When we think of historical figures, we tend to imagine world leaders, scientists or social revolutionaries. Unless they’ve had an extraordinary influence on culture, however, celebrities often get overlooked when it comes to the serious business. But that doesn’t mean that showbiz stars haven’t played their part in world-changing events. And like anyone else, they can find themselves mixed up with forces beyond their control. Just take these 20 celebrities, for example, who became embroiled in the thick of things as history unfolded around them.
20. Russell Crowe was targeted by Al Qaeda
Undoubtedly, Russell Crowe is many things to many people. For some, he’s an Oscar-winning actor thanks to films like 2000’s Gladiator. For others, he’s a hotheaded celebrity who loves to pick an argument. But for the terrorist organization Al Qaeda, Crowe represented a threat. In fact, the notorious group planned to kidnap him as part of a “cultural destabilization plot” in 2001.
During a 2015 interview with The Guardian, Crowe stated that the plot led to him being put under FBI escort for nearly two years. He admitted, “I still really don’t know to this day what… that was all about. I don’t even know why. They wouldn’t give me any details.” Moreover, their constant companionship gave him an egotistical reputation in Hollywood. The actor chuckled, “Of course, people were like, ‘Look at him, he thinks he’s f****** Elvis.”
19. Hedy Lamarr was instrumental in creating wireless technology
When the United States entered World War Two in 1941, many Hollywood heavy hitters volunteered their services to the conflict. And while stars like Clark Gable participated in combat, Hedy Lamarr had a different way of serving her adopted nation. An inventor in her spare time, the starlet began looking into ways to make radio-controlled torpedoes more secure. Thus, in 1942 she and her colleague George Anthiel patented a pioneering spread spectrum that would prevent such weapons from being set off course.
Though an undeniable breakthrough in military technology, Lamarr’s spread spectrum would not see use during World War Two. It wasn’t until the Cuban Missile Crisis two decades later that the anti-jamming technique would be adopted by the armed forces. Nevertheless, the actress’ invention would have its biggest effect outside the world of warfare. Indeed, her scientific contribution revolutionized the communications industry and helped lead to the creation of Bluetooth and WiFi.
18. Bea Arthur was a pioneer for women in the military
Anyone who’s watched Bea Arthur in The Golden Girls knows that her character Dorothy had a somewhat self-willed personality. Fittingly, the star probably didn’t have to act too hard in order to accurately portray a strong person. Indeed, throughout her life, Arthur frequently demonstrated her toughness. Most notably, she joined the U.S. Marines Corps in her youth, making her one of the first women to join the revered military branch.
Although the actress denied ever enlisting in interviews, army records unearthed a year after her death proved otherwise. Joining the Women’s Reserve in 1943, Arthur was originally described by her superiors as “aggressive and argumentative… but probably a good worker if she has her own way.” Nevertheless, the Maude star worked diligently during her service. Following the end of World War Two – which she spent working as a dispatcher and truck driver – Arthur left the forces with the rank of Staff Sergeant.
17. Dustin Hoffman was inches away from the Greenwich Village townhouse explosion
Following acclaimed roles in The Graduate and Midnight Cowboy, Dustin Hoffman started the 1970s in good stead. With two Oscar nominations already under his belt, the star was quickly becoming one of Hollywood’s most bankable actors. Moreover, he already had his own swanky townhouse in New York’s Greenwich Village to show for his hard work. But unfortunately, the thespian’s pristine taste in property almost cost him his life.
On March 6, 1970, members of terrorist group the Weather Underground living in the house next door to Hoffman’s accidentally detonated a homemade bomb. The resulting explosion completely demolished their building, but the actor’s own home was left only slightly damaged. Despite losing a desk as well as almost losing a valuable painting, the star remarkably escaped with his life.
16. Meryl Streep saw the Beatles at Shea Stadium
Through revered roles in the likes of The Iron Lady, Meryl Streep has become Hollywood’s elder stateswoman. Yet the acclaimed actress was once a teenager just like the rest of us. And like many at the time, she was obsessed with her era’s biggest band – the Beatles. So much so, in fact, that the future Oscar winner saw the quartet’s historic Shea Stadium show on their final U.S. tour.
Then aged 17, the actress was flagged down by a TV reporter for an interview before the show. Judging by the resulting footage – which would eventually find its way online – Streep was still finding her voice and let a nearby friend do most of the talking. Nearly 25 years later, nonetheless, she’d get to say a lot more when she presented former Beatle Paul McCartney with a Grammy lifetime achievement award in 1990.
15. Rob Riggle served in Kosovo and Afghanistan
There are many celebrities who had surprising careers in the armed forces prior to finding fame. Most notably, Adam Driver was a Marine before becoming Kylo Ren and Bob Ross was a drill sergeant before being reborn as a laid-back TV art instructor. Perhaps most surprising of all, though, is comedian Rob Riggle. A Marine for much of his life, the actor spent 23 years in the service. And in that time he witnessed many of the modern era’s battlegrounds first hand.
Enlisting as a college student, The Daily Show star fought in both Kosovo and Afghanistan. He was also involved in a 2003 operation to take control of the U.S. embassy in Liberia’s Monrovia following fighting inside the city. But Riggle’s combat experience apparently has nothing on the cut-throat world of entertainment. He told Marines Mag in 2009, “[Being in the Marines] made me mentally tough, which is what you have to be in show business. Show business is brutal.”
14. Johnny Cash was the first American to learn of Joseph Stalin’s death
You wouldn’t think that Johnny Cash and Joseph Stalin would share much common ground. On one hand, Cash was an American country icon who dressed in black and wrote songs denouncing the rigors of prison life. On the other, Stalin was the Soviet Union dictator who became infamous for killing and imprisoning much of his nation’s population. Unbelievably, though, the two actually crossed paths in a way that gave the former an unexpected claim to fame.
During the Korean War, Cash signed up for the U.S. Air Force. Rather than being sent to Asia, though, the “Man in Black” was assigned to a West German base where he would be responsible for intercepting Soviet military communications. It was there that the singer came across a message in 1953 announcing nothing less than the death of Stalin. Thus, Cash became the first American to learn of the notorious dictator’s passing.
13. Eleanor Roosevelt was onboard the SS Britannic when it collided with a passing ship
Routinely considered the most impactful First Lady in U.S. history, Eleanor Roosevelt left a huge legacy, as did her husband Franklin. Besides making press conferences and media appearances a must for presidential wives, the politician was also a spokesperson for civil rights and was influential in convincing the U.S. to join the United Nations. But her groundbreaking work would never have happened had she not managed to escape a fateful accident in her youth.
At the age of two-and-a-half, Roosevelt and her family were voyaging to England on the steam liner SS Britannic. Shortly after their departure, however, the ship sailed into thick fog and crashed into another cruiser, the SS Celtic. Miraculously, both vessels managed to stay afloat and Roosevelt avoided serious injury. As a result, though, the First Lady gained a fear of sailing that would last until her eventual death in 1962.
12. Jet Li survived the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami
It’s not often that action stars find themselves in the middle of movie scenes in real life. Yet this happened to kung fu actor Jet Li when he spent his Christmas holidays in the Maldives in 2004. Following an earthquake in the Indian Ocean which devastated several coastal nations, Li’s holiday resort was hit by a tsunami. Grabbing his young daughter as the waves began to approach, the star guided his family to safety before they befell any serious harm.
Despite Li only receiving small wounds during his escape, some sources erroneously claimed he had died during the disaster. That being said, coming close to death had a profound effect on Li. “It made me a better person,” the star confessed to Fanfare in 2006. “Now, I understand life more. You know, you can have money and power but if you don’t have life, everything is useless. I have life and I am lucky.”
11. Audrey Hepburn aided the Dutch Resistance
There are many titles used to describe Audrey Hepburn: actress; style icon; humanitarian activist. Unsurprisingly, resistance fighter isn’t a term that would jump immediately to mind. However, this was actually Hepburn’s biggest claim to fame in the early years of her life. After moving to the Netherlands in 1939, the future star found herself in the middle of Germany’s occupation of the country a year later. And the young actress refused to take their presence lying down.
Among her many deeds to help the Dutch Resistance, Hepburn raised funds through clandestine ballet performances and in one instance rendezvoused with an Allied soldier lost in nearby woods. The latter act almost got her captured by enemy forces, though she managed to evade punishment by claiming she was just outside picking flowers. Ultimately, Hepburn’s experiences during World War Two would have an enduring effect. And it would influence the star to devote herself solely to UNICEF in the latter part of her life.
10. James Stewart had to fight to fly bombers in World War Two
Through heroic characters like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’s Jefferson Smith, James Stewart was the picture of U.S. patriotism, though he wasn’t much different in real life.. Indeed, following the United States’ entry into World War Two, the actor volunteered his services to the Air Force. But gaining entry into the military proved to be a difficult battle in itself.
Due to Stewart’s slender frame, the military initially rejected him, which resulted in the actor gorging on pasta and milkshakes in order to bulk up. Nevertheless, Stewart eventually got his wish. As a squadron leader, the star led bombing raids on Axis encampments in France and his flying skills earned him seven medals – distinctions he surely held in pride of place amongst his acting awards.
9. Michael Caine was almost killed in the Korean War
Before he was internationally known as the actor Michael Caine, Maurice Micklewhite was a young man growing up in London, England. As part of his country’s then policy of National Service, the future star was drafted into the army and sent to fight in the Korean War in 1951. But stationed less than a mile from enemy lines, he came dangerously close to not making it out of the conflict alive.
In one instance, Caine came face-to-face with Chinese soldiers during a night patrol gone wrong. Luckily, a quick-thinking officer came up with a cunning escape plan and the company evaded certain death. However, the actor would forever be scarred by the experience. He told the Daily Mail in 2007, “I faced a moment where I knew I was going to die and I didn’t run. I wasn’t a coward, and it affected me deeply. I was at peace with myself and that’s guided my life…”
8. Mel Brooks was a combat engineer in World War Two
On the big screen, Mel Brooks loves nothing more than to lampoon history’s most controversial characters. And it wasn’t just through cinema that the comedian managed to poke fun at terrible ideas and ideologies. While serving on the Western Front in World War Two, for example, the Producers creator took part in his own blend of psychological warfare by playing the songs of Jewish performers directly at the enemy lines.
That being said, war wasn’t all fun for the future writer. As a combat engineer, Brooks had the risky job of clearing landmines and building bridges prior to an infantry’s forward advance. Furthermore, this was a task he usually performed while dodging enemy fire and artillery barrages. But the star could still find laughter in the darkest of moments. “War is loud,” he once quipped. “All those shells and bombs going off all around you. Never mind death. A man could lose his hearing.”
7. Christopher Lee was a real-life 007 during World War Two
In 1974’s The Man with the Golden Gun, James Bond met his match against Christopher Lee’s villainous Scaramanga. Ironically, everyone’s favorite secret agent would probably never have been created had it not been for Lee’s antics during WWII. At the start of the conflict, the future actor first fought for the Finnish Army before returning to England and joining the Special Operations Executive. Here, Lee offered his services in the war against Nazi Germany.
As a covert operative, Lee and his team performed risky assignments behind enemy lines. For instance, the future star helped destroy enemy supply lines and research stations in Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and a nuclear weapons facility in Norway. But due to these missions’ top-secret nature, the extent of Lee’s actions during the war will probably remain classified by the British government. However, his deeds would be commemorated by SOE comrade Ian Fleming, who based the character of Bond on their joint experiences in the conflict.
6. Joaquin Phoenix was in the Children of God
It’s fair to say that Joaquin Phoenix had an unconventional childhood. While most kids were playing games and going to school, the future star was busy acting and performing in order to put food on his family’s table. But for all its peculiarity, Phoenix’s upbringing was unique for a very good reason. Indeed, the actor’s family had been members of the Children of God and his work helped them begin afresh after they left the cult in 1978.
Infamous for its controversial sexual practices, the Children of God was no place to raise a child. Yet Phoenix – who was four when his family departed – holds no grudge against his parents. He explained to Playboy in 2014, “I think [they] thought they’d found a community that shared their ideals. Cults rarely advertise themselves as such… But I think the moment my parents realized there was something more to it, they got out.”
5. George Lucas helped film rock and roll’s most infamous concert
In 1969, George Lucas was a young film student who’d just received the job of a lifetime. The gig was for a film named Gimme Shelter, a documentary that would follow the Rolling Stones on a series of U.S. concert dates culminating in a free show in California. And the location of the concert – that would become forever etched in rock and roll infamy – was the Altamont Speedway.
With attendance hitting highs of 300,000, Altamont was mired in acts of violence. In particular, the murder of a fan by a member of the Hells Angels – ironically brought in to provide security – was caught on film by cameraman Baird Bryant. While Lucas was there to witness the event, nonetheless, the Star Wars creator’s camera jammed resulting in his footage of the night being left on the cutting room floor.
4. James Doohan was almost killed on D-Day – by his own platoon
While playing Star Trek’s beloved Montgomery “Scotty” Scott, James Doohan was often peculiarly absent from fight scenes. But when you consider the actor’s incredible war record, it’s not surprising that the show’s writers decided to give the star a break. Upon the outbreak of World War Two, Doohan enlisted in the Royal Canadian Artillery. And in an extreme case of trial by fire, the actor actually got his first combat experience on D-Day.
During the battle, Doohan certainly proved his gallantry as a soldier. Indeed, the future performer – who shot two enemy snipers and successfully led his division through a mine field – received five medals and was granted the title Lieutenant of the Royal Victorian Order for his work. Yet the star didn’t come out of the fray unscathed. In fact, Doohan received six bullet wounds after the landing – all from a fellow Canadian soldier who mistook him for the enemy.
3. Kim Cattrall nearly boarded Pan Am Flight 103
On December 21, 1988, Kim Cattrall was preparing to leave an acting job in London and return home to America. At the last minute, the actress decided to go shopping, causing her to miss her planned flight and catch another one 45 minutes later. Nevertheless, her lateness ultimately saved her life. After arriving in New York, the star was stunned to discover that her original plane – Pan Am Flight 103 – crashed in the Scottish town of Lockerbie, leaving no survivors.
As amazing as her story is, however, Cattrall wasn’t the only person to escape certain death. In fact, punk icon John Lydon and his wife cancelled their seats on the ill-fated aircraft after failing to pack on time. Meanwhile, Motown group the Four Tops were also scheduled on the flight. Thankfully, the quartet caught a later plane when their scheduled performance on a British music show was delayed.
2. Kurt Vonnegut survived the Allied bombing of Dresden
“All this happened, more or less.” So go the famous opening words to Kurt Vonnegut’s incredible 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five – a book that was directly influenced by the author’s stint in World War Two. As a young soldier, Vonnegut was stationed on the Western Front where he participated in the Battle of the Bulge. And after becoming captured by the German Army, he was sent to Dresden as a prisoner of war.
During the writer’s internment, Allied bombers pulled off a notorious attack of the city which Vonnegut only survived by taking cover in a meat locker. After emerging from his shelter, the author was horrified by what he saw. Detailing the event in his book, Vonnegut described the ruined city as looking “like the surface of the moon,” but found himself unable to similarly sum up the loss of life. “There is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre,” he famously wrote.
1. Steve Buscemi was a firefighter after the 9/11 attacks
Throughout his acting career, Steve Buscemi has proven himself adept at playing self-serving, spineless villains. However, the star’s onscreen persona couldn’t be any further from how brave and selfless this thespian really is. Indeed, the star had worked as a firefighter in New York City for five years from 1980. And it was a job he returned to following the tragic attacks that crippled the city on September 11, 2001.
Voluntarily re-enlisting with his former department, the actor worked for 60 hours searching for survivors among the rubble. “He was exhausted and covered in soot,” fellow firefighter Richard Ardisson admitted to People shortly after the star’s shift. Unlike his colleagues, though, Buscemi wasn’t eager to discuss his service. In fact, he has dodged talking about his life-saving work in public. “He said he wanted no recognition,” Ardisson continued. “He said, ‘These are my brothers.’”