A few character actors make such an indelible impression with one role that they find it consistently impossible to outgrow that image. Anthony Perkins had it with Norman Bates, M. Emmet Walsh has it with Visser (from Blood Simple), and R. Lee Ermey will forever be associated with the sadomasochistic verbal rapist of a drill instructor, Gunnery Sgt. Hartman, from Stanley Kubrick's Vietnam opus, Full Metal Jacket (1987). Though Ermey never again quite matched the intensity of this role (or the gutter-bucket poetic invention of its obscene dialogue), it was enough to give him permanent recognition as a character actor among filmgoers, and to typecast him in a series of variants on that role, again and again, throughout his life.
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Born on March 24, 1944, in Emporia, KS, Ermey enlisted in the armed forces as a young man and hightailed it to Vietnam on a non-commissioned basis, but injuries forced him to retire from active duty. He received full disability pay and moved to Manila in the early '70s, where he managed to ably support himself on his USAF allotment (thanks to the lower cost of living) while studying for a degree in criminology. Each morning, Ermey visited the coffee shop at the Manila Hilton -- well-reputed as the haunt of American filmmakers shooting on-location in the Philippines -- until one of the directors happened to notice Ermey and asked him to pose for a series of blue jeans ads. This experience led to his film debut, a role as a retired soldier in a local production. By 1976, Ermey had appeared in several Filipino films. He broke into Hollywood films that year, when he slipped onto the set for Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now and convinced Coppola to hire him as a helicopter pilot. Indeed, the ex-officer's Vietnam experience came in handy and Coppola utilized him as a technical advisor.
Ermey made his American cinematic debut -- and held to the military-man typecasting -- in Sidney J. Furie's comedy drama The Boys in Company C (1978), and the director's follow-up, Purple Hearts (1984). But his biggest break came shortly thereafter, when Stanley Kubrick -- a notorious tyrant himself -- tapped him to portray Gunnery Sgt. Hartman in Full Metal Jacket (1987). Ermey's evocation of the satanically profane, vile, and sadistic Hartman, laden with the thankless, brutal job of toughening up raw recruits before sending them to Vietnam (who eventually gets blown away by one of his trainees) dominates the film's first 45 minutes and provides an unforgettably realistic, disturbing portrait of military training. Thanks to his unique countenance and authoritative voice, Ermey maintained his image as a rough-hewn, tough-as-nails SOB onscreen.
Neither Company C or Purple Hearts received substantial critical and public recognition (or a very wide release); in contrast, the broader exposure of Full Metal Jacket (it received an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay and a National Board of Review nomination for Best Picture) boosted Ermey's prominence -- immeasurably so. He followed it up with spots in such well-received pictures as Alan Parker's racial drama Mississippi Burning (1988) and Abel Ferrara's Body Snatchers (1993). In 1995, Ermey spoofed himself to great effect as the voice of the leader of the little green soldiers in Toy Story, and doubled it up with a turn as the vengeful father of a homicide victim in Tim Robbins' capital punishment drama Dead Man Walking. A third role in that same year -- as the boss of Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt in David Fincher's seminal work Seven -- elicited a positive (if limited) critical and public response for Ermey's portrayal.
During the early 2000s, Ermey once again drew on his military expertise and background, albeit in a much different fashion, as host of the small-screen program Mail Call. Episodes featured him answering a series of viewer questions about various aspects of military life and history. In 2003, he returned to his dramatic roots (and managed to top the despicability of Sgt. Hartman) in Marcus Nispel's Tobe Hooper remake, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Ermey plays Sheriff Hoyt, the deviant backwater law officer -- in cahoots with the family of slaughter-happy cannibals -- who refuses to listen the cries and wails of Jessica Biel's Erin. (In fact, Nispel invented Ermey's role for the remake). After a comic turn as yet another tough-nosed authority figure, Captain Nichols, in the 2005 Tommy Lee Jones vehicle Man of the House, Ermey reprised the Hoyt role for the sequel to the Chainsaw remake, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (2006). In that picture, Hoyt precipitates the central crisis by happening upon another group of teens, murdering one in cold blood, and dragging the others back to the house where maniac Leatherface and his cronies reside.
R. Lee Ermey married his wife, Nila Ermey, in 1975. They have four children. ~ Nathan Southern, Rovi