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GySgt R. Lee Ermey, USMC (1961-1972)

Remembering R. Lee Ermey

Together We Served is among those remembering R. Lee Ermey, aka ‘Gunny’, famous Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant-turned-Hollywood star. Ermey passed away on April 15 2018, at the age of 74, as a result of complications that arose from pneumonia. 

Vietnam veteran and character actor R. Lee “Gunny” Ermey joined 700 Veterans as part of the IAVA/Victory Motorcycles presence at the 2014 America’s Parade in New York. Ermey died Sunday from complications of pneumonia, his manager Bill Rogin said.

The Early Life of Ronald Lee Ermey

Ermey developed a reputation for being a strict authoritarian and was eventually typecast as the stern authority figure, but as a youth he was anything but. Born in 1944 in Kansas, Ermey and his family moved to Zillah in central Washington. Ermey was actually arrested twice for criminal mischief. The second time, the judge gave 17-year old Ermey the option of jail or joining the military. Ermey joined the Marine Corps in 1961, serving in aviation support before eventually becoming a drill instructor at the Recruit Depot in San Diego between 1965 and 1967. After this, he served in Okinawa, Japan, at Air Station Futenma.

Did R. Lee Ermey Serve in Vietnam?

In 1968, Ermey was ordered to South Vietnam with MWSG-17. He spent 14 months in Vietnam before returning to Okinawa, where he advanced to the rank of Staff Sergeant. Sadly, a number of injuries meant that it was necessary for him to medically retire from service in 1972. While using his GI Bill benefits at the University of Manila, Ermey was cast in his first film, The Boys in Company C (1978). He served as a technical advisor to Francis Ford Coppola in Apocalypse Now (1979) and had a small, uncredited role as a helicopter pilot. The same year, he also had a supporting role in the Philippines-based Jaws-inspired horror film Up From The Depths. Ermey did not work in showbusiness again until 1984, when he was cast as ‘Gunny’ the Gunnery Sergeant in Purple Hearts. This role was not a breakout success, but did give him the nickname he proudly carried for the rest of his life.

How Did Ermey Get the Role of Drill Instructor in Full Metal Jacket (1987)?

In the mid-1980s, Stanley Kubrick’s ambition of creating a Vietnam War film (filmed entirely in the UK) was reaching fruition. Ermey was hired on as a technical advisor. A wide net was cast to find the right actors for the roles, and the famously perfectionist Kubrick had a very particular vision of the character that would define the movie’s first half: Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, the boot camp drill sergeant that would viscerally break down the individuality of his hapless recruits. Ermey asked to audition, but was told by Kubrick who had seen his performance in a similar role in The Boys in Company C that he was insufficiently vicious. In response, Ermey improvised insulting dialogue, chastising a group of Royal Marines being considered for background Marine work in the film, showing both his experience and understanding of the role. After reviewing Ermey’s videotape of this improvisation, Kubrick handed him the role of Hartman without further quibbles. The director incorporated much of Ermey’s rants into the script, and estimated that as much as 50% of the Gunnery Sgt’s dialogue was written by Ermey— mainly the insults. He further distinguished himself by needing only two or three takes to satisfy the famously picky director. 

The role was a breakout success, and earned him a Golden Globe nomination as Best Supporting Actor, as well as leading to a string of lucrative film and television gigs, including two History Channel shows as host, and a further host role on an Outdoor Channel show:

  • Hexed (1993)
  • Body Snatchers (1993)
  • Seven (1995)
  • Toy Story (1995) and its sequels Toy Story 2 (1999) and Toy Story 3 (2010)
  • The 17-episode series Cracker (1997-1998)
  • The 72-episode series Mail Call (2002-2007)
  • The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (2006)
  • The 13-episode series Lock n’ Load with R. Lee Ermey (2009)
  • The 31-episode series GunnyTime (2015-2017)
  • Guest spots on The Simpsons, Family Guy, Spongebob Squarepants, and many other popular shows.

R. Lee Ermey defined a trope for generations to come with his iconic performance in Full Metal Jacket, and his contributions to film, television, and even video games constitute a fine legacy. His efforts were also recognized by the US Marine Corps. In 2002, 30 years after his retirement from service, he was given the honorary rank of Gunnery Sergeant, in recognition of the continued support he had given to the USMC. This promotion at last legitimized the nickname he had earned during his Hollywood career.


Tags: Best Supporting Actor, Body Snatchers, Boys in Company C, Full Metal Jacket, Golden Globe, Hexed, Royal Marines, Seven, The 17-episode series Cracker, The 31-episode series GunnyTime, The 72-episode series Mail Call, Toy Story, US Marine Corps, USMC, Vietnam War


  1. Jay Wood

    The best of the best!!! A Marine Corps icon. Marines everywhere are so proud of him. Thank you Semper Fi Sir!!!

    • Dino Sarti

      “Fare Winds and Following Seas Gunny” from a retired Navy Chief say Hi to Chesty for me. Kemo

  2. John

    Fantastic story from an outstanding actor and person.


    Not only was he part of history and a great actor he was quite a guy! Miss him

  4. john mcgowan

    Can’t believe it’s fifty years.

  5. Sgt. William (Bill) H. Smith 2nd MAW Beaufort, S.C.

    I was a 26 year old draftee at USMC Recruit Depot in Nov ’66 and to this day I can still hear his cadence on the drill deck along with other Drill Instructors. After several weeks of drilling you get a high and don’t want it to stop. At eighty years old I still feel the the beat and hear the commands and will till I die!

  6. Cpl. Michael R. Moffet USMC Ret. 11th Marines

    Sgt. Smith, you are so correct regarding his cadence. I still hear it today. I have never heard another who could call like him. I enlisted on February 10, 1966, beginning boot camp on March 14, 1966. Platoon 371. Gunny was a Cpl. then. Still have the letter I wrote home as to saying “tomorrow we have the mean one”, about two weeks in. Who was the one in your platoon who was able to enjoy his “You” medicine? Ours was Pete Trafas of LB, CA. No matter how hard he tried, he always said “You”. I never received any. I last saw the Gunny in 2016 at an appearance he made. With the crowd we had limited time to visit. As he was, I was medically retired from the Corps for wounds received. Regarding his retirement, an article in the People magazine, issued at time of Full Metal Jacket release, it was said he was wounded by shrapnel, yet no PH. Can only assume accident. Never got a chance to ask him due to the crowd that day. Do you know anything about this? Want to share memories? Contact me.


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