How R. Lee Ermey's Hollywood break is an inspiration to us all
While there have been many outstanding actors and celebrities who have raised their right hand, there has never been a veteran who could finger point his way to the top of Hollywood stardom quite like the late great Gunnery Sergeant R. Lee Ermey.
Ronald Lee Ermey, like many of us, was a mischievous kid and teenager. At the age of 17, the judge gave him a choice that would forever change him: Juvenile Detention or military service. The Corps did him right and he did right by the Corps, eventually becoming a Drill Instructor at Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego and deploying to Vietnam with the Marine Wing Support Group 17.
Actor and Retired Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. R. Lee Ermey (center on right) with his 1966 Marine recruits at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego.(U.S. Marine Corps)
After being medically retired for injuries incurred during service, Ermey attended the University of Manilla to study drama where he met his future wife, Nila Ermey. He also had his first taste of Hollywood with a bit role in the Sidney J. Furie film The Boys from Company C, which was a precursor to and inspiration for Full Metal Jacket where he would also be cast as a Drill Instructor.
His acumen capturing the warrior on film led him to be called directly on set for Apocalypse Now.
Frances Ford Coppola had filmed his Vietnam War-era epic not too far from Ermey's university in The Philippines. Ermey became the technical advisor to the man who directed The Godfather; Ermey let Coppola know how things were actually done in Vietnam.
He also scored his next acting role as a blink-and-you'll-miss-him helicopter pilot during the famous "Ride of the Valkyries" scene.
Once you see it's him, you'll recognize his voice on the intercom through the scene. (United Artists)
He would continue to act in other films that fit his range, like a Jaws knock-off called Up from the Depths and a sappy Vietnam War romance film called Purple Hearts. Neither would go down as cinematic masterpieces — but it was his passion. He kept busy until he was offered to be the technical advisor for Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket.
For the non-cinema buffs who are unaware of Kubrick's directing style, he wasn't the easiest man to work with. The script had to be followed to a "T" and improv was strictly forbidden. The infamous scene in The Shining where Wendy frantically swings a baseball bat at Jack took 127 takes to get right — that was the level of perfection Kubrick worked with.
Needless to say, his sets can be intense. (Warner Bros.)
None of that threw Ermey. The story goes that while filming, Ermey had worked extensively with the original Gunny Hartman, portrayed by Tim Colceri. Ermey had written 150 pages of insults that would naturally flow out of a Drill Instructor's mouth — and nearly none of them were used. The few that were chosen came across as weak and nonthreatening.
Ermey did what every good Devil Dog would do in a situation like this. He bulldogged Colceri (would eventually be recast as the door gunner who screams "Get some!") off camera. He barked insults at the scared actors while channeling his real Drill Instructor past. And he did everything off the cuff.
Kubrick was so impressed he kept Ermey as Gunny Hartman, despite being contrary to every directing technique he used.
Ermey would be nominated at the 1988 Golden Globes for his role of Gunny Hartman and would become a main stay in pop culture icon and the first impression many have of military life.