Ermey, Lee


Ermey, Lee
(b. 1944)
   With his bravura performance as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, Lee Ermey steals the first half of FULL METAL JACKET (1987) and, along with MATTHEW MODINE, could be considered the star of the film. The Daily News called it “the role he was born to play,” and indeed Ermey was able to draw extensively from his own military experiences in creating the sadistic Hartman. “I put all of me into the performance,” he said; “Every time Stanley yelled, ‘Cut!,’ I collapsed. ” For his efforts, Ermey received a Golden Globe nomination and was named best supporting actor by the Boston Society of Film Critics. The role remains his most famous. Ermey joined the U. S. Marines in 1960; he served in Vietnam as a helicopter pilot and then became a drill instructor. Before the end of the war, he returned to combat in Da Nang with the First Marine Division. He sustained injuries there from a rocket explosion, resulting in a medical discharge in 1971.
   He told the Daily News: “My character is a real mean fellow. I took the ten worst drill instructors I knew and combined them to come up with the nastiest human that could ever walk the earth. I have known Sergeant Hartmans before, though I was not one myself. I was always firm, and I sometimes had to be the bad and tough guy; but I also got to play the nice guy. ” In the New York Times, Ermey elaborated, “Hartman was warped: too rough, too harsh, too demanding. But he was real. ”
   On screen, Ermey is brilliant at portraying the “bad and tough guy,” and apparently he was pretty adept in the role in real life as well, when he had to be. He told the New York Post, “As a D. I. I could walk down a line of recruits and drop every third or fourth one of them to his knees, and you’d never catch me at it. Just give him a little elbow, drop him like that. ”
   Much of the profanity spoken by Hartman is Ermey’s own, improvised contribution to the film, placing him in the ranks of the very few actors (among them PETER SELLERS) whom STANLEY KUBRICK granted such creative input. Kubrick told ALEXANDERWALKER that approximately half of Hartman’s dialogue came from Ermey’s improvisations. Ermey recalled, “A lot of it was in the book; then I ad-libbed some. In my day there was no way you could be a drill instructor without the jargon. I love stringing those words together. ” Ermey found himself occasionally breaking up during takes. “I would get in their noses and yell: ‘YOU MISERABLE PIECE OF SHIT! DID YOUR PARENTS EVER HAVE ANY CHILDREN THAT LIVED?!’ The kids would look at me so pitifully that it was tough not to laugh. I had my moments where I’d break down and giggle, and so would they. ”
   To cure Ermey of his laughing problem, Kubrick had LEON VITALI throw tennis balls at him while he rehearsed his lines. This went on for days, until Ermey could do the lines perfectly without being distracted. The result was a brilliant, chilling performance, so intensely real that Ermey paralyzed some of the other actors with fear. “It was terrifying to those actors. My objective was intimidation. No one had ever invaded their private space; no one had ever put his head close to them. The first time I came up to Vincent [D’Onofrio], all he had to say was ‘Yes, sir,’ and ‘No, sir,’ and he was so shocked he blew his lines three or four times. ”
   To maintain this atmosphere of tension, Kubrick kept Ermey from rehearsing with the other actors and from socializing with them during off time. Ermey recalled, “I am the type of guy that when I take my hat off I am a very social animal. I am very kind. But I did not hang out with those guys . . . They are city dwellers, and I hate the city. When I came to London, I told Stanley I wouldn’t live in the city, so he had me pick from six country houses. ” Halfway through shooting, Ermey lost control of his car and crashed in Epping Woods. He broke all of his ribs on one side, and the production was shut down for five months as a result. According to VINCENT LOBRUTTO, cinematographer DOUGLAS MILSOME noticed an improvement in Ermey’s performance after his recovery from the calamity. Indeed, in many of Ermey’s scenes, one detects an undercurrent of inner pain and self-consciousness in the character of Hartman—not enough to elicit sympathy from the audience, but enough to suggest that perhaps some of Hartman’s brutality springs from the unknown ordeals and humiliations the character himself has suffered. Ermey will not discuss the Vietnam War. He told the New York Times, “If a person’s wife and children were killed in a terrible automobile accident, twenty years later it will bother him to talk about it. ” “After medical retirement from the Corps, I didn’t know what to do,” he told Entertainment Weekly, “so I bought a rundown 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. ”
   Ermey attended college in Manila under the GI Bill and studied criminology and drama. He appeared in numerous Philippine television commercials hawking what he termed “macho merchandise”: blue jeans, watches, running shoes, and rum. While in the Philippines, Ermey met Francis Ford Coppola and landed a bit part in Apocalypse Now, as a helicopter pilot. He went on to portray drill sergeants in The Boys in Company C and Purple Hearts. Ermey also worked as a technical adviser on all three films, and it was in that capacity that Kubrick hired him in 1984 for Full Metal Jacket. Ermey told the Daily News:“I got terribly excited when Stanley called me. He was not offering me the role. They actually had a contract with another actor to play the part, but I went to London with the intent of going after the role, and once there, I continued to pursue it. ”
   When Lee Ermey first asked for the part, Kubrick told him that he wasn’t vicious enough. Not to be put off so easily, Ermey began to humiliate the young men who were auditioning for the roles of the recruits. Kubrick was so impressed that he gave Ermey the role of Hartman, calling him a “super-intimidator. ” Over the years, Ermey has lent his talents to almost 60 motion pictures, including Seven (1995), Mississippi Burning (1988), Dead Man Walking (1995), and Leaving Las Vegas (1995). The versatile character actor actually prefers comedy to drama, and his whimsical side surfaces in such films as Fletch Lives (1989), the Toy Story series (voice of “Sarge”), and Saving Silverman (2001).
   References
   ■ Burden, Martin, “Lee Ermey: Marine Right to the Corps,” New York Post, July 2, 1987, p. 38;
   ■ Forer, Bruce, “The Sergeant Just Does It,” Entertainment Weekly, January 31, 1997, p. 38;
   ■ Harmetz, Aljean, “‘Jacket’ Actor Invents His Dialogue,” New York Times, June 30, 1987, p. C-13+;
   ■ LoBrutto,Vincent, Stanley Kubrick:A Biography (New York: D. I. Fine, 1997;
   ■ Lurie, Rod, “Born to Bully,” Daily News, Close-Up section, July 5, 1987, p. 5;
   ■ “R. Lee Ermey,” Internet Movie Database, www.imdb.com.

The Encyclopedia of Stanley Kubrick. . 2002.

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