Thursday, July 17, 2014

In Character: R. Lee Ermey

There’s an interesting balance that comes with being a typecast actor. At your best, you land a lot of gigs, but with that means you’re likely playing the same character over and over. Most of us are aware of the types of characters R. Lee Ermey plays, but because he’s so good at embracing his worth as an actor, he consistently makes each new role his own. No matter who Ermey is playing, he always makes them interesting. And really, what more can you ask for?

Five Essential Roles
Mississippi Burning (1988)
Mayor Tilman
Despite having such a canonized voice, it’s interesting that one of the most emotive scenes of R. Lee Ermey’s career occurs while his mouth is literally taped shut. Midway through Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning, a black man kidnaps the town mayor and demands that he divulge information about race crimes that have been committed recently. But before Mayor Tilman can answer, the kidnapper recounts a story about how the KKK once castrated a local black man. The kidnapper walks over to a bound and terrified Tilman, grabs his pants and gently says: “Is there somethin’ you wanna say to me?”

Yeah, I’d think so.

Leaving Las Vegas (1995)
Conventioneer
Ermey’s brief work in Leaving Las Vegas is a perfect one-off character role. As he sits in a casino bar enjoying a cocktail, Ermey’s Conventioneer (as his character is known) begins to have a seemingly innocent conversation with Sera (Elisabeth Shue). Ermey’s character is a country bumpkin, literally in town for the convention, completely clueless that a prostitute is working him. When Sera’s intentions become clear, he bursts into a verbal rage. Granted, the moment belongs to Shue, as it helps solidify Sera’s day-to-day desperation, but it’s great to see Ermey excel in a non-authoritative, regular guy kind of role. And that beard… so good.

Se7en (1995)
Police Captain
The humor in Se7en is never given enough credit, though understandably so. Andrew Kevin Walker’s script is far better known for its gloom and doom than its understated comedy. Despite this, the film still knows how to earn a laugh. This can mostly be attributed to Brad Pitt’s straight one-liners, but Ermey’s cantankerous Police Captain always cuts me up as well. I could write plenty of praise for Ermey’s stern yet subtly hilarious work in this film, but the strength of his performance can be highlighted with five simple words and one action: “This not even my desk!” CLICK.

Dead Man Walking (1995)
Clyde Percy
Ermey’s work in Dead Man Walking is a great and rare example of a typecast actor having a chance to branch out and try something new. Sure, Clyde Percy is as mad as many of Ermey characters, but it’s a different kind of anger than we’re used to seeing from Ermey. When we meet Clyde, he’s stuck in agonizing grief. His oldest daughter was raped and murdered, and he can’t for the life of him understand why a nun named Helen (Susan Sarandon) actively sympathizes with his daughter’s killer. There’s a scene in the film where Helen listens to Clyde and his wife recall the last time they saw their daughter. Look at Ermey’s profound pain here; it’s a melancholy that I find fascinating. And hell, by the end, he actually sheds a tear. Who knew we’d ever see R. Lee Ermey do that?

Prefontaine (1997)
Bill Bowerman
In addition to co-founding Nike, Bill Bowerman trained dozens of Olympic athletes, perhaps most notably the track star Steve Prefontaine. In this narrative retelling of Prefontaine’s life, director Steve James (of Hoop Dreams and Life Itself fame) had Ermey play Bowerman as an intelligent and resolute coach. He always tells it like it is, and, by no coincidence, is nearly always right. This restrained and noble authority figure is the scarcest of Ermey performances. No screaming, no shouting, just guidance and determination. Jared Leto delivers fine work as the titular sports figure, but the film is truly alive when it’s either on the track or watching Ermey work. Or, on thankful occasion, both.

The Best of the Best
Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Gunnery Sergeant Hartman
Stanley Kubrick gave us many lasting characters; deranged and determined eccentrics whose words will outlive us all. One of the most prominent is R. Lee Ermey’s ferocious and insanely profane Gunnery Sergeant Hartman. Ermey, who served as a U.S. Marine Drill Instructor during the Vietnam War, was hired as a technical advisor on Full Metal Jacket. He soon asked Kubrick for an audition, and when Kubrick conceded, he immediately saw genius in Ermey’s talent for vicious verbal attacks. Because of Ermey’s skills, Kubrick famously let the actor improvise much of his ranting on screen (which, normally, Kubrick never allowed). The result is a career-defining performance that will be quoted and idolized for, well, as long as movies are around.

There is one thing in particular that I want to highlight concerning Ermey’s work here. I’ve always been very taken with Hartman’s demeanor the moment he finds out Private Pyle’s gun is locked and loaded. There’s a stern calmness that comes over Hartman that is so oddly compelling. And sure, Hartman’s profound verbal abuses will always get more attention, but the moment he realizes shit just got real is the moment of Ermey’s career. For a second there, we see the man behind the machine.

Other Notable Roles
in Willard
The Boys in Company C (1978)
Fletch Lives (1989)
Sommersby (1993)
On Deadly Ground (1994)
Toy StoryToy Story 3 (1995-2010)
Murder in the First (1995)
The Frighteners (1996)
Switchback (1997)
Life (1999)
Saving Silverman (2001)
The Salton Sea (2002)
Run Ronnie Run (2002)
Willard (2003)
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)
Man of the House (2005)
X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
The Watch (2012)

31 comments:

  1. Wow, this is quite a guy. It takes skill to be able to make a career out of shouting at people but he's just so good at it. If I remember correctly I think the story was that he actually used to work as a Drill Instructor during the Vietnam War, so when he was acting he was really just doing what he was trained to do.

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    2. Well, I'd imagine that there was some direction involved. At the very least Kubrick probably gave Ermey an outline of what needed to happen by the end of the scene.

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    3. I wonder if anyone else is as amused by this thread as I am, and for the same reason...

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    4. You have to love when people comment without actually reading the post amiright?

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    5. Ha. Well there are obviously greater tragedies in the world. John and Modesto are cool dudes, but yeah, it’s amusing.

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    7. Yeah dude, definitely not a big deal. I’m far too chill to let something like that upset me. All good.

      You know, part of why I started this column is to highlight exactly what you touched on in your second paragraph. In my opinion, day players and character actors have to work harder than stars to stand out. Which is why so many of them are always so goddamn good, in everything. No matter the genre, method of line delivery or tone of the film, the best character actors always shine, even when the film as a whole does not.

      LOVE Ermey in that Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Perfectly cast.

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  2. Great choice. Whenever I see R. Lee Ermey I immediately perk up, no matter how good or bad the movie is. I just have lots of fun watching him. And I don't think there's really any arguing that his best performance was in Full Metal Jacket.

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    1. Exactly man, dude is just a blast to watch, plain and simple. He'll never top his work in FMJ, but he knows that, and he's okay with it. That's why I dig him.

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  3. "What is your major malfunction numb-nuts? Didn't mommy and daddy show you enough attention when you were a child?"

    I fucking love that character. The film's been on TV in the past few months. I can't help but watch it. It still fucking holds up.

    I also loved him in the other films you mentioned while one of my favorite roles he did was in Saving Silverman as a high school football coach who told his boys these 2 things: "Stay away from women... all they want from you is your man-juice" and "sportsmanship".

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    1. He's so damn funny in Saving Silverman, easily my favorite part of that film. I rewatched FMJ a few months ago, and hell yeah, it definitely holds up. Love that film.

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  4. Holy crap he's the police chief in Se7en! Never actually clocked that! Cool piece Alex.

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    1. Thanks man! Crazy, right? Love this guy.

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  5. Holy shit, I love this guy! Amazing character actor. He killed it in "Full Metal Jacket"! Great post.

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    1. Thanks buddy! He totally owned that role. No other drill sergeant character will ever top it.

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  6. He was so good in Full Metal Jacket. The 2nd half of that movie is so dull without him.

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    1. That movie is such a risk because the second half is so much duller. It's usually the other way around - war is sensationalized, and the preparation for it is mundane and full of crappy montages. Kubrick reversed the formula, which is partly why I dig the flick so much.

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  7. Great list and all, Alex, but come on! Saving Silverman had to be up there as one of his best! Him fighting Amanda Peet is by far the crowning achievement of his career and absolutely solidified him as a guy who'd take on anything! Ugh, man! Just ugh!

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  8. Another vote for Saving Silverman here. And to join the chorus I love him in Full Metal Jacket. I remember thinking "that guy is great!" I only later found out he had been the real thing. I have an uncle that was the real thing, too - a Marine drill sergeant for more than 10 years. I asked him how real those scenes were and he said "very real".

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    1. Okay, I have to ask you something I've always wondered... were drill sergeant's allowed to physically abuse the recruits? Like gut punches and throat holds and all that shit? I know they're not allowed to now, but I've always wondered if they were during the Vietnam era. I thought the whole Patton scandal put an end to it...

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    2. My uncle once told me a story that I have no way of verifying, but he didn't have any reason to lie: It was when he was either in basic training or had not yet made sergeant. He was standing at attention with a bunch of other men. A fly landed on him and bit him. He swatted it, breaking the order of the sergeant who told them to stand at attention. The sergeant came over to him, said nothing, and hauled off and slugged him so hard it rocked him on his feet. He didn't know if he was going to go down or not, but finally managed to stay standing up. He served in Korea so this would have been the early 1950s.

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    3. Wow, what a story. Those guys really don't fuck around? I respect our military wholeheartedly, but wow, that is just not for me.

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  9. I'll start off by saying, I love the inclusion of Mississippi Burning on this list, it is such an underrated film, and his performance especially! Anyway I really don't think anyone will argue that FMJ is his best work, so many great lines. And you are right the best moment he has had in film is when he realizes that Pyle has a weapon with live ammunition in it, it's all in the eyes. Also glad you put the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake in the honorable mentions, even though I overall disliked the movie (a lot), I thought he was good in it. Glad the prequel to that, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning was not though. There was only one redeeming thing about that movie, this shot:
    http://dvdmedia.ign.com/dvd/image/article/755/755175/the-texas-chainsaw-massacre-the-beginning-unrated-20070112010046608-000.jpg
    That shot just looks so natural, other than that one shot, I hated every bit of that movie.
    Alright, back to R. Lee Ermey. Dude is just so great, and hysterical too. he can make me laugh in some of the most depressing and disturbing movies he is in (FMJ, Se7en). Takes serious talent and skill to pull that off. Anyway great post, love the choices, and the honorable mentions.

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    1. LOVE this comment. That is a pretty bitchin' shot that you linked. But yeah, both of those movies are garbage, but at least the initial remake tried.

      You gotta love how Ermey is able to cut you up in such serious and fucked up films. Man has a gift.

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  10. Great stuff man. Ermey gives an iconic performance in Full Metal Jacket. It's a shame he was overlooked by the Academy, since he one-upped Louis Gossett Jr.'s Oscar-winning performance.

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    1. Yeah man, for me, Gossett's work is a Disneyland version of this type of character. Ermey definitely deserved awards attention for this film. Odd how no actor, past Dr. Strangelove, was nominated for his or her work in a Kubrick film.

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  11. I have written an article about his FMJ appearance, great character actor

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    1. Hell yeah man, really glad to hear you're a fan. Thanks so much for the comment.

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