Remembering R. Lee Ermey's 5 Greatest Movie Roles

The movie industry lost an underrated legend yesterday. R. Lee Ermey, 74, the ex-Marine staff sergeant and veteran of over 100 film, television, and video game roles, passed away in a Santa Monica, California hospital from complications of pneumonia, according to his longtime manager, Bill Rogin.

Ermey was most famous for one role: his Golden Globe-nominated turn as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. The movie set Ermey up for a career playing authority figures in Hollywood. Blessed with a voice that could rattle a bear out of a tree, Ermey was intimidation personified. But it wasn’t just his voice that made Ermey so effective. He was incredibly articulate. Whether he was spewing hate-filled diatribes at young soldiers or mourning the death of his onscreen daughter, Ermey was eloquent, in the moment, and stealing scenes.

Looking back on Ermey’s career yields plenty of great authority figure roles. Choosing his five best, however, we were drawn to his more human performances as well as his best fist-thumping odes to his time spent in the military. 

5. Prefontaine (1997)

Ermey portrayed Oregon track coach and eventual Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman in the 1997 biopic about the life of running legend Steve Prefontaine. Despite some stretching of the truth in the film, Bowerman really did make the first Nikes with his kitchen waffle maker and he really was a military vet. Ermey handled the role easily, giving Bowerman the authority required of a coaching legend while keeping his sense of humor as well.

4. Seven (1995)

Ermey shines in a supporting role as the police captain boss of stars Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman in director David Fincher’s 1995 thriller, Seven. The veteran actor took a no-nonsense approach into the movie, coldly handing out assignments while telling it like it is. The part is indicative of Ermey’s allure — he commands respect just by walking in a room.

3. Dead Man Walking (1995)

Ermey’s best all-around work as an actor probably comes in Dead Man Walking. He plays Clyde Percy, a grieving father conflicted by his faith and his lust for vengeance while awaiting the death penalty for his daughter’s killer. Befuddled by a nun’s decision to counsel the murderer, Ermey is a portrait of restrained rage.

2. The Boys In Company C (1978)

Kubrick fans may not realize Ermey had a little preparation for his famous Full Metal Jacket performance. His first film, actually, was Apocalypse Now, the Vietnam saga in which he appears uncredited. Ermey was only supposed to be a technical advisor to director Frances Ford Coppola, but he ended up in the movie as well. Buoyed by that experience, Ermey took on his first credited feature in 1978 — The Boys in Company C. He plays (what else?) a commanding drill sergeant whose verbal talents give us a glimpse of things to come. It’s a much different, more human, performance than his Full Metal one.

1. Full Metal Jacket (1987)

“You will not laugh! You will not cry! You will learn by the numbers! I will teach you!” Ermey etched his name in movie history with his bombastic performance in Full Metal Jacket. Given rare freedom by Kubrick to improvise on set, Ermey was let off the leash as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman. There may not be another movie character who weaponizes sentences so effectively. Given a group of daisy fresh rookies to groom, Hartman savagely introduces his new recruits to Marine life at Parris Island. He nicknames them (Joker, Cowboy, Private Pyle), berates them, and builds them up before our eyes. Ermey is magnetic in the role, stealing every scene in which he appears. His line delivery is perfect. His intensity is beyond reproach. But his greatest achievement in Full Metal? He’s ridiculously funny also.


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