R. Lee Ermey, the ‘Full Metal Jacket’ Drill Sergeant, Dies at 74

April 16, 2018

The Full Metal Jacket actor Ronald Lee Ermey died on Sunday at the age of 74 due to complications of pneumonia. His longtime manager, Bill Rogin, made the announcement via Ermey’s Twitter account, writing: “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. Semper Fi, Gunny. Godspeed.”

Later in the day, Rogin took to Facebook to share more about his friend and client: “He will be greatly missed by all of us. It is a terrible loss that nobody was prepared for. 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. The real Gunnery Sergeant Hartman of ‘Full Metal Jacket’ fame was a hard and principled man. 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. 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.”

As an actor, Ermey often played military members–and quite convincingly, to be sure. It wasn’t much of a stretch to play these roles as he’d spent 11 years in the service. Indeed, Ermey had been a U.S. Marine Corps staff sergeant, an honorary gunnery sergeant, he served as a drill instructor for the Marines, served 14 months in Vietnam, and he completed two tours in Okinawa, Japan.

Ermey once explained how he managed to land his iconic and foulmouthed role as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in the Academy Award-nominated Full Metal Jacket. Director Stanley Kubrick had noticed Ermey had worked in front of the camera on four other Vietnam war films, and so he hired him as a technical advisor. Ermey accepted the job, but he had a secret drive to replace the actor who’d already been hired for the part of the hardened drill sergeant. The mission-oriented Ermey described his strategic tactics to achieve his goal, saying:

“The way I ended up convincing Stanley Kubrick that he needed me to do Gunnery Sergeant Hartman was that I memorized the first scene of ‘Full Metal Jacket’ … and I was the technical advisor, and so I interviewed all of the people that were applying for background extras,” he explained. Then, he put the men in recruit platoon formation just as they’d be positioned in the receiving barracks. “And I stopped by wardrobe, and I put on the Smokey Bear, the utility uniform,” he says. Next, he proceeded to interview the “recruits” as he believed Gunnery would, reciting the lines in his authentic military style. But this opportunity was not in vain; he made sure Kubrick’s assistant taped him as he grilled the recruits. “The next day, Stanley called me into the production office and asked me if I would be Gunnery Sergeant Hartman.”

Ermey went on to receive a Golden Globe nomination for his unforgettable, grueling performance in the 1986 film. He also portrayed authority figures in films including Mississippi Burning, Prefontaine, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, Se7en, Leaving Las Vegas; and his voiceover work included playing the lead of the green plastic Army soldiers in the Toy Story films. Rest in peace, Ermey.