At the height of World War II, on this very day–June 22, 1944, President Roosevelt and the U.S. government did something rather remarkable. They signed into law the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act (better known now as the GI Bill) to provide financial aid for the returning soldiers. Not wanting to repeat the confusion of benefits that were irregularly offered and applied to those returning from “The Great War,” the Roosevelt administration was determined to see that the veterans from this war received proper and useful benefits. Key among the many provisions was one that offered free tuition, room and board for any soldier wishing to continue his/her education once honorably discharged. And included within this provision was the stipulation that education meant any technical or vocational school, it didn’t have to be college or university. While most elected to either finish high school or attend college, a few chose to pursue professional actor training.
And it couldn’t have come at a better time for the American theatre industry and professional acting schools. Television broadcasting was about to take off with the FCC’s creation in 1945 of the commercial broadcast spectrum of 13 channels. Within weeks, 130 applications for station licenses were filed. (There had been TV broadcasts years earlier, but the FCC spectrum provided the regulation needed for major nationwide networking.) On top of this, the film industry–recognizing the potential threat of television–started to crank things back up as people began returning from service overseas. About the same time, acting schools, which had flourished in the 1920s and 30s, were being starved by a lack of students and support–understandable given the war. But now with the addition of the GI Bill to push things along, a number of courageous veterans decided to pursue their love of acting. This influx of students essentially saved the bacon of a number of well-known acting schools, not to mention encouraged the development of university theatre departments. Among the best known schools benefitting from this renewed interest in the stage were The Neighborhood Playhouse (which was near bankruptcy in 1944), The Pasadena Playhouse and The Actors Studio–all three became beacons of acting training for returning soldiers. All three relied heavily on the GI Bill to render them solvent and profitable. Moreover, these new, war-hardened students helped usher in a new style of acting that reflected their difficult life experiences–a hard-nosed realism that was honest, tough and vulnerable in ways that had never been seen on stage before.
The list is incomplete, of course, but a quick assortment from the hundreds of veterans who took advantage of the GI Bill to study theatre reads like a Who’s Who of 20th Century Acting: Harry Belafonte, Richard Boone, Bill Cosby, Johnny Carson, Tony Curtis, Robert Duvall, Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Jack Klugman, Mako, Walter Matthau, Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Rod Steiger, Eli Wallach and James Whitmore are just a few of the major stars who used their GI Bill benefits to enter the entertainment field. (The GI Bill was available to women too, but I have not yet found any who used it to become actors.)
In all, nearly 2.4 million veterans from both WWII and Korea took advantage of the GI Bill to attend college or training schools by the end of 1964, and more than a few of those were actors whose careers would never have gotten off the ground had it not been for the GI Bill. It’s hard to imagine how different American theatre and entertainment would be today without the aid the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act provided to an entire generation of young soldiers-turned-actors.