When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the National Aviation Hall of Fame Meet

In the wake of the Oscars and all the glitz that accompanies it, I thought that I would take a quick glance at some of the folks that kept a foot in the world of Hollywood and the other one firmly planted in the aviation universe. I will briefly look at a few National Aviation Hall of Fame Enshrinees, plus a couple of nominees as well.

One of the earliest celebrities that was not only an early pioneer of the silver screen, but also a true enthusiast of aviation is Will Rogers. Rogers started his career in film after having already made a name for himself in Vaudeville. In 1918 he got the lead role in a silent film titled Laughing Bill Hyde. Over the next nearly two decades he would appear in more than sixty silent and sound films.

Rogers was a huge advocate for commercial aviation during that same period. After spending some time in Europe and seeing how the commercial aviation industry was being so well-utilized and the lack of the same in the United States, he helped to form the public opinion that flying was safe and an effective way of transportation. He would often use the US Mail system to pay for his travels. He would pay the going per pound rate and stuff himself into very uncomfortable seats under bags of mail and be flown to his next destination. Not only did he use public services to travel, but he would also make friends with aviators all over the country and would ask them to fly him from destination to destination.

Although Rogers never won, nor was even nominated for an Oscar, he was able to achieve a status that has yet to be equaled. In 1934, he was the number one draw at the American box office, topping the likes of Shirley Temple and Clark Gable. In that same year he was given a great honor. He became not only the first Native American to achieve bona fide movie-star status, but he is the lone Native American to host the Oscars. A feat that still holds true ninety years later in 2024.

Unfortunately, the world would lose Rogers to a tragic accident while flying with esteemed aviator Wiley Post. The two crashed shortly after take-off in Northern Alaska while seeking out new flight paths for the mail service. The crash was due to engine failure and both men died on impact. Will Rogers would be enshrined into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1977, just eight years after his friend, Wiley Post was enshrined.

Another cross-over sensation was Howard Hughes. He inherited his fortunes in his late teens and had very little responsibility but was driven to make a name for himself, whether that be in sports, medicine, science, or entertainment. He first set out to conquer Hollywood, perhaps inspired by his uncle Rupert Hughes, who was a screenwriter and director. Hughes first attempt at moviemaking was a dismal failure, but as was his nature, he would try, try again. He made four more movies, all silent, over the next couple of years that finally culminated with an Academy Award for Best Director for his film Two Arabian Knights (1927). Hughes had three more films nominated for Academy Awards, The Racket (1928) nominated for Outstanding Picture (now called Best Picture), The Front Page (1931) nominated for Outstanding Picture, Best Actor, and Best Director, and aviation motion picture Hell’s Angels (1930) nominated for Best Cinematography. This film depicted the World War I action of the Royal Flying Corps of the British Empire. Hughes produced Hell’s Angels, starring Jean Harlow and Ben Lyons with a focus on detail and elaborate dogfight scenes which Hughes personally directed from a camera plane. Despite the frequent re-shooting of scenes and the high costs, the film was a success and sparked international interest in aviation. (NAHF 2024).

Hughes went on to set numerous aviation records, he would work for American Airway under an assumed name, in 1938, he became Aeronautical Advisor to the World’s Fair in New York and won many air racing events. His most notable achievement came in the creation of the world’s largest flying boat ever built. It was to be identified as the H-4 Hercules, but quickly got the nickname Spruce Goose because it was made entirely of wood due to restrictions on aluminum and other materials during the World War II era. As he aged, some of his later life and illnesses were shrouded in mystery, but nonetheless his contributions to Hollywood and Aviation cannot be denied. Hughes was Enshrined in 1973, just three years prior to his death.

James M. Stewart, better known to his fans as Jimmy, was born in the small town of Indiana, Pennsylvania. The acting bug bit him while he was attending Princeton University, then he began his acting career on Broadway in 1932, but it was not long before Stewart moved on to the silver screen. He appeared in his first on screen role in 1935 in the movie The Murder Man. In 1940 Steward received his first Oscar nomination for his role in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington but had to wait until the following year before winning the Academy Award for Best Actor as a gossip columnist in The Philadelphia Story. Then WWII broke out.

Jimmy was already a licensed pilot when he joined the Army Air Force in early 1941. He earned the rank of captain and was assigned to a Bombardment Wing in Europe in 1944. Twenty missions were flown by him, all of them extremely dangerous, as a B-24 pilot and wing commander. He earned the Distinguished Flying Cross with two oak leaf clusters, the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters , and the French Croix de Guerre with Palm. In 1959 Stewart was promoted to Brigadier General in the USAF Reserves where he served until his retirement in 1968.

After the war Stewart returned to Hollywood once again and it did not take him long to get back in the acting groove. He was nominated for Best Actor once again for his portrayal of George Bailey in the classic Christmas tale It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). In 1957 he took on the role of another NAHF Enshrinee, Charles Lindbergh, in the film adaptation of the autobiographical book, The Spirit of St. Louis(1957). He would receive two more nominations before he was honored with the Academy’s Honorary Award in 1984 for his lifetime of achievements in the field of acting. And in 2009 he was posthumously awarded Enshrinement into the National Aviation Hall of Fame for his outstanding service to aviation in 2009.

In September 1923, Clifford P. Robertson III was born in Southern California. At the age of thirteen he was cleaning hangars at the local airport for rides in airplanes. He was able to meet Charles Lindbergh in one chance encounter while on one of these flights flying from local airport to local airport in and around southern California. He continued to do this through his teenage years before joining the Merchant Marines and by the time WWII broke out, he was a third mate in the USMM and would serve there throughout the duration of the war.

Robertson would start his acting career on Broadway in the mid-1950s. His first movie role came in 1955 when he appeared as Alan Benson alongside William Holden and Kim Novak in Picnic. He would be cast in more than a dozen movies over the next eight years. Then, in 1963, he was personally chosen by then president, John F. Kennedy, to portray him in the recounting of Kennedy’s death-defying fight for survival as a US Navy officer in WWII in the feature movie PT-109(1963). Cliff Robertson was quoted as saying, “He [JFK] picked me to portray him in the movie PT-109 which is a huge surprise to me, came as a great shock. I think we were one of the few mistakes he made in office.” Even with that tremendous honor of being hand-picked to play the president in a movie about him, an even greater honor came when he won the Oscar for Best Actor for his powerful performance in 1968’s Charly, a movie about an intellectually disabled man getting a chance to undergo a highly controversial surgery to increase his mental capacity. He would later become familiar to a new generation of fans in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as he played Peter Parker’s (AKA Spiderman) Uncle Ben in three installments of the Spiderman franchise.

Another role Robertson took on was that of retired astronaut Buzz Aldrin, another NAHF Enshrinee, in an adapted for TV movie Return to Earth, based on Aldrin’s autobiography of the same name in 1976. He depicted Henry Ford, another NAHF Alumni, in 1987’s Ford: The Man and the Machine as well.

Robertson’s love of aviation continued throughout his life. He held ratings in single-engine land and sea, multi-engine, commercial, instrument, balloon and glider ratings.  It also needs to be mentioned that Robertson also owned many different aircraft including a de Havilland Tiger Moth biplane, a Messerschmidt BF-109, and a Spitfire. He was a long- time member of the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) and was able to co-create the Young Eagles (YE) program with EAA President and NAHF Enshrinee Tom Poberezny (Enshrined in 2022), which gave children a chance to experience flight while being educated in the basic principles of aviation. Robertson was the chairman of the YE from 1992-1994. It was launched in 1992 and, by 2016, has flown more than 2 million children in 90 countries, making it the most successful program of its kind in history.

He also organized and implemented flying humanitarian relief into Nigeria during that country’s civil war in 1969 and again in 1978 he flew food and medical supplies into Ethiopia as it was clutched in the grip of famine. Robertson even lobbied Congress to pass a relief spending package in the amount of $1 billion in 1984. The actor, who just returned from Ethiopia, said he had visited Biafra on a similar mission in 1968 and that “I thought I was girded for what I would see. I wasn’t . . . . It was far worse than anything I could imagine.”

A humanitarian, an award-winning actor, an advocate for youth aviation education, and an accomplished owner and pilot, Cliff Robertson took his place among the other legends of aviation in 2006 when he was enshrined into the National Aviation Hall of Fame.

Rogers, Hughes, Stewart, and Robertson may have been the only Enshrinees to be involved with the Academy Awards, but they are by no means the only ones involved in the entertainment industry. Arthur Godfrey was a famed radio, theater and television personality, Charles Lindbergh was a Pulitzer Prize winning author. The NAHF has nominees such as Clark Gable who was nominated four times and won one Best Actor Oscar then becoming a WWII fighter pilot, John Travolta with two Best Actor Nominees and his promotion of commercial aviation, and Nichelle Nichols who played Lt. Uhura in the Star Trek Franchise becoming an inspiration to countless young women along with being a longtime advocate and volunteer with NASA. There have been numerous movies made about Enshrinees from the Wright Brothers (The Wright Brothers, 1971) to Katherine Johnson (Hidden Figures, 2016), who is part of the Class of 2024 and will be enshrined later this year. One can clearly see that aviation is, and probably always will be, a wonderful conduit for the entertainment industry. And who knows, maybe with time we will see more stars of aviation cross trajectories with the stars of film and Oscar could earn his own set of wings.


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