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Acting is easy, as James Spader once said, but presence is not. R. Lee Ermey had presence, and he could play it in different ways, in dramatically different figures of authority, even though it was a variation of that same Marine Drill Sergeant's yell that made him an instant star in "Full Metal Jacket."
Ermey's death on April 15, 2018, due to pneumonia complications, came as a sudden tragedy for his many fans. He was one of the few representatives from the military in Hollywood, a trend that's changing with the success of Adam Driver and "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story," which used British soldiers in many scenes to give authenticity. He was the lead plastic Army soldier 'Sarge' in Pixar's "Toy Story" franchise, Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman's exasperated superior in "Se7en," and a sadistic sheriff in the 2006 "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" remake. He was the vengeful father of a murder victim in "Dead Man Walking," making a convincing case for the death penalty in a movie that otherwise advocated against it. On television, Ermey was the father of Hugh Laurie's title character on "House," a former military fighter pilot that Laurie's pilled-out character could never quite live up to.
Starting his movie career as a technical consultant for "Apocalypse Now," Ermey played a diverse group of authority figures along the way, the most famous earning him a Golden Globe nomination as Sergeant Hartman in "Full Metal Jacket." He was the only actor that director Stanley Kubrick allowed to ad lib. Ermey was a real Marine, a real Drill Sergeant, and Kubrick's film is most notable for its early scenes in the movie where Ermey is berating his recruits in comic and tragic fashion.
Ermey's familiar voice was also found among mainstream products, including a famous pairing with a CGI John Wayne in a commercial for Coors Beer that debuted during the Super Bowl. He hosted two shows on History Channel, "Mail Call" and "R. Lee Ermey's Locked and Loaded." The former answered viewers' questions about the military. "Locked and Loaded" covered the history of firearms and weapons, mixing Ermey with slow-motion and high-def weapons footage in a package that even a pacifist might want to watch. Ermey was also a spokesperson and enthusiastic owner of Glock handguns. When I started my first newspaper job in 2003, I had a small poster of Ermey from Glock adorning my wall next to my desk. It was my first office job, and it gave me a chance to stick out from my colleagues who weren't familiar with firearms, which I had been raised with given my Midwestern and Appalachian background.
Ermey was conservative but a self-declared independent with unpredictable opinions. He voted for George W. Bush and then Barack Obama for president, lashed out at military critics of Obama early in his first term in 2009, then told the audience at a 2010 USO and Toys for Tots event that Obama's administration was "driving us into bankruptcy so that they can impose socialism on us." He apologized for those remarks afterward, but subsequently blamed them for GEICO Insurance's decision to fire him as their spokesperson. In "Saving Silverman," Ermey's character Coach in "Saving Silverman" has an onstage marriage during a Neil Diamond concert with former student and now grown up J.D., played memorably by Jack Black. The film was released in 2001, fourteen years before the Supreme Court decision declaring same-sex marriage legal.
Ermey was fun to watch. He became an actor by playing himself, a rare breed of man who was familiar as himself—an American, a Marine and later, an actor. While many scream over Hollywood's liberal slant or other preconceived notions, Ermey's presence on screen was an example talent always wins out. We're all winners for having the Sarge in our viewing life.
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