You might say R. Lee Ermey became the very symbol of military shock and awe. In the History Channel interview above from 2001, the soldier-cum-actor talks about his experiences as a career officer in the marine corps and how he came up with the character of Hartman in Full Metal Jacket (1987). He died yesterday at the age of 74.
Born in Kansas, R. Lee Ermey was a troubled youth who was told one day by a judge that he had a choice to make – either do time or join the military. Ermey joined the marine corps and eventually became a drill instructor, training young men on their way to Vietnam. He served in Japan and Vietnam before being medically discharged in the early 1970s after several injuries.
In the late 1970s, Ermey got into movies and was cast as a drill instructor in The Boys in Company C. (1978). That was a small role, and he was also briefly seen in Apocalypse Now (1979), where he also served as a technical advisor. But it wasn’t until 1987 that Ermey would get his breakthrough in Full Metal Jacket, essentially playing a larger-than-life version of himself, coming up with outrageous insults to yell at the privates, shocking Stanley Kubrick himself. Ermey was so compelling, embodying militaristic sadism, that the performance earned him a Golden Globe nomination.
R. Lee Ermey would keep playing men in authority over the years, cops and soldiers, because it’s what he did best, but he always caught one’s attention. He also did considerable voice work, playing Sarge in the Toy Story movies. Unsurprisingly, he voiced a drill instructor in one of the “Call of Duty” games. In 2002, he was promoted to gunnery sergeant even though he was retired, as a way of honoring his life-long work for the military.
Today, Matthew Modine, his co-star from Full Metal Jacket, honored Ermey on Twitter:
I wish the world could know about the poetry @RLeeErmey wrote. Rib split-tingly funny. Maybe one day it will surface. @StanleyKubrick worked hard to find its way into #FullMetalJacket pic.twitter.com/8DOczI7YMr
— Matthew Modine (@MatthewModine) April 16, 2018