A soldier, an actor, and an iconic voice, many are familiar with the work of R. Lee Ermey. A man who basically founded the bad-ass sergeant stereotype in film, Ermey lent his vocal talents and real-world experience to many films and features over the years and chances are even if you think you didn’t know this soldier-turned-actor you probably saw at least one film with his signature vocal performance mixed in. An outspoken American, war veteran and a famous example of art imitating life, Ermey was a cherished figure right up to his passing on April 15 after complications from pneumonia. It’s been a while since I’ve done an “In Memoriam”, but this performer certainly deserves that kind of respect. Let’s look back at the life and career of R. Lee Ermey.
Born Robert Lee Ermey in Emporia, Kansas in March of 1944, R. Lee Ermey was one of five siblings, all male, who lived on a farm outside of Kansas City. He moved to Washington with his family in his teens and found himself at odds with the local authorities many times, including two arrests before he turned 18. It was then that he was given a choice, go to jail or join the military. Ermey joined the armed forces as a member of the Marine Corps at age 17. He went through recruit training in San Diego, California before serving in aviation support and later became a drill instructor in India Company, 3rd Recruit Training Battalion. He served that role in San Diego for two years and it would set the stage for his breakout role in film in years to come.
Ermey was a veteran of the Vietnam War, serving 14 months in the country with Marine Wing Support Group 17 after joining the group in Japan in 1967. After his stint in Vietnam he spent the rest of his service in Okinawa where he became a staff sergeant and was medically discharged in 1972. He then attended the University of Manila in the Phillippines using a G.I. Bill benefit. Ermey earned his first acting roles at this time and he immediately became a staple in war and military-themed films right from the get-go.
Ermey’s first role was in 1978’s “The Boys in Company C” and he played a smaller role as a pilot in the critically acclaimed “Apocalypse Now” (shown above) where he also served as a technical adviser to Francis Ford Coppola, putting his years in Vietnam and his military knowledge to use in the art of film making. Ermey continued to expand on his acting career playing several minor roles in films like “Up from the Depth” and “Purple Hearts”. In 1987 however he was cast in his most iconic role and the one that would make him a legend in the film industry.
Ermey played Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in the Stanley Kubrick Vietnam War classic “Full Metal Jacket” after being brought on as a technical adviser. Ermey reportedly received the role after making an instructional tape that impressed the notably picky perfectionist director Kubrick. In an interesting twist Kubrick backed off from his controlling ways and allowed Ermey to ad-lib the entire performance and make up his own lines to achieve authenticity. As a former drill sergeant Ermey put his real world experience and practice to film bringing to life a character many consider one of the most authentic in the entire war film genre to date. The performance earned him the Boston Society of Film Critics Award for Best Supporting Actor and he was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor. It was his only major acting award nomination but one that also earned him a reputation that would make him an in-demand performer specifically for roles of authority figures and army veterans.
Over the next ten-plus years Ermey’s career soured in a series of voice roles, television roles and uncredited performances. He followed up “Full Metal Jacket” with a guest appearance on “Miami Vice” before appearing in films like “Mississippi Burning”, “Fletch Lives”, “Toy Soldiers”, “Body Snatchers” and the “Naked Gun” franchise through the late 80s and early 90s. His busiest year was 1995 where he appeared in in ten films as well as guest starring on the “X-Files” and “The Simpsons”. He closed out that year with one of his most famous voiceover roles to date, the toy soldier Sarge in Pixar’s “Toy Story”.
Throughout the remainder of Ermey’s career he appeared in countless films and television shows becoming a notable voice actor with performances on Nickelodeon programs like “Angry Beavers” and “Invader Zim” as well as Disney properties like “Kim Possible” and Cartoon Network’s “The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy”. His film credits included “Rough Riders” and the 2003 “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and its 2006 prequel. He also continued his work in the “Toy Story” franchise and started his own television programs geared toward military history on “The History Channel”. Ermey also lent his vocal talents to video games appearing in the “Crash Bandicoot” series, the “Real War” games, the “Call of Duty” franchise and his first video game voiceover in the Sega-CD version of “Double Switch”. Throughout his career he utilized his stage name of R. Lee Ermey or a variation of that label while also embracing his military nickname “Gunny”. His final on-screen appearance was in the show “Military Makeover” in 2016.
Beyond his acting experience Ermey was one of the most notable soldiers-turned performers in Hollywood and leaned heavily on his aggressive tone and demeanor and his personal experience obtained in the military when bringing his characters to life. He continued to be a staunch supporter of the military even after his retirement from the armed forces and received an honorary post-service promotion to general sergeant in recognition of that support in 2002. He conducted morale tours overseas many times after the launch of the War on Terror and also put his acting chops to practice performing comedy routines for troops. Ermey was also retroactively awarded the Marine Corps Drill Instructor Ribbon after retiring from the armed forces. His military career also brought him the Meritorious Unit Commendation, Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, South Vietnamese Presidential Unit Citation, South Vietnamese Gallantry Cross with Palm, South Vietnamese Campaign Medal, Rifle Marksman Badge and Pistol Sharpshooter Badge.
Contrary to many beliefs Ermey was actually an Independent, but he often showed loyalty to the Conservative GOP in his later years. In 2008 Ermey voted for Democrat Barack Obama for president but was also quick to criticize Obama’s policies. He supported Ted Cruz in the race for the 2016 presidential election. Ermey’s most controversial political outburst came in 2010 when he used his platform speaking at the Marine Corps Reserve’s Toys for Tots rally to criticize Obama’s economic policies. He apologized in January of 2011 for letting emotion get the best of him and called his comments “inappropriately critical”. Ermey felt the incident caused him to be “blackballed” by Hollywood and thus sidelined his career. Ermey was a staunch supporter of the Second Amendment and felt that Donald Trump was the best candidate for the job in the 2016 election to preserve those rights. Due to his perceived leanings toward the GOP and his constant presentation as the rough and tough military leader in film Ermey has often been the subject of misquotes on social media criticizing younger generations and those who are perceived to be taking advantage of the system although not all of these quote are falsely attributed to the late actor.
R. Lee Ermey may have been divisive in his beliefs and may not have been able to escape the typecasting that made his career possible, but in the end that’s why we loved him in the first place. This Marine Corps soldier took his experience and talents and put them to use in the art of entertainment bringing to life one of the most iconic war figures in all of film and helped some of Hollywood’s biggest directors create some of the most iconic war movies of all time. He was the living definition of a devoted American and one whose life was changed thanks to his turn in the armed forces in more ways than one. He was a legend and a personality in his own right who served his country proud on and off the big screen. I salute you sergeant for your contributions to cinema and to the nation. May you rest in peace.