This week we mourn the passing of U.S Marine, Vietnam War Veteran, and accomplished actor, R. Lee Ermey, who died on April 15 at the age of 74.
I had the pleasure of meeting the Gunny once, which is to say I shook his hand and snapped a photo at SHOT Show a few years back, a place where he was a staple, often promoting Glock firearms or SOG knives. He’d walk around range day, shaking hands and signing autographs for a slew of bloggers and YouTubers who owed a lot of their success to what he did on TV with the History Channel’s Mail Call in the early 2000s and later on Lock n’ Load with R. Lee Ermey. Just as he was on the screen, he was always larger than life wherever he went, always looking every bit the Gunny he portrayed and the drill sergeant he was.
Ermey was born in Emporia, Kansas on March 24, 1944 and grew up with five brothers on a farm outside of Kansas City, Kansas.The family left Kansas for Zillah, Washington in 1958 when Ermey was 14. He proved to be a rebellious teenager, arrested twice for criminal mischief by the time he was 17. After his second arrest, a judge gave him a choice between the military or jail—he chose the former.In 1961, at the age of 17, Ermey enlisted in the United States Marine Corps and completed recruit training at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Sand Diego.
He served in the aviation support field before becoming a drill instructor in India Company, 3rd Recruit Training Battalion, in San Diego where he was assigned from 1965 to 1967.
He then served in Marine Wing Support Group 17 in Okinawa, Japan until 1968, when he was ordered to Vietnam with MWSG-17 and completed a 14-month tour of duty.He spent the remainder of his service career in Okinawa where was was advanced to the rank of staff sergeant. Ermey was medically discharged in 1972 because of various injuries he’d sustained.
Though he never achieved the rank while on active duty, Ermey was given an honorary promotion to gunnery sergeant by the Commandant of the Marine Corps General James L. Jones on May 17, 2002.
Ermey got into movies almost directly after his time in the Marines. While attending the University of Manila in the Philippines on the G.I. Bill, he played a First Air Cavalry pilot in the sprawling Vietnam epic by Francis Ford Coppola, Apocalypse Now, also doubling as a technical advisor.After that, movies became a focus of his. He played a Marine drill instructor for the first time in Sidney Furie’s The Boys In Company C and had a few minor roles in various movies until 1987, when he was brought on as the technical advisor for a movie called Full Metal Jacket.
Director Stanley Kubrick decided Ermey needed to be in front of the camera as well after viewing an instructional tape he’d made in which he went on an extended tirade directed at some extras drafted for the job.
Wanting the role to be as authentic as possible, Kubrick had Ermey write or tweak all of his dialogue and improvise on the set—which was a rarity for the very particular director.
While the film was an instant classic and lauded by audiences and critics alike, Ermey’s performance in particular won rave reviews. He was nominated for a Golden Globe Award as Best Supporting Actor and his portrayal became the framework for every fictional drill instructor to grace the screen for the next 10 years and beyond.
He went on to be in roughly 60 films often playing authority figures or fathers. He played law enforcement officers, coaches, and ministers more than once in his career. Notable roles include appearances in, Purple Hearts, Mississippi Burning, The Siege of Firebase Gloria, Dead Man Walking, Se7en, Fletch Lives, Leaving Las Vegas, Prefontaine, Saving Silverman, On Deadly Ground, Sommersby, Life, Man of the House, Toy Soldiers, and The Salton Sea, as well as the remake of Willard, and as an evil sadist in two The Texas Chainsaw Massacre films.
Ermey also lent his voice to The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy, Toy Story, Toy Story 2, and Toy Story 3, as well as Roughnecks and X-Men 3.
He also appeared in commanding military roles on a number of TV shows in addition to hosting Mail Call and Lock N’ Load with R. Lee Ermey.
I have vivid memories of watching Ermey on marathons of Mail Call answering questions about guns, military life, and gear. This was back in college when we had very few cable channels and an internet connection that wasn’t conducive to streaming video of any kind, even if there had been that much on the brand new YouTube to watch…but they gave us the History Channel, which was sometimes a godsend when you just couldn’t watch that Old School DVD one more time.
As range junkies and fervent fans of Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, my roommate and I spent a lot of lazy rainy weeknights watching Ermey shoot the guns we wished we could even rent at the range, and answer a lot of seemingly mundane questions from viewers about the minutia of bygone military days that we found utterly fascinating. Our interest was sharpened by the fact that we both knew more than one person who had joined some branch of the service to aid in the war on terror directly following 9/11.
During those early years of the war, Ermey also conducted morale tours visiting U.S. troops in locations like Al Out, Iraq and Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, where he filmed parts of the show. At Bagram, he held a USO-type show in which he portrayed Gy. Sgt. Hartman from FMJ and put on a hilarious performance. He did the same at Doha, Qatar and Camp Doha, Kuwait City, Kuwait in 2003.
Ermey passed away on the morning of April 15, 2018 at a hospital in Santa Monica, California from complications related to pneumonia at the age of 74.
Ermey’s awards and decorations include the Meritorious Unit Commendation, Good Conduct Medal w/ two 3⁄16″ bronze stars, National Defense Service Medal, Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, Vietnam Service Medal w/ one 3⁄16″ silver star, Marine Corps Drill Instructor Ribbon, Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross with Palm, Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal with 1960- Device, Rifle Marksman Badge, and Pistol Sharpshooter Badge.
He was retroactively awarded the Marine Corps Drill Instructor Ribbon after he retired from the military due to his prior service as a Marine Corps recruit training instructor.
So in the spirit of our site, let’s take a look at the guns the Gunny used on-screen throughout his film career:
Purple Hearts (1984)
After breaking into the movie business as a technical advisor on Apocalypse Now, Ermey had a small role in Purple Hearts, which was a story about a Navy surgeon and a nurse who fall in love during the Vietnam war. The leads were played by Ken Wahl and Cheryl Ladd. This was the first time Ermey, playing Gunny, was seen on screen with a firearm. He used a period correct M14 in several scenes.
While they were already outdated by the new M16, when the Vietnam war began, a number of soldiers and Marines were issued the select-fire 7.62mm NATO M14 rifle, which was essentially an updated version of the M1 Garand, which had served the U.S. through WWII and the Korean War.
Then came the role that would make Ermey and his caricature of a Marine drill sergeant a prominent piece in the puzzle of pop culture.
Full Metal Jacket (1987)
While Ermey spent most of his role as Gny. Sgt. Hartman in the award-winning Full Metal Jacket screaming some of film’s most memorable lines at various actors playing Marine recruits, including a young Vincent D’Onofrio as Pvt. Pyle and Matthew Modine as Pvt. Joker, he did have one and only one scene holding a firearm. It was the infamous “this is my rifle, this is my gun” cadence scene in the barracks…well, you remember. He and the rest of the company are holding M14s, the rifles with which the Marines train. Incidentally, it’s also the rifle Pvt. Pyle uses to kill Gny. Sgt. Hartman during the shocking ending to the movie’s first act.
Ermey’s portrayal was so iconic, that it would be parodied until the present day, and Ermey himself would go on to reprise the role later in a number of different ways.
The Siege of Firebase Gloria
M16A1, M79 Grenade Launcher
Riding on the heels of his success in Apocalypse, Ermey co-starred in another Vietnam War movie, The Siege of Firebase Gloria, which also starred Wings Hauser, about a patrol of U.S. Marines on a long range recon patrol who find themselves at an isolated American firebase that appears to be on the verge of an all-out assault by the NVA and the Viet Cong.
In the film, Ermey uses an M16A1 rifle, like the rest of the Marines, and he also uses an M79 grenade launcher, which was a wood-stocked, single-shot, breach-loaded 40mm grenade launcher that was widely used in Vietnam. The later introduction of the M203 grenade launcher allowed a soldier or Marine to serve as both a grenadier and a rifleman instead of having a dedicated grenadier with an M79 and a pistol or M1 Carbine.
On Deadly Ground (1994)
Benelli M3 Super 90 Shotgun
In one of the films that ended out Steven Seagal’s bright but brief reign as action-movie superstar at the box office, Ermey played the small role of Stone in On Deadly Ground. During the confrontation with Taft on the oil platform, he totes a Benellli M3 Super 90 shotgun with a pistol grip.
The Frighteners (1996)
Twin M60 Machine Guns
Ermey has been in a lot of movies, in a lot of different roles, but one of the most unexpected might have been as a ghostly version of his drill sergeant character from FMJ in the 1996 dark comedy starring Michael J. Fox as a paranormal investigator who can actually see and talk to ghosts, who appear as they did in life, just desaturated and kind of see-through.
Sgt. Hiles guards the cemetery in the town, making sure spirits don’t wander off from their graves to cause problems for the living. In this capacity, he’s usually wearing his drill sergeant uniform, but when he has to get down, he morphs into battle fatigues, flack jacket, helmet, and dual wields two M60 machine guns firing ectoplasm bullets.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) – The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (2006)
Ruger Vaquero, Winchester Model 12
In addition to his recurring and frequent military roles over the years, Ermey was also a mainstay in the horror movie world. His biggest role was that of Sheriff Hoyt in the 2003 remake of the 1970s low-budget horror classic, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
As the villainous Sheriff Hoyt, Ermey used a nickel-plated Ruger Vaquero revolver with white grips. The Vaquero resembles the Colt Single Action Army but is actually a single-action six-shot revolver based on the .357 Magnum New Model Ruger Blackhawk frame introduced in 1973.
Ermey reprised the role in the 2006 prequel The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning in which it’s revealed he is actually Thomas Hewitt of Leatherface’s family. He meets the real Sheriff Hoyt early on in the movie and kills him, taking his uniform, gun, and police car.
He also takes the sheriff’s Winchester Model 1912 shotgun and uses it as his primary weapon through the rest of the movie.
Sawed Off Shotgun
The Biker Chick (Emily Kaye) attempts to rob the kids with this weapon but is killed by Sheriff Hoyt before she can use it. Sheriff Hoyt then places it on his dashboard and then retrieves it when Eric attempts to steal it.
In a humorous moment, he uses the shotgun to smack the light on the roof of the sheriff’s car to get it to act right.
The Watch (2012)
The Watch should have been a successful sci-fi comedy. It had a lot of names for the time—Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, and Jonah Hill—but it fell pretty flat with audiences and quickly faded into obscurity. It was about a neighborhood watch group that accidentally discovers an alien threat in suburban Ohio.
Ermey plays Manfred, a touchy property owner who uses a Remington 870 for home protection, when he notices the neighborhood watch trespassing on his yard. Franklin (Jonah Hill) also has two Remington 870 shotguns in his gun collection.
Mail Call (2002-2007)
As I said above, Gunny went on to host several seasons of Mail Call on the History Channel and got to fire a lot of cool guns in answer to fans’ questions. For a rundown of all the guns featured on the show, check out imfdb.org here.
While he didn’t actually tote a gun as the surly police captain in the wonderfully creepy Seven, he had some great lines, but this little throwaway was always one of my favorites:
His turn as psychotic coach in the weird comedy Saving Silverman was also a personal favorite:
And as a requisite, here is a collection of Ermey’s best on-screen moments. Warning…adult language ahead:
And of course, the full opening scene from Full Metal Jacket:
UPDATE: A buddy of mine just dug this photo out of an old hard drive. I believe this is SHOT Show 2012. It was the cold one. Gunny was always more than ready to sign autographs, take photos, and talk to anyone who wanted to jaw for a while.
RIP Gny. Sgt. R. Lee Ermey