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How 'Gunny' got the role of a lifetime

Dec. 9, 2013 - 10:37AM   |  
(Staff)
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In his new book, retired Gunnery Sgt. R. Lee Ermey gives readers insight into how he landed the role of Gunnery Sgt. Hartman, the drill instructor in 'Full Metal Jacket.'

In his new book, retired Gunnery Sgt. R. Lee Ermey gives readers insight into how he landed the role of Gunnery Sgt. Hartman, the drill instructor in 'Full Metal Jacket.'

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In his new book, retired Gunnery Sgt. R. Lee Ermey gives readers insight into how he landed the role of Gunnery Sgt. Hartman, the drill instructor in “Full Metal Jacket.”

“Gunny’s Rules: How to Get Squared Away Like a Marine” (Regnery Publishing Inc.) is available in hardback for $27.95, retail, at major book sellers and online.

Here’s an excerpt, edited for occasional salty language. Reprinted with permission.

Stanley Kubrick said, “No.”

The famed director told me he would not give me an audition for the role of Drill Instructor Hartman in Full Metal Jacket. He already had his Hartman cast, test-filmed, contracted and set to go. He had hired me to come to England to serve as technical adviser on the film, and that was it.

We were in his office on the set of Full Metal Jacket at Pinewood Studios outside London. I had joined the film company only a short time before, but I fully expected my bid to audition to be met with success. I had positioned myself for acting roles in my three previous movies — Apocalypse Now, The Boys in Company C and Purple Hearts — and I thought I could do it again. This time, the stakes were even higher. The role of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman was to die for.

Back when he had called me at my home in Illinois, Stanley had never mentioned any possibility that I might play Gunnery Sergeant Hartman. The idea was entirely a production of my own ambition.

Our telephone conversation had started with Stanley saying, “Hello, Lee. This is Stanley Kubrick.”

I had thought, “Yeah, right.” It was some guy from the office d------ around with me, I suspected. Stanley Kubrick was one of the hottest directors in the world, with films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Spartacus and The Shining.

“No, no, it’s really Stanley Kubrick,” he said. “I’m making a new movie. Have you ever heard of a book called The Short-Timers, by Gustav Hasford?”

“Heard of it?” I replied. “I’m reading it right now for the second time.” I told him I thought it was a great book but was filled with inaccurate bulls---.

Right away, I had his attention.

“What do you mean?” he said, openly startled. “Can you give me an example of that?”

“I can do better than that,” I said. “I’ll write you an outline of the book and send it to you.”

Stanley told me he had been watching a lot of Vietnam movies, and my name kept cropping up. He had talked to [fellow director] Sid Furie about me and gotten my number from him.

The “outline” I promised Stanley became a 20-page book report that I Express Mailed to him ASAP. About a week and a half later, I got the call.

“Lee, we would like you to join the film as a technical adviser. How much do you want?”

More important to me than the money was the opportunity. Once in England to work on the movie, I did not allow Stanley’s rejection of my auditioning for the Drill Instructor role to last.

The Marine Corps had not taught me to establish a beachhead, then give it up.

The Marine Corps had not taught me to roll over and play dead.

I immediately came up with Plan Baker.

I had been working closely on the film with Stanley’s No. 1 assistant, Leon Vitali, who had been in Stanley’s movie Barry Lyndon. Leon and Stanley were really tight. To me, he seemed more like a son to Stanley than an assistant. Leon and I were getting along so well that I thought I could ask him for a favor.

We were about to start selecting and videotaping candidates to be background extras in the film. Stanley had approved every last detail of the picture, including still-shots of the prospective extras and our videotapes. I explained to the recruits when I lined them up in platoon formation that I was going to come at them like a true Drill Instructor. “It won’t be personal,” I warned them. “Forget what I will be saying about your mothers and fathers.”

I showed up wearing the DI Smokey Bear cover I had picked up from our wardrobe department, and since I wore the Marine Corps trousers and duty belt every day, I looked the part. With Leon on the video camera, taping the candidates for Stanley’s benefit, I started working down the row. I had people with their pants down at their knees, people sucking their thumbs, people doing pushups. After a couple of minutes, I noticed Leon had stopped focusing on the recruits and was pointing the camera at me. I thought, “Yes. This is working.”

I only stopped when the camera ran out of tape. I knew that Leon would give the tape to Stanley, and that he would be looking at it late that night. He did that every night, reviewing the day’s work.

The next morning, sure enough, I had a call right away to report to the production office. When I walked in, Stanley was sitting there with the kind of big old s---eating grin on his face that only he could muster.

“You f------ sly old fox,” he said. “I want you to play Gunnery Sergeant Hartman. How much do you want?”

I told him I only wanted him to be fair. “That’s all I ask.” I left it in his hands.

Stanley paid off the contract of the actor he had slated to play Hartman. What was a great break for R. Lee Ermey was a bad break for the other fellow, who was actually given another role in the movie. He played the helicopter door gunner, shouting, “Get some!” over and over as he machine-gunned the landscape. (I would not, by the way, be revealing this sensitive aspect of the Hartman casting had it not already been published in Matthew Modine’s book, “Full Metal Jacket” Diary, and in the John Baxter biography of Stanley Kubrick. But as it’s already out there as public knowledge, I can confirm it. It was obviously the biggest break of my movie career.

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