Actor R. Lee Ermey, in-your-face sergeant in ‘Full Metal Jacket,’ dies at 74

SHARE Actor R. Lee Ermey, in-your-face sergeant in ‘Full Metal Jacket,’ dies at 74

R. Lee Ermey in 2006. | RANDY DAVEY/AP

Actor R. Lee Ermey, the former Marine whose best-known role was a tough-talking drill instructor in “Full Metal Jacket,” has died at age 74.

A Sunday statement from the actor’s manager, Bill Rogin, said Ermey “passed away this morning from complications of pneumonia.” Unlike his hard-edged characters, Rogin wrote, “The real 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.”

Ermey began acting after serving 11 years with the Marine Corps, some of them as a drill instructor. Early roles included a drill instructor in “The Boys in Company C” (1978) and a helicopter pilot in “Apocalypse Now” (1979), also serving as a consultant to director Francis Ford Coppola.

Hired at first as military advisor for Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket” (1987), he talked his way into his signature role.

“I always felt I was suited for the role of Gunnery Sgt. Hartman,” Ermey told the Sun-Times when the film was released.  “But every time I asked Stanley about it, he politely smiled and said, `No. You’re not mean enough.’ ”

Instructed instead to round up extras to play boot-camp recruits, Ermey filmed himself greeting the candidates. “I’d go up and down the ranks, dressing down each individual with the most intimidating insults I could come up with,” Ermey said. “Just a lot of off-the-wall stuff. I could pretty well go on and on. A drill instructor never runs out of smart remarks and entertaining things to say, such as `You’re so ugly, you could be a modern art masterpiece.’ ”

Kubrick told Rolling Stone that 50 percent of Ermey’s dialogue in the film was his own.

“In the course of hiring the Marine recruits, we interviewed hundreds of guys. We lined them all up and did an improvisation of the first meeting with the drill instructor. They didn’t know what he was going to say, and we could see how they reacted. Lee came up with, I don’t know, 150 pages of insults,” Kubrick said.

The director was convinced and cast Ermey in the role that would earn him a Golden Globe nomination. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert wrote that Ermey played the gunnery sergeant “with great brio and amazingly creative obscenity.”

His co-stars Matthew Modine and Vincent D’Onofrio tweeted their condolences Sunday evening.

“#SemperFidelis Always faithful. Always loyal. Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” Modine wrote, quoting the Dylan Thomas poem. “RIP amigo. PVT. Joker.”

Vincent D’Onofrio added: “Ermey was the real deal. The knowledge of him passing brings back wonderful memories of our time together.”

His later films included “Mississippi Burning,” “Prefontaine,” “Fletch Lives” and “Se7en.” In Disney-Pixar’s three “Toy Story” films, he provided the voice for the commander of green plastic Army men.

Ermey also hosted the History Channel series “Mail Call” and “Lock N’ Load with R. Lee Ermey” and was a board member for the National Rifle Association, as well as a spokesman for Glock.

Contributing: Associated Press

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