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Marine vet, 'Full Metal Jacket' actor R. Lee Ermey dies at 74

R. Lee Ermey, left, talks with fellow veterans before the 2010 National Memorial Day Parade in Washington, D.C.

JOE GROMELSKI/STARS AND STRIPES

By SETH ROBSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 16, 2018

R. Lee Ermey, the Vietnam veteran famous for playing a hard-bitten Marine Corps drill instructor in the Academy Award-nominated film “Full Metal Jacket,” has died at age 74.

His death was announced by longtime manager Bill Rogin, who tweeted Sunday evening that Ermey had succumbed to complications from pneumonia.

“He will be greatly missed by all of us. Semper Fi, Gunny. Godspeed,” the tweet said.

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“The Marine Corps saved my life back in ’61,” Ermey told Stars and Stripes during a trip to mainland Japan and Okinawa in 2006. He recounted how he had a “little juvenile problem with the law” and enlisted at 17 with his mother’s signature.

“They taught me how to be an honorable human being. It worked out good for me. … I owe the Marine Corps everything,” he said.

A Kansas native, Ermey served 11 years in the Marines. He spent 14 months in Vietnam and then went to Okinawa, where he became a staff sergeant before being discharged in 1972.

He was studying drama at the University of Manila in the Philippines when legendary director Francis Ford Coppola discovered him while filming “Apocalypse Now.” Ermey served as a technical adviser for the film, in which he had a small role as a helicopter pilot.

His big break came eight years later in Stanley Kubrick’s own Vietnam opus as the foul-mouthed Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, breaking in recruits, including Pvt. James T. “Joker” Davis, whose character ends up in Vietnam as a Stars and Stripes reporter.

"Here you are all equally worthless," Gunny tells his charges at boot camp on Parris Island. "And my orders are to weed out all non-hackers who do not pack the gear to serve in my beloved Corps. Do you maggots understand that?"

Kubrick told Rolling Stone that 50 percent of Ermey’s dialogue in the film was his own.

“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,” Kubrick said.

Co-stars Matthew Modine and Vincent D’Onofrio tweeted their condolences Sunday evening.

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“#SemperFidelis Always faithful. Always loyal. Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” Modine wrote, quoting the Dylan Thomas poem. “RIP amigo. PVT. Joker.”

D’Onofrio added: “Ermey was the real deal. The knowledge of him passing brings back wonderful memories of our time together.”

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Ermey was nominated for a Golden Globe for “Full Metal Jacket” and he raked in more than 60 credits in film and television across his long career in the industry, often playing authority figures in everything from "Se7en" to "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" remake.

Ermey’s other roles included Mayor Tilman in 1988's "Mississippi Burning," and he voiced little green army man Sarge in the “Toy Story” films. He hosted “Mail Call,” answering viewers’ questions about the military on the History Channel from 2002 to 2009.

But unlike others in Hollywood, Ermey considered himself a Marine first, he told Stars and Stripes.

“My main objective is to try to get people to realize if you have dreams, there’s nothing you can’t accomplish,” he said.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

robson.seth@stripes.com

Twitter:@sethrobson1
 

Serving as official and honorary starters, respectively, at the 29th Marine Corps Marathon in 2004 were two Marine Corps veterans, Olympian Billy Mills, left, and "Full Metal Jacket" actor R. Lee Ermey.
JOE GROMELSKI/STARS AND STRIPES

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