How R. Lee Ermey Landed the Role of Gunnery Sgt. Hartman in ‘Full Metal Jacket’

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R. Lee Ermey died Sunday at age 74. The actor known for his Golden Globe-nominated role as a drill sergeant in “Full Metal Jacket,” died from complications of pneumonia. Ermey stole the show with his portrayal of Gunnery Sgt. Hartman in the 1987 film Full Metal Jacket, a controversial war movie directed by Stanley Kubrick.

How did Ermey get the part? That story is almost as legendary as the performance itself.

The Wikipedia entry sums it up: “Initially he was intended to be only the technical advisor. Kubrick changed his mind after Ermey put together an instructional tape, in which Ermey went on an extended hair-raising drill instructor tirade towards several extras, convincing Kubrick he was the right person for the role. Seeking absolute military authenticity for the film, Kubrick allowed Ermey to write or edit his own dialogue and improvise on the set, a noted rarity in a Kubrick film. Kubrick later indicated that Ermey was an excellent performer, often needing just two or three takes per scene, also unusual for a Kubrick film.”

Ermey was a technical adviser. He’d served in the Marines. He originally enlisted after repeated run-ins with the law. The rumor has it that a judge offered him jail time or enlistment. He was 17 and enlisted as a Marine. That was 1961.

Even at that early age, he showed potential as an instructor. After a few years, he became a drill instructor in India Company, 3rd Recruit Training Battalion, at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego.

He was sent to Vietnam in 1968. That was the beginning of the end of his service, and start of his acting roles, too. He had several small parts, including one as a chopper pilot in Apocalypse Now. Yet he was valued more for his military expertise than his acting, at least until Full Metal Jacket.

Ermey recorded demonstration tapes for Kubrick in an attempt to show just how the part should be played. On one of these tapes, Ermey blasted a tirade that lasted 15 minutes. As he berated the camera, crew pelted him with tennis balls and rotten oranges. Ermey never broke character.

The clincher is a story about Ermey barking at Kubrick. On set during per-production, Ermey reportedly snapped at Kubrick “STAND UP WHEN I TALK TO YOU!” And Kubrick stood.

That sealed it. Ermey was given the part, but also given latitude to improvise his own lines. Most of Ermey’s dialogue in the script was improvised and spontaneous, and rarely the same from one take to the next.

Rebrn has a good tribute to Ermey including a lot of comments from folks who met him. Check it out.