Actor and combat Marine veteran R. Lee Ermey, who was a strong supporter of law enforcement and a fixture at the Shooting, Hunting, and Outdoor Trade (SHOT) Show, died Sunday from complications of pneumonia. He was 74.
The man known as "Gunny" would have probably laughed in your face if you told him during the 14 months of his in-country Vietnam War service that he was destined to become a Hollywood actor and TV personality. Back then, all he wanted was to complete his career as a Marine.
But life has a way of changing plans. In 1972, Ermey was medically discharged from the Corps because of injuries he suffered in Vietnam and he had to find a new career. He found the stages of comedy clubs and he pursued an acting career with the determination and discipline of a professional warrior.
Learning that Francis Ford Coppola was in the Philippines shooting "Apocalypse Now" and hiring Vietnam vets as advisors, he flew to Manila. There he landed an uncredited role as a helicopter pilot.
Returning to the States, he experienced a career drought. But then he got the proverbial break. A director who had previously worked with Ermey recommended him as a technical advisor to Stanley Kubrick who was shooting a Vietnam War movie called "Full Metal Jacket." Soon, Kubrick decided that Ermey, who had served as a drill instructor in the Corps before going to Vietnam, would be perfect for the role of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman. Ermey's performance was so powerful that it was the most memorable element of the movie and he was nominated for a Golden Globe. Perhaps the greatest compliment paid to his performance was from Kubrick himself. The notoriously demanding director was known for shooting dozens of takes of almost every scene, but Ermey said his scenes were shot quickly and he actually liked working for the man he called "Stanley."
After "Full Metal Jacket" Ermey worked steadily, racking up dozens of credits in films and television, often playing tough Marines, soldiers, and cops. He also had the opportunity to exercise his sense of humor and whimsy performing in comedies and cartoons, including all three "Toy Story" movies, "The Simpsons," and "Family Guy."
At the SHOT Show, Ermey was always smiling. And the attendees loved him. They would line up for hours for a chance to take photos with "Gunny" at the booths of the companies whose products he endorsed, including Glock, SOG, and Tru-Spec.
It was at the SOG booth in 2010 that I had the opportunity to interview "Gunny." We talked about his product endorsements, how he went from the Marines to standup comedy, what it was like working with Stanley Kubrick, his work hosting the History Channel's "Mail Call," and his love-hate relationship with watermelons, which as he said were an endangered species after his demos of firepower on "Mail Call."
I left that interview genuinely liking the man. And I will miss seeing him next January at SHOT. Thank you for your service and your performances, Gunny.