Five Essential Roles
Mississippi Burning (1988)
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)
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.
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)
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?
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)
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.
The Boys in Company C (1978)
Fletch Lives (1989)
On Deadly Ground (1994)
Toy Story – Toy Story 3 (1995-2010)
Murder in the First (1995)
The Frighteners (1996)
Saving Silverman (2001)
The Salton Sea (2002)
Run Ronnie Run (2002)
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)
Man of the House (2005)
X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
The Watch (2012)