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RIP R. Lee Ermey – How The Drill Instructor Became An Unlikely Hollywood Star

There are some actors who never manage to get the leading role in a movie, or headline a major film series, but still attract scores of fans through decades of hard work.

Sadly, one of those legendary stars has just passed away.

According to R. Lee Ermey’s manager, Bill Rogin, the actor passed away from complications of pneumonia on Sunday.

At 74, even after appearing in dozens of films, Ermey is still best remembered for his breakout role as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in 1987’s Full Metal Jacket.

R. Lee Ermey.
Ermey in his Marine Corps dress uniform.Zachary B. – Wikimedia

Ermey could talk the talk in Stanley Kubrick’s classic Vietnam War film, because he had actually walked the walk.

As a child, Ermey was a bit of a delinquent. At age 17, a judge gave him the choice of joining the military of going to jail.

Ermey signed up for the Marine Corps.

He went on to serve in both Vietnam and Japan, before an injury in the line of duty removed him from active service.

Ermey’s no-nonsense disposition made him a perfect drill instructor, and he trained Marine Corps recruits in San Diego.

But as Ermey’s military career was winding down, he set his sights on a new profession: acting.

Ermey studied drama in the Philippines, and found work as an actor in Hollywood films about the Vietnam War – a real soldier playing pretend.

R. Lee Ermey
Ermey played a drill instructor in his first film, ‘The Boys from Company C.’Columbia Pictures

He also worked as a technical adviser on war films, including Apocalypse Now, which helped him land a job with the legendary director Stanley Kubrick.

Ermey was slated to be the technical adviser on Full Metal Jacket, and was given a small part in the film.

But the former drill instructor had his heart set on playing Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, the movie’s foul-mouthed drill instructor.

R. Lee Ermey
Ermey in ‘Full Metal Jacket’Warner Bros.

Ermey recorded an “audition tape” for the director, which included footage of him running extras through drills, shouting at them, and reciting the character’s opening monologue from memory as actors pelted him with tennis balls.

The unusual tryout earned him the part, but that was only the start of Ermey’s impressive career.

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