Can serving in the military help prepare you for a performing arts career? Some celebrities began their careers off-stage, serving in the armed forces.
While there are many performers who are veterans, we shine a light here on a few in recognition of Military Appreciation Month.
James Earl Jones, a multiple Tony®-Award winner who also is of Star Wars fame, served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. While working his way up, proceeding from second lieutenant to first lieutenant, Jones decided to make the switch to an acting career. Jones made his Broadway debut as Edward in Sunrise at Campobello. Throughout his vast career, Jones won Tony Awards for The Great White Hope and Fences, and received additional nominations for On Golden Pond and The Best Man. In 2017, the performer was also the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Tony Award.
Tony-Award winner Bea Arthur (Bernice Frankel), star of stage and screen, served in the Women’s Reserve in the Marines after enlisting in 1943. Arthur rose in the ranks to sergeant and staff sergeant before launching her very successful acting career on Broadway. She won the 1966 Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for her portrayal of Vera Charles in Mame. Throughout most of the 1970s, she played Maude Findlay in All in the Family and its spin-off, Maude, winning an Emmy Award® for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series. Arthur won the same award for her portrayal of Dorothy in The Golden Girls. Arthur returned to Broadway, starring in the one-woman show bearing her name – Bea Arthur on Broadway: Just Between Friends. In her Marines exit paperwork, Arthur expressed an interest in pursuing acting and was later quoted to say her experience in the military helped her acting skills.
A veteran of the Marine Corps, Adam Driver – a Tony, Oscar®, Golden Globe® and three-time Emmy-nominated actor – credits his time in the service for helping him decide his career choice. After his service was cut short due to a mountain-biking accident, Driver reapplied to Julliard, where he’d been rejected prior to joining the Marines. “There’s something about going into the military and having all of your identity and possessions stripped away: that whole clarity of purpose thing. It becomes very clear to you, when you get your freedom back, that there’s stuff you want to do,” Driver told The Guardian. Driver is known for his roles in HBO’s Girls, was nominated for an Oscar in BlaKkKlansman, and for his role as Kylo Ren in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Driver founded the nonprofit Arts in the Armed Forces, which brings professional stage productions to military personnel.
As a young man, actor Morgan Freeman romanticized the idea of flying in the Navy. He refused a drama scholarship at Jackson State University in order to join the U.S. Air Force and pursue a career as a fighter pilot. He turned instead to acting, upon realizing he was in love with the idea of being a pilot more so than actually piloting. Freeman went on to have a prolific acting career on stage as well as in TV and film. His stage debut was in the musical Hello, Dolly!, followed by The Dozens, Exhibition and the musical Purlie.
Orville Richard Burrell CD OJ, better known by his stage name, Shaggy, says his time in the military has been a big help to him in the music business. Shaggy is a Jamaican-American reggae singer, musician, DJ and actor perhaps best known for his hit songs “It Wasn’t Me,” “Boombastic,” “In The Summertime,” “Oh Carolina” and “Angel.” The Grammy® Award winner joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1988 and says his current work ethic, and ability to handle his money, was developed largely from his military experience. “It had an impact on me being in the music business because the military was preparing me for everything to do with being successful, and I knew that I was going to have it harder than the average artist because of the fact that the genre I was in didn’t give me the privileges that other genres did,” he told Sky News.
Straz Salutes delivers positive arts experiences for service members, veterans and families that helps build bridges between military service and civilian life.
In addition, the Straz Center’s VetArtSpan provides an artistic roadmap to bridge collaborations of medical, science and arts communities to foster healing, wellness and smooth reentry of our veterans and their families into our community. The program, explained in detail at VetArtSpan.org, teaches civilians about the structure and cultural nuances of military life and how they can help create support methods for veteran families through arts and meaningful discussion. The Straz coordinates and is responsible for VetArtSpan, which is part of Creative Forces®: NEA Military Healing Arts Network, an initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs and state and local arts agencies.