Ronald Lee Ermey, the on-screen character best referred to for his part as the fearsome recruit instructor in Stanley Kubrick’s war film Full Metal Jacket, has passed on aged 74.
Composing on Twitter, Ermey’s operator affirmed he had passed away on Sunday, from inconveniences after an episode of pneumonia.
Ermey drew on his own experiences to play Full Metal Jacket’s foul-mouthed Gunnery Sergeant Hartman. A Vietnam War veteran, Ermey had enrolled with the US Marine Corps aged 17 and served as a drill-instructor in real life.
“I stumbled into show business when the Vietnam films were starting,” he told Entertainment Weekly in 1997. “After medical retirement from the Corps, I didn’t know what to do, so I bought a run-down bar and whorehouse in Okinawa… I was doing a little black-marketing and the Okinawan FBI was hot on my trail, so I boogied on out to the Philippines.”
Kubrick was impressed by Ermey’s colourful screen presence, and encouraged him to improvise his own lines. “I’d say fifty percent of Lee’s dialogue, specifically the insult stuff, came from Lee,” the director told Rolling Stone magazine in 1987. “You see, in the course of hiring the marine recruits, we interviewed hundreds of guys. We lined them all up and did an improvisation of the first meeting with the drill instructor. They didn’t know what he was going to say, and we could see how they reacted. Lee came up with, I don’t know, 150 pages of insults.”
The role earned Ermey a Golden Globe nomination, but it was not his first film appearance. His first break came with 1778’s The Boys in Company C, where he also played a drill instructor. He later served as a technical advisor on Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now, also appearing as a helicopter pilot in an uncredited role.
But it was Full Metal Jacket that brought Ermey closest to a real life-and-death situation, after a car-crash during the production left him incapacitated for more than four months.
“It was about 1:00 in the morning, and his car skidded off the road,” Kubrick recalled. “He broke all his ribs on one side, just tremendous injuries, and he probably would have died, except he was conscious and kept flashing his lights. A motorist stopped. It was in a place called Epping Forest, where the police are always finding bodies. Not the sort of place you get out of your car at 1:30 in the morning and go see why someone’s flashing their lights.”
Ermey found a new generation of fans with the Toy Story films, in which he provided the voice for green plastic army man Sarge. Life imitated art, as Ermey became a prominent supporter of the Marine Corps’ Toys for Tots charity, which provides Christmas presents for families who cannot afford them.
His other film roles included Detective Haskell in Miami Vice (1987), a newsreader in Starship Troopers (1997) and an army sergeant in X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), while on TV he played the father of Hugh Laurie’s titular doctor in House, and the father of the surly janitor played by Neil Flynn in Scrubs.
Ermey is survived by his wife of more than 40 years, Nila, and his six children.