It’s dark. The show is about to start. The lights have just gone down in the Ronald Reagan International Trade Center theater at the G.I. Film Festival — and then the stage brightens up again, only to mysteriously fade back into darkness. Uncertainty settles over the audience. What’s going on here?
“Alright people, let’s get with the program!” A voice booms out from the darkness, deep and sandpaper-scraggly, firm and fierce, it’s the sound of Authority — not so much the voice of God, as the voice of his enforcer. And lo and behold, the screen flickers and the movie begins, exactly as you’d expect from a command belted out by actor, troop advocate, and former Marine drill instructor R. Lee Ermey.
Wherever he goes, Ermey is in charge, and he knows it. When he speaks, people listen. If you’re not standing up straight, you feel like you should be. When I spoke with him this spring, he was casually lounging on a couch, but even still exuded an air of barely hidden ferocity, like a lion sprawled out in the sun — it appears relaxed, but it could strike at any time. To complete the look, Ermey sports wild, bushy eyebrows, and faded green tattoos on his formidable forearms, and he can often be seen wearing a black, military-style cap with the Team Glock logo. During the interview, he was wearing a football jersey emblazoned with Marine logos.
It is unsurprising that movie director Stanley Kubrick dropped his originally cast actor, and hired Ermey instead to play the toughest, meanest, and most memorable military drill instructor ever to grace the silver screen, Full Metal Jacket’s Gunnery Sgt. Hartman. The result was the film’s now-classic opening scene, in which Ermey strides round a Vietnam-era Marine barracks and delivers a brutal, obscenity-laced monologue to a pack of fresh recruits. Ermey wrote most of the lines himself — most of which plumb unexplored depths of creative vulgarity – and now, after George Carlin, he may be the most famous foul-mouth in recent history.
Since then, Ermey has become something of an icon. He’s continued working as a character actor, scoring roles in high-profile films like Seven and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre while keeping busy with regular parts in smaller productions like The Omega Code 2 — the Hollywood equivalent of grunt work. In most of his roles, he plays a character with some resemblance to Sgt. Hartman, and sometimes, such as an appearance on the TV show Space: Above and Beyond, he basically repeats himself. Still, he’s said that if he could change public perception about himself in one way, it would be to make people understand “that Lee Ermey is not Gunnery Sergeant Hartman.”
Like many actors, Ermey may feel that he lives in his character’s shadow, but that hasn’t stopped him from making use of the opportunities and influence the role has brought him. But tops on Ermey’s list is a cause that’s rarely seen within the confines of activist Hollywood: Supporting the troops that made his time in the service — and thus his legendary role — possible.
Ermey gives 150 days a year to various activities supporting the armed services. He works with Unmet Needs, a veterans’ charity that offers financial support to veterans and their families. Often, he says, troops called to go to the front face serious financial hardship, cut off from their well-paying jobs in the private sector and reduced to the relatively low salaries of a private — as little as $20,000 a year. “This helps the families of the folks who’re at war so they don’t sink into a poverty situation,” he explains. And though he believes that military service is and should be a sacrifice, he wants to make sure Unmet Needs is there to ease the burden whenever possible.
Ermey also makes trips to the front lines where he meets with the troops — many of whom are fans — and films segments for his History Channel show Mail Call. In the show, Ermey plays a slightly less menacing variation on his Hartman character, answering viewer mail about all sorts of military-related questions. He goes to places more remote — and more dangerous — than many of the celebrities who participate in USO shows. “They can’t ask Hollywood actors to go all the way out there. Me they don’t give a sh*t about.” Then he flashes a knowing grin and says, “But nobody’s going to let me get hurt on their watch.”
The day before I spoke with him this Spring, Ermey had visited with injured soldiers in Bethesda, Maryland. Even those who’ve taken great losses, he says, are ready to keep going. “Morale is second to none. The injured kids want to go back to Iraq.” Ermey has a habit of calling soldiers “kids,” which is telling. He doesn’t say it, but he seems to see himself as a father-figure — a tough-talking (make that extremely tough talking) motivator, supporter, and advocate for soldiers in general and his beloved Marines Corps in specific.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Ermey’s views on politics and the war in Iraq don’t mesh with most of what comes out the entertainment industry. Tough talk obviously comes naturally to Ermey, and, on the subject of the war, he has plenty of it.
“Winning the war in Iraq is critical,” he tells me. “If we left Iraq tomorrow, there’d be a giant blood bath.” He insists he’s neither a Democrat nor a Republican — he voted for Bill Clinton in 1992 (though he now calls him a “silver-tongued devil”) — but isn’t shy about unleashing on the political Left. “Sen. Harry Reid and the left side of the aisle are great propaganda machines for terrorists.” A little rough? Perhaps, but that’s Ermey’s style, and he doesn’t back down. “I’ve never been one to pull my punches. Screw political correctness!”
Nor does he have much love for the media. He refers to CNN as the “Communist News Network” and says that its “objective is to convince everyone we’re losing so we will. They want to lead viewers to believe we’re at the mercy of terrorists. That’s how we lost Vietnam.” His advice to the country? “Don’t trust the media. Americans need to dig a little deeper. Go to the blogs.”
Do his politics get him in trouble with his Tinseltown counterparts? He gives the diplomatic answer first. “I love to work with them, but I don’t share many of their beliefs,” and then settles into another knowing, confident grin. “Nobody bothers me in Hollywood.” It’s no wonder why.
– Peter Suderman blogs at The American Scene.