Actor R Lee Ermey was the real deal at least when it came to playing military men having served in the US army himself. It was experience he drew on for the role that defined his acting career as the verbally savage and utterly brutal drill sergeant in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket.
Born Ronald Lee Ermey in Kansas on March 4th 1944 he was a bit of a trouble maker in his youth ending up in court where a judge offered him jail or the army. He took the latter option and joined the US Marines where he spent 14 months in Vietnam and then Okinanwa, Japan moving up the ranks to staff sergeant and serving as a drill sergeant before retiring due to injury. R Lee Ermey initially moved to the Phillipines to study but appeared in a several films whilst out there before being cast as a helicopter pilot in Apocalpyse Now which was shooting there. This was followed by a few lean years before he landed the role that would change everything for him.
Legend has it that he had been hired in an advisory capacity on Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket primarily for the actor originally cast as the drill sergeant. It was a role that Ermey had wanted himself and Kubrick was rumoured to be reluctant to cast him thinking that he was just too nice for the role having watched him in the film, ‘The Boys in Company C’. Ermey took it as a bit of an insult and submitted an audition tape hurling insult after insult as, bizarrely, tennis balls were hurled at him. Kubrick was sold on him and when auditioning actors for the soldier roles the actors were lined up as Ermey paced up and down the hall hurling abuse at them so as Kubrick could see how they would react. Gunnery Sergeant Hartman would be R Lee Ermey’s defining role earning him a Golden Globe nomination. It was a role that would overshadow and ultimately typecast him to varying degrees for the rest of his career even playing a sergeant in the Toy Story films.
He would appear in over 60 films from 1978 to his last film ‘The Watch’ in 2012 and he blamed his outspoken right wing views for what he called the ‘Hollywood liberals’ preventing him from appearing in further films and spent the last few years of his career reduced to voiceovers for The Simpsons, Call of Duty games and lastly a voice for a Disney video game. His career included films as varied as Fletch Lives, Naked Gun 33 1/3, Seven and a remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
R Lee Ermey was proud of his military origins and supported US veterans and personnel and in keeping with that he was also a board member of the National Rifle Association and even worked as a spokesman for Glock handguns.
Yet despite his tough on screen persona he was reportedly a gentle man devoted to his four children and wife who he married in 1975. He died from complications of pneumonia.
Here’s a reminder of the role that R Le Ermey will be forever remembered (probably not best to watch this in your workplace)…….