R. Lee Ermey, the Ultimate Cinematic Drill Instructor, Dies at 74
There aren’t too many men or women who can be said to embody a role completely and utterly. But for millions of people the phrase “Drill Sergeant” calls to mind a single image: The gruff, no-nonsense (and usually screaming) face of R. Lee Ermey, who, according to the New York Daily News, passed away Sunday due to complications from pneumonia. He was 74 years old.
The role that made Ermey synonymous with drill instructors, the role that he played or spoofed over and over again throughout his long career, came in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. Kubrick initially hired Ermey as a technical adviser on his Vietnam War film (he’d served in a similar role on Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now). But Ermey had experience as a real drill instructor from his time in the Marine Corps, and Kubrick sensed his potential after watching him berate extras. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Kubrick credited Ermey with helping shape the role of the brutal Sergeant Hartman, including improvising much of his own dialogue. “Lee came up with, I don’t know, 150 pages of insults,” Kubrick said.
Full Metal Jacket made Ermey Hollywood’s go-to onscreen military authority. He played other roles, but most of his most famous performances riffed on Hartman. In Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners he played the ghost of a drill instructor.
And in the Toy Story series, his unmistakable voice showed up as one of the toy soldiers in Andy’s room.
Ermey worked steadily for decades in film, television, commercials, and video games, and he was good in roles that had nothing to do with the military (he was the police captain in David Fincher’s Se7en, for example). But there’s no question what Ermey will be remembered for. He left a lasting impression on movies, and essentially defined a character type for all of popular culture forever. Anytime anyone screams in someone’s face “What is your major malfunction, numbnuts?!?” the memory of R. Lee Ermey lives on.