Probably the most well-known, revered, and yes, beloved USMC Gunnery Sergeant in history.
R. Lee Ermey, a former Marine Corps drill instructor known to millions of moviegoers as the sadistic Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket,” died Sunday morning, according to his longtime manager. He was 74.
In a statement posted on Twitter, Bill Rogin said Ermey had died due to complications from pneumonia.
A Kansas native, Ermey enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1961 at age 17. He served for 11 years, including 14 months in Vietnam, before he was discharged in 1972. He served as a technical adviser in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Vietnam War epic, “Apocalypse Now,” in which he also had a small role as a helicopter pilot.
But Ermey didn’t get his big break until eight years later, in Kubrick’s own take on Vietnam. He was originally supposed to be a technical adviser, but Kubrick offered him the role of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman after seeing a demo tape of Ermey railing at extras while tennis balls flew at him.
Kubrick told Rolling Stone that 50 percent of Ermey’s dialogue in the film was his own.
“In the course of hiring the marine recruits, we interviewed hundreds of guys. We lined them all up and did an improvisation of the first meeting with the drill instructor. They didn’t know what he was going to say, and we could see how they reacted. Lee came up with, I don’t know, 150 pages of insults,” Kubrick said.
An outspoken conservative, Ermey spoke to Fox News in 2016 about being “blackballed” from Hollywood over his political views.
“I’ve had a very fruitful career. I’ve done over 70 feature films,” he said. “I’ve done over 200 episodes of [Outdoor Channel series ‘GunnyTime’]… and then [Hollywood] found out that I’m a conservative.”
Actually, he corrected, “I’m an Independent, but I said something bad about the president. I had something unsavory to say about the president’s administration, and even though I did vote for him the first time around, I was blackballed.”
Ermey, who was an NRA board member, said at the time that his association with the organization and his disapproval of President Obama cost him acting jobs.
“Do you realize I have not done a movie in five to six years? Why? Because I was totally blackballed by the…liberals in Hollywood,” he alleged. “They can destroy you. They’re hateful people [who] don’t just not like you, they want to take away your livelihood…that’s why I live up in the desert on a dirt road…I don’t have to put up with their crap.”
Yeah, well, that’s a large and entirely honorable club you’re in there, Sergeant. It’s a lead-pipe cinch that your legacy will outlive and outshine theirs by oh, say, a millenia or so. At least.
Unforgettable as his Full Metal Jacket turn surely was, this all-too-brief classic is one of my very favorite Ermey appearances:
Give ’em hell, Gunny.
If the Army and the Navy
Ever look on Heaven’s scenes,
They will find the streets are guarded
By United States Marines.
R Lee Ermey’s place in Heaven’s honor guard is assured. Stand at ease, Marine; rest, even, and smoke ’em if you got ’em. Nobody would dare say a word to you if you did.
Update! Details from Aesop:
Ermey was the living embodiment of every drill instructor actual Marines had, and probably the only one every never-Marine knew. After 11 years service in the Marine Corps, including service in Vietnam, and a stint as an actual drill instructor at MCRD San Diego (with the Thundering Third Recruit Training Battalion – Oohrah!), Ermey was medically discharged due to injuries received in the service, and was an American ex-pat living in the Philippines when he nabbed a bit part in Apocalypse Now. Then an indy movie came to town in 1977, looking for tech advisors and extras in a movie about Marines in Vietnam being shot there, with P.I. doubling very adequately for recently-fallen-to-communists Vietnam.
Barely five years out of the Marines at the time, Ermey was one of those hired as a tech advisor and extra, but the guy they’d cast as the lead drill instructor for the film was a Hispanic with an accent so heavy he was hard to understand easily, and Ermey was crushing his bit part in the gig, so he was hurriedly bumped up to leading character, and the other guy shunted aside.
Boys In Company C was the breakout role that brought Ermey from P.I. to Hollywood, and he never looked back. A small role in Purple Heartssolidified Ermey as the go-to guy when a picture needed a guy harder than woodpecker lips to bring the quintessential Marine sergeant to life on the screen.
And then Stanley Kubrick hired Ermey to be a tech advisor, but quickly re-thought his choice and he too decided to cast Ermey himself as exactly the guy he was looking for to be Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in the otherwise atrocious Full Metal Jacket, and the directing maestro had the great good sense to turn Ermey loose on camera, and let him ad lib whole sections of the movie’s boot camp scenes, comprising the entire first half (the actual coherent part) of the film.
He had parts in over 60 movies and dozens of TV shows, playing everything from Dr. House’s father on that eponymous show, to the voice of the Sarge leading the Green Army men in the Toy Story flicks, and hosting Mail Call and Lock N’ Load cable TV shows as himself for History Channel.
In between, he was a ceaseless advocate and military booster, which work induced the Commandant of the Marine Corps to authorize an official honorary promotion to Gunnery Sergeant for Ermey in 2002, the sort of the thing the Marines ordinarily simply do not do. But when you’re that exceptional, you can even get meritoriously promoted after being discharged.
If you served in the Marines, you knew a gunny like the Gunny, or had one for your D.I., and because of his work in entertainment, he will live long after the last Marine he ever served with passes on to Fiddler’s Green.
And as he would have told anyone, the Corps did pretty good by him, turning a juvenile delinquent into a leader of men, and finally a cultural icon for the ages.
Forty years lived in a life formed from the mold of eleven years’ active service proves the literal truth of the phrase,
“Once A Marine, Always A Marine.”
True, dat. I never was in the military myself; I let my dad talk me out of going into the Navy at nineteen, a road not taken that I think back on and wonder about from time to time still. But I have enough family and close friends who were in to be able to easily recognize a former Marine whenever I see one. For whatever reason, the Corps imbues almost all of its young recruits with a steel that time never seems able to melt or weaken, no matter how long (or briefly) they may wind up serving.
I won’t offer the words “Semper Fi” in tribute to Ermey; I ain’t qualified, no matter good my intentions might be. But I hereby doff my cap just the same, in respect to Ermey and to every Marine.