His appearances at the annual Shooting, Hunting and Outdoor Trade Show and National Rifle Association exhibits, were always a big attraction and people would line up along the aisles for his autograph, sometimes waiting an hour or more to visit briefly with “The Gunny.”
When actor and retired U.S. Marine R. Lee Ermey passed away Sunday, social media erupted with tributes from his many fans and acquaintances. He was 74.
Noticeably missing from many reports about Ermey’s passing was the fact that he was a member of the NRA Board of Directors. He once told this reporter that he made it to board meetings because he felt a responsibility to be there, having run for a position and being elected. He did miss a handful during his eight years on the board, according to an NRA contact, but it is still a good record for a celebrity director with the many commitments on his time since his election in 2011.
Born in Emporia, Kansas in 1944, Ronald Lee Ermey joined the Marine Corps after getting in trouble with authorities in Yakima County, where the family moved when he was 14. Various biographies say he lived in Toppenish or Zillah in the Yakima Valley, but he personally mentioned Sunnyside, another community in the same region.
According to several published biographies, he entered the Corps in 1961 and eventually became a drill instructor, rising to the rank of staff sergeant. He was medically discharged after 11 years in the Corps, the result of injuries sustained in a rocket attack while serving in South Vietnam in 1969. He did not seem inclined to talk about the war, a fact even noted by the New York Times. Still, he remained devoted to the Corps. According to Wikipedia, Ermey received an honorary promotion to gunnery sergeant (E-7) by the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General James L. Jones.
He wrote an autobiographical book about his career in and following the Marine Corps, appropriately titled “Gunny’s Rules: How to Get Squared Away Like a Marine.”
Ermey appeared in a couple of films, including The Boys in Company C, in which he portrayed a drill instructor, and briefly as a helicopter pilot in Apocalypse Now. But it was his role as tough-as-nails Gunnery Sgt. Hartman in Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 hit Full Metal Jacket that brought him fame. That film has become a cult classic, and it has been repeatedly noted that he essentially ad-libbed many of his lines.
Around firearms, Ermey was “the real deal.” Once, five years ago while attending the SHOT Show’s “Day at the Range” where he appeared on behalf of Glock, we caught up with him at another company’s shooting bay, where he was huddled around a large propane heater with a couple of other people because it was bitterly cold. At the time he observed that, as cold as it was on the range that day, it would have made sense to have “a…heater” in every exhibit.
Ermey appeared in dozens of films, typically playing authority figures.
Off camera, he is known to have devoted much energy to veterans’ causes, and he was a solid family man.
Word of his passing appeared on social media in a statement from his longtime manager, Bill Rogin:
“It is with deep sadness that I regret to inform you all that R. Lee Ermey (‘The Gunny’) passed away this morning from complications of pneumonia. He will be greatly missed by all of us. It is a terrible loss that nobody was prepared for. He has meant so much to so many people. And, it is extremely difficult to truly quantify all of the great things this man has selflessly done for, and on behalf of, our many men and women in uniform. He has also contributed many iconic and indelible characters on film that will live on forever. Gunnery Sergeant Hartman of Full Metal Jacket fame was a hard and principled man. The real R. Lee Ermey was a family man, and a kind and gentle soul. He was generous to everyone around him. And, he especially cared deeply for others in need.
“There is a quote made famous in Full Metal Jacket. It’s actually the Riflemen’s Creed. ‘This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine.’
“There are many Gunny’s, but this one was OURS. And, we will honor his memory with hope and kindness. Please support your men and women in uniform. That’s what he wanted most of all.
“Semper Fi, Gunny. Godspeed.”
According to the New York Times, he is survived by his wife, Marianila; brothers Jack Ermey and Terry Ermey; his children Kim Bolt, Rhonda Chilton, Anna Liza Cruz, Betty Ermey, Evonne Ermey and Clinton Ermey; and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.