RIP R Lee Ermy, The Marine Corps’ Most Famous Drill Instructor, Dead At 74

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The Marine-turned-actor’s performance in Full Metal Jacket defined the USMC Drill Instructor for the world.

Ronald Lee Ermey, better known as R. Lee Ermey, passed away at 74 on Sunday, April 15, 2018. Though he has 124 acting credits to his name, he will be forever remembered as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, the Marine Corps drill instructor who made life hell for all of his recruits, but especially bad for one in particular in the Stanley Kubrick film Full Metal Jacket.

Full Metal Jacket has a special place in the Marine Corps’ heart. There are lots of movies out the different branches of the US military, but none has come to define and be adopted by the members of a service like Full Metal Jacket has been. That is in large part due to the fact that every Marine goes through boot camp, while not everyone in the Navy is a fighter pilot (Top Gun) or an Army Ranger/Delta Operator (Black Hawk Down). It’s also because Marine drill instructors leave an incredible impact on their recruits…and the standard to which they are held is set by R. Lee Ermey’s performance in Full Metal Jacket.

Every Marine has seen Full Metal Jacket and chances are they’ve seen it dozens of times. It’s a most bizarre recruitment tool, though one that isn’t actually that far from some of the Marines’ actual recruitment campaigns. It’s a great portrayal of “We won’t promise you a rose garden.” For most people, the depiction of recruit training at Parris Island with young men living at the mercy of a sadistic drill instructor is as much Marine Corps as they want to have in their lives. For a much smaller segment of the audience, the thought “I want to do that” pops into their head. A good chunk of those end up at Marine Corps recruiting stations.

We fit into the latter category. We were probably sixteen when we first saw the movie and four years later, we put our feet on the yellow footprints of Parris Island. Times have changed and a lot of what was depicted in the movie is far removed from the actual experience of going through Parris Island in 1997 or today. That said, the easiest way to explain what boot camp was like was to ask “Have you seen Full Metal Jacket? It’s a lot like that.”

Making of a Legend

There are many facts about R Lee Ermey’s performance in Full Metal Jacket that make it even more legendary than what is seen on screen. In his audition tape, he spends about ten minutes doing his drill instructor berating bit…while being pelted with tennis balls. Ermey was originally hired as a technical advisor, but impressed Kurbick so much, he got the actual role.

The craziest bit is that he doesn’t move his left arm much in the movie because he had broken his ribs in a car accident right before shooting.

R. Lee Ermey knew the role because he’d been a drill instructor at San Diego Recruit Depot for two years in the 1960s. He’d also served two year in Vietnam and two in Okinawa during the course of his 11 year career. Retiring from the Marines due to injuries, he went on to study acting eventually making his way to Hollywood. His first role was as a helicopter pilot in Apocalypse Now.

The man was a prolific worker, appearing over a hundred on-screen roles…but Full Metal Jacket simply towers over the rest. Hell, the number of characters he played that were simply parodies of of his depiction of Gunny Hartman would have made for a good acting career.

Ermey actually retired from the Marine Corps as a Staff Sergeant (E-6) but was given an honorary promotion to Gunnery Sergeant (E-7) on May 17, 2002 by the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General James L. Jones.

Semper Fidelis, Gunny. You will not  be forgotten.

-Tristan Pinnock, Blast Marine Correspondent

Tristan's just this guy, ya know?