R. Lee Ermey, the gunnery sergeant turned actor who portrayed the scene-stealing drill instructor in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, died Sunday at the age of 74.
Ermey’s longtime manager Bill Rogin confirmed Ermey’s death on the actor’s Facebook account. “It is with deep sadness that I regret to inform you all that R. Lee Ermey (“The Gunny”) passed away this morning from complications of pneumonia. He will be greatly missed by all of us,” Rogin wrote.
“It is a terrible loss that nobody was prepared for,” Rogin added. “He has meant so much to so many people. And, it is extremely difficult to truly quantify all of the great things this man has selflessly done for, and on behalf of, our many men and women in uniform. He has also contributed many iconic and indelible characters on film that will live on forever. Gunnery Sergeant Hartman of Full Metal Jacket fame was a hard and principled man. The real R. Lee Ermey was a family man, and a kind and gentle soul. He was generous to everyone around him. And, he especially cared deeply for others in need.”
Born in Emporia, Kansas in 1944, Robert Lee Ermey enlisted in the military in 1961, eventually becoming a drill sergeant during the Vietnam War; he was ultimately sent to Vietnam and served 14 months in that country during the war. After rising to the rank of staff sergeant, Ermey was medically discharged in 1972 and began attending college in the Philippines, where Francis Ford Coppola was filming Apocalypse Now, Deadline reports.
Prior to stepping in front of the camera, Ermey served as a consultant and technical advisor on war-themed films like Apocalypse Now (where he also had a bit part as a helicopter pilot) and The Boys in Company C. He was similarly hired in a consultant capacity for 1987’s Full Metal Jacket, but Kubrick’s difficulty casting the role of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in his Vietnam epic opened the door for the ex-Marine to audition.
“My main objective was basically to just play the drill instructor the way the drill instructor was and let the chips fall where they may,” Ermey said in a History Channel interview regarding his character. “You can ask any drill instructor who was down there in 1965 or 1966, that’s exactly how the drill instructor’s demeanor was. There were no punches pulled.”
Not only did Ermey win the role – he stated that the notoriously perfectionist Kubrick even allowed the gunnery sergeant to improvise half of his dialogue and insults. “Kubrick would punch the button on his tape recording, and I would go on and on and on until I ran out of gas … Then we would select the juiciest lines,” Ermey said.
Kubrick told Rolling Stone in 1987, “If I did a hundred takes on every scene, I’d never finish a film. Lee Ermey, for instance, would spend every spare second with the dialogue coach, and he always knew his lines. I suppose Lee averaged eight or nine takes. He sometimes did it in three. Because he was prepared.”
Vincent D’Onofrio, who as Private Leonard “Gomer Pyle” Lawrence was the main target of Hartman’s cruelty, tweeted Sunday, “Ermey was the real deal. The knowledge of him passing brings back wonderful memories of our time together.” Full Metal Jacket star Matthew Modine also tweeted a tribute to the actor.
Ermey’s iconic performance of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman earned the fledgling actor a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the Golden Globes and kick-started a fruitful 30-year career.
While he was often typecast as an authoritative military type – including as the voice of the plastic green army figurine Sarge in the Toy Story series – the actor also landed roles in films like Mississippi Burning, Se7en, Murder in the First and Saving Silverman and played characters such as Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman in Prefontaine and the sadistic Sheriff Hoyt in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake.
Ermey’s television credits included appearances on The X-Files, The Simpsons, House (as the title character’s father) and his own military-minded series on the History Channel.
“There is a quote made famous in Full Metal Jacket. It’s actually the Riflemen’s Creed. ‘This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine,'” Rogin continued. “There are many Gunny’s, but this one was OURS. And, we will honor his memory with hope and kindness. Please support your men and women in uniform. That’s what he wanted most of all.”