Memorial Day movies: Saluting veterans who became actors

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Retired Marine and actor R. Lee Ermey talks to the 7th Communication Battalion Sergeant Major and his wife during their Marine Corps Birthday Ball at the Palms on Camp Hansen, Okinawa.
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Retired Marine and actor R. Lee Ermey talks to the 7th Communication Battalion Sergeant Major and his …

Some actors move from the stage to the screen, lending their movie performances gravitas from time spent in the theater. Similarly, some actors move from the battlefield to Hollywood, adding gritty authenticity to a number of movies. War movies, though, are obviously enhanced the most by the presence of veterans.

On Memorial Day, these actors deserve to be saluted not just for their great work but also for fighting for our country's freedom.

Lee Marvin

Marvin served as a scout sniper in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II. He ended up being wounded by machine gun fire during the Battle of Saipan, a confrontation that saw most of his company killed.

For his efforts, Marvin was awarded the Purple Heart and given a medical discharge. His most memorable military-themed movies include "The Dirty Dozen," "The Delta Force," "Hell in the Pacific," and "The Big Red One."

Harvey Keitel

Keitel joined the Marines at the age of 16. He was shipped to Lebanon with Operation Blue Bat in 1958.

Among the war movies listed on his resume are "The Duellists" ("Prometheus" director Ridley Scott's first movie), "U-571," and his voice is audible in a scene from Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds."

Keitel intimated his time as a Marine was positive for his personal growth.

"For me the Marine Corps was a spiritual journey. It's not about war," he said. "Our duty is to protect those who do not have the means to protect themselves."

Paul Newman

The late actor enrolled in the Navy with hopes of becoming a fighter pilot, but he was rendered ineligible due to the fact he was color blind. Newman instead worked as a radioman and gunner, serving aboard the USS Bunker Hill during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945.

Newman's military roles include "The Rack" and "Fat Man and Little Boy."

Kirk Douglas

After failing the psychological exam for the Air Force, Douglas instead joined the Navy and became a communications officer in antisubmarine warfare. In 1944, he received a medical discharge for his war injuries.

Douglas's best military-themed movie took place not on sea or in the air but on land. Scurrying over World War I trenches and No Man's Land, Douglas's starring role in Stanley Kubrick's blistering anti-war film "Paths of Glory" is a highlight of the veteran actor's career.

Dennis Franz

The "NYPD Blue" actor was drafted into the Army after graduating from college, serving with the 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions in Vietnam. His military roles in movies include "The Package," directed by Andrew Davis ("The Fugitive").

Franz described his time in Vietnam as "the loneliest, most depressing, frustrating time. It was life-altering. I came back a much different person than when I left, much more serious. I left my youth over there."

Clint Eastwood

Eastwood was drafted in 1950 during the Korean War. He was stationed at Fort Ord in California, where he served as a swimming instructor. In 1951, he was aboard a bomber that crashed into the ocean after running out of fuel. Eastwood's training proved useful when he and the pilot had to swim three miles to get to safety.

Eastwood's resume is filled with all sorts of military movies, many of which he directed as well as played the leading role. "Heartbreak Ridge" saw Eastwood in the lead and in the director's chair, while he stayed behind the camera for two powerful World War II movies: "Flags of our Fathers" and "Letters From Iwo Jima."

Harold Russell

Like many Americans, Harold Russell was devastated by the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. He enlisted in the Army the very next day.

Russell worked as an Army instructor while training with the U.S. Airborne but tragically lost both hands when an explosive for a training film went off. Military doctors outfitted the wounded warrior with hooks to replace the lost limbs.

After appearing in an Army film called "Diary of a Sergeant" about rehabilitating war veterans, director William Wyler cast Russell in the role of a wounded vet returning home after WWII in "The Best Years of Our Lives." Russell won not one but two Oscars for the role: one for Best Supporting Actor, plus another, special recognition created by the Academy for "bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans."

R. Lee Ermey

Ermey joined the Marines in 1961, serving as a drill instructor from 1965 to 1967. He served for 14 months in Vietnam as part of Marine Wing Support Group 17, as well as two tours of duty in Okinawa, Japan, where he made the rank of staff sergeant.

Ermey was the voice of plastic army men leader Sarge in the "Toy Story" movies, but there is no forgetting his ruthlessly vicious performance as Gunnery Sgt. Hartman in "Full Metal Jacket." A former drill instructor, Ermey is chillingly effective as the man responsible for "breaking in" new recruits before shipping them off to Vietnam.

More from this contributor:

"Inglourious Basterds" - World War II Done the Tarantino Way

"The Delta Force"

"Full Metal Jacket"

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