"The Gunny", R. Lee Ermey, died yesterday due to complications of pneumonia, at age 74.
Ermey was the living embodiment of every drill instructor actual Marines had, and probably the only one every never-Marine knew. After 11 years service in the Marine Corps, including service in Vietnam, and a stint as an actual drill instructor at MCRD San Diego (with the Thundering Third Recruit Training Battalion - Oohrah!), Ermey was medically discharged due to injuries received in the service, and was an American ex-pat living in the Philippines when he nabbed a bit part in Apocalypse Now. Then an indy movie came to town in 1977, looking for tech advisors and extras in a movie about Marines in Vietnam being shot there, with P.I. doubling very adequately for recently-fallen-to-communists Vietnam.
Barely five years out of the Marines at the time, Ermey was one of those hired as a tech advisor and extra, but the guy they'd cast as the lead drill instructor for the film was a Hispanic with an accent so heavy he was hard to understand easily, and Ermey was crushing his bit part in the gig, so he was hurriedly bumped up to leading character, and the other guy shunted aside.
Boys In Company C was the breakout role that brought Ermey from P.I. to Hollywood, and he never looked back. A small role in Purple Hearts solidified Ermey as the go-to guy when a picture needed a guy harder than woodpecker lips to bring the quintessential Marine sergeant to life on the screen.
And then Stanley Kubrick hired Ermey to be a tech advisor, but quickly re-thought his choice and he too decided to cast Ermey himself as exactly the guy he was looking for to be Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in the otherwise atrocious Full Metal Jacket, and the directing maestro had the great good sense to turn Ermey loose on camera, and let him ad lib whole sections of the movie's boot camp scenes, comprising the entire first half (the actual coherent part) of the film.
100% Ermey ad lib, beginning to end.
He was now solid gold, and work poured in.
He had parts in over 60 movies and dozens of TV shows, playing everything from Dr. House's father on that eponymous show, to the voice of the Sarge leading the Green Army men in the Toy Story flicks, and hosting Mail Call and Lock N' Load cable TV shows as himself for History Channel.
In between, he was a ceaseless advocate and military booster, which work induced the Commandant of the Marine Corps to authorize an official honorary promotion to Gunnery Sergeant for Ermey in 2002, the sort of the thing the Marines ordinarily simply do not do. But when you're that exceptional, you can even get meritoriously promoted after being discharged.
He continued to work regularly in movies and TV until 2012, when his public anti-Obama comments got him blackballed by Hollywood, and offerings for parts finally dried up.
If you served in the Marines, you knew a gunny like the Gunny, or had one for your D.I., and because of his work in entertainment, he will live long after the last Marine he ever served with passes on to Fiddler's Green.
And as he would have told anyone, the Corps did pretty good by him, turning a juvenile delinquent into a leader of men, and finally a cultural icon for the ages.
Forty years lived in a life formed from the mold of eleven years' active service proves the literal truth of the phrase,
"Once A Marine, Always A Marine."
It's a damned shame men like him have to die one day.
And when he gets to heaven,
To St. Peter he will tell:
"Another MARINE reporting, Sir;
I've served my time in Hell."
Your work here is done, Gunny.
Time to get the heavenly host squared away.
Semper Fi, leatherneck.