Shakespearean actors who served in the military

Joel Searls
Aug 1, 2023 1:14 PM PDT
4 minute read
Shakespearean actors

Cropped screenshot of Alec Guinness and Rita Tushingam from the trailer for the 1965 film Doctor Zhivago.

SUMMARY

Shakespearean actors are some of the most talented actors with range and depth many thespians can only dream of. Some served in the military.

Shakespearean actors are some of the most talented actors with range and depth many thespians could only dream of. Some of these highly trained and gifted talents served in the military throughout the last century. Their skills can be viewed in such films as Star Wars, war films like Where Eagles Dare, and others in filmed versions of famous plays from Shakespeare like Othello, Hamlet and Richard III. This list comprises veterans who served in World War II, many times in the middle of their stage and film careers, and came back to reach greater heights after their service.

Here are Shakespearean actors who served in the military

Sir Alec Guinness

Alec Guinness's career spanned seven decades, with him having earned an Academy Award (Actor), a BAFTA, a Golden Globe and a Tony Award. He was knighted in 1959 by Queen Elizabeth II for his contribution to the arts. He pursued a career on stage in 1934 and took a break away from his acting career to serve in World War II in the Royal Naval Reserve. He commanded a landing craft during the invasions of Sicily and Elba. He also appeared in a stage play about the RAF Bomber Command, Flare Path, during the war on special leave.

Guinness returned from the war to star in films like Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Lavender Hill Mob and The Ladykillers. He is most known for his roles in The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago and Star Wars. Obi-Won Kenobi was his defining role to many Gen Xers and younger, which sometimes bothered him based upon his extensive work.

Michael Horden

Michael Horden started out as a stage actor in England who rose to new heights in American cinema and BBC radio, especially his work as Gandalf in the BBC version of Lord of the Rings. In World War II, he served in the Royal Naval on the HMS Illustrious and reached the rank of Lieutenant Commander.

Post-service, he returned to the stage and portrayed significant roles in The Tempest, As You Like It and Hamlet. His career in cinema included such hits as Sink the Bismarck!, El Cid, Cleopatra, Where Eagles Dare, Gandi, The Three Musketeers and Barry Lydon. He was knighted in 1983 and wrapped his career with a few stage roles, a BBC adaptation of Middlemarch and twice as a narrator in the mid-1990s.

Laurence Olivier

Laurence Olivier led a stage and film career of great proportions. He was knighted in 1947, received a life peerage in 1970 and was awarded the Order of Merit in 1981. He earned four Oscars, two British Film Academy Awards, five Emmys and three Golden Globes. He is known for his roles in Wuthering Heights, Henry V, Hamlet, Richard II, Spartucus, Marathon Man, The Boys from Brazil and King Lear.

His stage acting career began in 1925 and his acting career spanned all the way to 1989. He served during World War II in the Fleet Air Arm, which is the naval aviation component of the Royal Naval. He supported the Ministry of Information by doing films to build morale in England such as Henry V. His service ended in 1944 at the behest of the Old Vic's leadership and the Sea Lords agreed to let him go. His career on stage and film continued with many Hollywood highlights and his last screen appearance was in the 1989 film War Requiem.

Richard Burton

Richard Burton was yet another great stage and film actor hailing from Great Britain. His career began in the 1940s and lasted all the way to the mid-1980s. He was known for his distinct voice and famous marriages, yes twice, to Elizabeth Taylor. He was nominated for an Oscar seven times yet did not ever win. His top films include The Robe, Camelot, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Equus and Where Eagles Dare.

Burton acted alongside Clint Eastwood in Where Eagles Dare, which set in motion further war films of the 60s and 70s with stories about special elite groups taking on Axis Powers with secret mission during the war. He served in the Royal Air Force in the mid-1940s as a navigator. He was assigned as an Aircraftman 1st Class and based in an RAF hospital for three years. After his service, he continued on with his acting pursuit and passion. He acted both on stage and on the silver screen. Burton became one of the highest-paid actors in the 1960s, commanding almost one million per picture. Further credits of his include the excellent war picture The Longest Day, Raid on Rommel, The Wild Geese and Nineteen Eighty-Four which was his last movie.

Ralph Richardson

Ralph Richardson enjoyed another long stage and film career from the 1920s to the mid-1980s. He learned stage first and made his way into films in the early 1930s. The most notable films include Exodus, The Four Feathers, The 300 Spartans, Battle of Britain, Rollerball, The Man in the Iron Mask, Jesus of Nazareth, Dragonslayer, Watership Down and Time Bandits.

Before all of that though, during World War II, he joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve as a sub-lieutenant pilot. He served at the Royal Naval Air Station and attained the rank of lieutenant commander. Richardson also did some morale shows for the troops around Great Britain and played in some movies such as The Silver Fleet and The Volunteer. After the war, he continued with his full-time acting work on both stage and the screen. His final film role in Greystroke in 1984 earned him a posthumous Academy Award nomination.

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