R. Lee Ermey, 1944-2018

• April 16, 2018 2:43 pm


Stanley Kubrick's body of work gifted us a number of larger-than-life performances, from Peter Sellers' triple duty in Dr. Strangelove to Malcolm McDowell's wide-eyed rapist in A Clockwork Orange to Jack Nicholson's deranged, ax-wielding dad in The Shining. He loved to get actors out of their boxes, to get them to go what they might think is a step too far; he famously had to trick George C. Scott into hamming it up during Dr. Strangelove in order to capture the true madness of Gen. Buck Turgidson, suggesting they do just one over-the-top take of each shot and then using most of those in the final product.

But one actor Kubrick never had to cajole into acting in an outré fashion—one of the few actors he ever let ad-lib; one of the actors he would sometimes confer with during the lengthy period in between his last two movies—was R. Lee Ermey. What you saw was what you got, and what you got was something fearsome and awesome:

I would put the performance in that scene up there with anything that De Niro or Brando or Day-Lewis ever managed; it's a terrifying tour de force that vividly brings to life the insanity and intensity required to break a man's spirit and remold him in the image you desire. A technical adviser on Full Metal Jacket, Ermey would wind up in the final film because he simply embodied the spirit Kubrick wanted his savage drill instructor to represent. It's a testament to the force of his personality that no one really thinks of the Vietnam half of Kubrick's Vietnam picture when they think of Full Metal Jacket; they think of R. Lee Ermey singing happy birthday to Jesus and inspecting foot lockers.

Ermey would go on to have a long and successful career as a character actor, often playing a mild variation on Gunny Sergeant Hartman. I for one am a total sucker for his performance in Saving Silverman:

There's something delightful about the clipped manner in which he spoke, the gruff, husky pitch that practically came to define "Marine" in the public consciousness. He will be missed. RIP, Gunny.