R Lee Ermey

I was sad to hear this news:

Actor R Lee Ermey, known for his role as foul-mouthed Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Vietnam War film Full Metal Jacket, has died aged 74.

The former US Marine turned award-winning actor played a host of military men during his career.

Ermey’s manager, posting to the actor’s Twitter account, said he died from “complications of pneumonia”.

“He will be greatly missed by all of us,” the message read. “Semper Fi, Gunny. Godspeed.”

Born in 1944 in Kansas, Ermey was a staff sergeant in the marine corps in the 1960s and early 1970s, serving tours in Japan and Vietnam. He also served as a real-life drill instructor.

Ermey later drew on his military experience for his breakout role in Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 film Full Metal Jacket, winning a Golden Globe nomination for his portrayal of a hardened drill instructor putting young marine corps recruits through basic training.

I must have watched the opening 20-30 minutes of Full Metal Jacket dozens of times, and I still don’t get bored of it, yet I’ve only watched the full film perhaps two or three times. Ermey’s performance is by far the best thing in the whole film, and it’s worth watching just for that.

One popular story about Ermey is that he was initially hired as a technical advisor, but Kubrick was so impressed with his demonstration of a drill instructor’s role that he was offered the part.

On a slow afternoon some years ago I looked up a series of interviews about Ermey and his role in Full Metal Jacket and learned that, as the paragraph above says, he’d initially been hired as a technical adviser. However, he was very disappointed by the portrayal of the drill instructor who was some sadistic brute who just wanted to torture recruits, and he tried to persuade Kubrick to let him take over the role. In order to demonstrate his skills, he made a video of him being pelted with oranges and tennis balls for fifteen minutes while delivering a monologue of insults and abuse without flinching, pausing, or repeating himself. Suitably impressed, Kubrick gave him the role (the actor playing the original drill instructor appears in the film as a door gunner).

So the reason Ermey is so convincing is because he is less acting than simply doing his job, and demonstrates the process of breaking civilians and remoulding them as Marines brilliantly. Incredibly, Kubrick – who had a reputation as a control freak – allowed Ermey to ad-lib his own lines, something he barely allowed even Jack Nicholson to do. Most of Ermey’s dialogue is his own, which lead to Kubrick calling “cut” when he heard the term “reach around”. He asked Ermey to explain, which he did. Kubrick smiled, and said “carry on”. There are some brilliant, hilarious one-liners in those opening few scenes, probably more than any other passage of film of similar length, possibly of any length. Without Ermey the film would have been nothing, but his inclusion guaranteed it classic status. Each time I watch his performance, I always wish there was more of it.

Rest in peace, R Lee Ermey.

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11 thoughts on “R Lee Ermey

  1. I traveled that same route (curiosity about how he got the role) – but hadn’t heard about the oranges and tennis balls – I wonder if the footage still exists?

  2. I traveled that same route (curiosity about how he got the role) – but hadn’t heard about the oranges and tennis balls

    See here.

    I wonder if the footage still exists?

    I looked damned near everywhere, and saw not a single suggestion that it does.

  3. Years later even in cheapo late night shows he always brought something, a good man.

    Yeah, I quite liked his gun show on Nat Geo too.

  4. In Lolita, there is a longish shot (perhaps 2 minutes) of Peter Sellers and James Mason, which I am sure was also ad-libbed; at least by Sellers.

  5. Regularly watch the film when it’s on TV, till the end of boot camp then turn over. RIP Gunny

  6. Yeah, I quite liked his gun show on Nat Geo too.

    Even the bit when he got some Aussie biff in a slouch hat to pretend (to his great and obvious discomfort) to be British? An Aussie biff who couldn’t even cycle his SMLE without taking it out of his shoulder every time he worked the bolt?

    Not Ermey’s fault, of course, but that whole segment made me cringe. Plus the crappy animation graphics of mechanisms they’d made that bore scant relationship to reality….

    But Ermey in FMJ couldn’t have been better. He nailed it totally.

  7. Also excellent as a redneck Mayor in Mississippi Burning. Ably assisted by a large cigar…
    Andy.

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