R. Lee Ermey, 1944–2018
The drill instructor who became a war movie icon
At age 17, R. Lee Ermey was given a simple choice by a judge: “Son, you can join the military or go to jail.” The teenage miscreant enlisted in the Marines, beginning a journey that would end in Hollywood. His experience as a drill sergeant led him to be cast as one of the most memorable characters in 1987’s Full Metal Jacket. As Gunnery Sgt. Hartmann, Ermey dominates the film’s first half, berating the new arrivals at a Marines boot camp. Eyes bulging and his jaw jutting, he names one recruit “Private Snowball” and asks another rhetorically, “What is your major malfunction?” The insults were of his own invention. “It was terrifying to those actors,” Ermey said. “My objective was intimidation.”
Raised in Kansas and Washington state, Ermey was a self-described “hell-raiser” when he was brought before the judge for “joyriding” and “beer drinking” in 1961, said The Washington Post. In his seventh year with the Marines, he was posted to Vietnam, where his military career effectively ended after he was wounded by a rocket. Ermey was living in the Philippines when he was hired by Francis Ford Coppola as a technical adviser on 1979’s Apocalypse Now, in which he also had a bit part as a helicopter pilot.
After playing a drill instructor in 1978’s The Boys in Company C, Ermey “would often be cast as authority figures,” said The Times (U.K.). He was a police captain in 1995’s Se7en and the voice of a green plastic soldier named Sarge in Toy Story. He claimed his conservative views led him to be “blackballed” late in his career by liberal Hollywood. But by then, he was happy spending time on shooting ranges with his friends, all of whom, he said, were “good patriots.”