R. Lee Ermey’s welcome to his recruits at Parris Island in Full Metal Jacket still stands out as one of the most memorable movie introductions of all time. But that’s not how director Stanley Kubrick planned it. R Lee Ermey wasn’t supposed to be in the movie.
Marine Staff Sergeant R. Lee Ermey was only on set as a technical advisor. And Kubrick wanted someone who could help him with realism. Kubrick had Tim Colceri originally slated for the role of Gunnery Sgt. Hartman. Kubrick recast Colceri as the door gunner on the helicopter with one of the most memorable lines — not improvised by Ermey — in the film.
Ermey had served as a technical advisor before on Apocalypse Now and other movies. He’d even made some commercials in the Philippines. But he knew he could play Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket. He was desperate for a chance. He had served as a drill instructor during the Vietnam War.
Ermey wanted the role badly, but Kubrick didn’t think he was mean enough or could be as intimidating as he wanted for the role. So, Ermey, wanting to prove himself, taped himself rattling off nearly two hours of insults while someone pelted him with tennis balls and oranges and gave it to Kubrick. After the director saw the tape, Ermey had the part, Indiewire reported.
Kubrick is also famous for sticking to the script. He wrote his own movies. And he wanted his actors to say his words as written. However, Ermey was so inventive and funny in his delivery and insults, he was one of the only actors allowed to improvise any of his lines. Ermey estimated about 50 percent of his lines were made up on the spot and the rest he and Kubrick workshopped before the scene.
The Movie Made R. Lee Ermey A Star
Despite only appearing in the first half of Full Metal Jacket, R. Lee Ermey was the stand-out star of the film. He even earned a Golden Globe nomination for the role. And his performance was so memorable that he started getting offers for roles in non-military movies.
He played a police captain in Se7en and he even lent his voice to Toy Story, playing — what else — a toy soldier.
He ended up having a long acting career, but getting there in the most circuitous way.
R Lee Ermey died in 2018 from complications of pneumonia, the New York Times said. And, of course, the first thing mentioned in his obituary was his performance as Gunnery Sgt. Hartman.
He said some of the insults were repeats from ones he’d heard from drill instructors when he joined the Corps. The rest was his own invention, and the actors had no idea what he would say next, he told the Times.
“It was terrifying to those actors,” he said of the invective he spewed. “My objective was intimidation.”