsters (1964 to 1966) and as Patrolman Francis Muldoon in Car 54, Where Are You? (1961 to 1963)

MILITARY BACKGROUND: Fred Gwynne was a radioman as part of the United States Navy during World War II, serving on the submarine chaser USS Manville (PC-581). He would later study art under the GI Bill.

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12. Sherman Hemsley

Sherman Hemsley, 1940s and 1970s: Classic TV Stars in the Military
Sherman Hemsley, 1940s and 1970sL-R: U.S. Air Force; ©Columbia Pictures Television/courtesy MovieStillsDB.com

BORN: February 1, 1938 in South Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

DIED: July 24, 2012 at age 74

BEST KNOWN FOR: His signature role was as George Jefferson, introduced on All in the Family and eventually spun-off into his own series, The Jeffersons (1975 to 1985).

MILITARY BACKGROUND: Dropping out of high school following the 10th grade, Sherman Hemsley joined the United States Air Force, which he was a part of for four years, after which he began studying acting.

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13. Hal Linden: Classic TV Stars in the Military

Hal Linden in Barney Miller, 1975
Hal Linden in Barney Miller, 1975©Columbia Pictures Television/courtesy MovieStillsDB.com

BORN: March 20, 1931 in The Bronx, New York (currently age 93)

BEST KNOWN FOR: Another actor with an illustrious career, largely on the stage and television, his most popular role is unquestionably police officer Captain Barney Miller on the sitcom Barney Miller (1975 to 1982).

MILITARY BACKGROUND: In his youth, Hal Linden dreamt of being a big band singer and bandleader, and in 1952 he joined the United States Army and was sent to Fort Belvoir, where he became a part of the United States Army Band. Catching a stage production of Guys and Dolls during his time there, he decided to become an actor when he was discharged from the in 1954.

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14. Jack Klugman

An Odd Couple flashback to World War II, 1972: Classic TV Stars in the Military
An Odd Couple flashback to World War II, 1972©Paramount Pictures/courtesy MovieStillsDB.com

BORN: April 27, 1922 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

DIED: December 24, 2012 at age 90

BEST KNOWN FOR: Many critically acclaimed performances, but TV viewers know Jack Klugman as Oscar Madison on The Odd Couple (1970 to 1975) and Quincy, M.E. (1976 to 1983)

MILITARY BACKGROUND: Hadassah Magazine reports, “During World War II, he served eight months in the Army, but a kidney problem led to a medical discharge. Threatened with ‘collection’ for a gambling debt, he fled to Pittsburgh and talked his way into the acting program at Carnegie Tech (today’s Carnegie Mellon), with tuition covered by his Uncle Sam. He thrived there. After a couple of years of acting school, he left for New York and never looked back.”

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15. Don Knotts: Classic TV Stars in the Military

Don Knotts in the 1950s and as Barney Fife in the 1960s
Don Knotts in the 1950s and as Barney Fife in the 1960sGetty Images (2)

BORN: July 21, 1924 in Morgantown, West Virginia

DIED: February 24, 2006 at age 81

BEST KNOWN FOR: America fell in love with Don Knotts as Deputy Sheriff Barney Fife on the first five seasons of The Andy Griffith Show (1960 to 1965) and as Ralph Furley on Three’s Company (1979 to 1984)

MILITARY BACKGROUND: Notes warhistoryonline.com, “Don Knotts attended West Virginia University. In 1943, after his freshman year, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and was assigned the 6817th Special Services Battalion as a non-combatant soldier. He was given the opportunity to continue practicing his comedy skills while also serving his country. In times of war, troops need something to provide them joy and comfort, and Knotts did just that as part of the group of soldiers responsible for entertaining them. He toured the western Pacific Islands, performing in an Army-sponsored variety show called Stars and Gripes.”

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16. Nancy Kulp

Nancy Kulp in a 1962 episode of The Lucy Show: Classic TV Stars in the Military
Nancy Kulp in a 1962 episode of The Lucy Show©CBS/IMDb

BORN: August 28, 1921 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

DIED: February 3, 1991 age 69

BEST KNOWN FOR: She portrayed Miss Jane Hathaway, the “good banker” to Mr. Drysdale’s terrible one on The Beverly Hillbillies (1962 to 1971).

MILITARY BACKGROUND: In the midst of attending the University of Miami, Nancy Kulp elected to leave and joined the U.S. Naval Reserve, attaining the rank of lieutenant, junior grade. Before she was honorably discharged in 1946, she receive a number of decorations from the military, among them the American Campaign Medal.

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17. Jerry Mathers: Classic TV Stars in the Military

Jerry Mathers, 1957, 1960s
Jerry Mathers, 1957, 1970sL-R: ©CBS/courtesy MovieStillsDB.com; US Gov

BORN: June 2, 1948 in Sioux City, Iowa. He’s now 75

BEST KNOWN FOR: He portrayed the character of Theodore “Beaver” Cleaver on the television series Leave It to Beaver (1957 to 1963) and the Disney Channel revival show The New Leave It to Beaver (1984 to 1989). All told, he played the Beav in 335 half-hour episodes and one two-hour movie (Still the Beaver, which preceded the Disney series).

MILITARY BACKGROUND: After Leave It to Beaver ended and Jerry Mathers was in high school, from 1966 to 1969 he was a member of the 146th Airlift Wing of the California Air National Guard. While he never was stationed outside the United States and therefore didn’t experience any “action,” there were nonetheless a series of odd rumors that he had died while fighting in Vietnam.

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18. Bob Newhart

Bob Newhart in 1962's Hell is for Heroes: Classic TV Stars in the Military
Bob Newhart in 1962’s Hell is for Heroes©Paramount Pictures/IMDb

BORN: September 5, 1929 in Oak Park, Illinois. He’s 94.

BEST KNOWN FOR: His dry wit, which served him well as Dr. Robert “Bob” Hartley on The Bob Newhart Show (1972 to 1978), Vermont inn owner Dick Loudon on Newhart (1982 to 1990) and cartoonist Bob McKay on Bob (1992 to 1993).

MILITARY BACKGROUND: Reports warhistoryonline.com, “Soon after graduating from college, Bob Newhart was drafted into the US Army. At the time the future comic was drafted, the Korean War was coming to a close. As such, he spent his time in the service working as a personnel manager until his discharge in 1954.”

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19. Robert Stack: Classic TV Stars in the Military

Robert Stack, 1940s and in The Untouchables in 1961
Robert Stack, 1940s and in The Untouchables in 1961L-R: U.S. Navy; Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

BORN: January 13, 1919 in Los Angeles

DIED: May 14, 2003 at age 84

BEST KNOWN FOR: Robert Stack was a huge sensation playing Eliot Ness in The Untouchables (1959 to 1963), which would inspire the Kevin Costner/Sean Connery film from 1987. Another generation knows him as the host of Unsolved Mysteries (1987 to 2002).

MILITARY BACKGROUND: “Stack joined the Navy during World War II, serving as an aerial gunnery officer/instructor for three and a half years,” reports navy.togetherweserved.com. “During his service, he earned numerous medals and commendations, particularly for his skill at sharp-shooting. He was a top-notch air-to-air gunnery instructor. Because of his expertise as an Olympic champion skeet shooter (U.S. 20-gauge champion skeet marksman before WWII, he holds the record for more than 350 consecutive skeet hits), he was assigned to teach anti-aircraft gunnery. Robert Stack was inducted into the National Skeet Shooting Hall of Fame in 1971.”

20. Larry Storch

Larry Storch and the cast of F Troop, 1965: Classic TV Stars in the Military
Larry Storch and the cast of F Troop, 1965©WBDiscovery/courtesy MovieStillsDB.com

BORN: January 8, 1923 in New York City

DIED: July 8, 2022 at 99

BEST KNOWN FOR: The bumbling Corporal Randolph Agarn in the Western comedy F Troop (1965 to 1967). He was also the voice of Mr. Whoopee (“the man with all the answers”) on Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales (1963 to 1966).

MILITARY BACKGROUND: According to navytimes.com, “Storch served on the submarine tender Proteus during the war along with a radio operator named Bernie Schwartz, according to his Facebook page. They were on the Proteus in Tokyo Bay Sept. 2, 1945, and witnessed Japan’s formal surrender onboard the nearby battleship Missouri.”

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