This Horror Icon is someone who has faced pure horror head on; war. He’s a gruff man known for raising his voice, but he’s also one hell of an actor, chalking up a Golden Globe Award nomination for his role in a war movie. He is R. Lee Ermey.
Ronald Lee Ermey was born March 24, 1944, in Emporia, Kansas. In April of 1961 at the age of seventeen, Ermey enlisted in the United States Marine Corps where he became a drill instructor that would later influence some of his movie roles.
In 1968, Ermey arrived in Vietnam where he served fourteen months with the Marine Wing Support Group 17. He then proceeded to serve two tours of duty in Okinawa, Japan, during which he rose to the rank of Staff Sergeant before being medically discharged in 1972 for several injuries incurred during his eleven years of service.
After retiring from the Marines, Ermey moved to the Philippines, enrolling in the University of Manila, where he studied both Criminology and Drama. (Fun Fact: His knowledge in Criminology would also later fuel the fire of certain characters)
While he was studying, Ermey appeared in several Filipino films before starring in the war drama, The Boys in Company C in 1978, in which he was credited as Lee Ermey. The following year he was cast as a helicopter pilot in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.
In that same year, Ermey appeared uncredited in the campy horror movie Up From The Depths. A series of mysterious aquatic attacks indicate the presence of some unknown, huge species of shark that enjoys snaking on tourists and fishermen. Terrible movie. The voices were dubbed in the studio and there were numerous faults like being able to see the man in a row boat controlling the fin of the ‘creature’. But no matter how bad it was, it’s campy enough to be somewhat enjoyable.
As the 80’s came to ahead, so did more war feature films. Purple Hearts saw Ermey play Gunny before he appeared in the feature Full Metal Jacket. Ermey’s role in Full Metal Jacket came about after he was called upon by Stanley Kubrick to be a consultant for the Marine Corps boot camp portion of the film. Ermey jumped at the chance and spent 15 minutes yelling obscene insults and abuse at a camera without stopping, flinching or repeating himself. Kurbrick was so impressed by this that he hired Ermey to play the role of Gun. Sgt. Hartman.
In 1988, Ermey starred alongside fellow horror icons Brad Dourif and Michael Rooker in Mississippi Burning. For those who have read both Dourif and Rooker’s articles, you’ll know that I’m a massive fan of this film. Ermey’s performance as Mayor Tilman was nothing shy of perfection. He started out friendly enough but as Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe got closer to the truth, his personality changed as he became more agitated by the FBI’s presence in his town. Eventually, after some “by the book” procedures, Ermey’s character hangs himself, unable to live with the guilt. If you haven’t seen Mississippi Burning, I urge you to. It’s one of the only films that can still enrage me, no matter how long ago it was set and made. (Fun Fact: Tobin Bell, a.k.a Jigsaw from the Saw movies, also makes an appearance in Mississippi Burning)
In 1989, the horror genre came knocking again, giving Ermey a chance to work with Jan-Michael Vincent in Demonstone. Not surprisingly Ermey had to dig back into his past as a Marine to play a U.S. Marine Colonel. The story follows two U.S. Marine investigators who are looking into a series of gruesome murders and discover that the crimes are linked to an amulet that has a 400 year old curse placed upon it which in turn unleashes a powerful supernatural force. Interesting movie, but the horror effects are quite poorly done. Still it is an interesting film to pass the time.
As the 90’s rolled around, Ermey found himself in another horror styled movie entitled The Rift. The movie is about an experimental submarine, The Siren II, that houses an experienced crew, is sent to find out what happened to The Siren I, that mysteriously disappeared in a submarine rift. In doing so things begin to go awry and the crew begins to discover things that really shouldn’t be there. (Fun Fact: This movie was originally suppose to be set in space, according to the first draft)
The movie was well acted despite the characters being one dimensional and stereotypical. Ermey was the captain of the submarine and his performance was certainly a stand out. As for the special effects, none were laughable, nor were they too fake looking; however it is obvious when miniatures of the submarine are used and thus draws the audience out of the story for a short period of time. If you were a fan of Angry Red Planet, you’ll be a fan of The Rift.
That same year Ermey found himself staring alongside two fellow horror icons, Anthony Perkins and Dee Wallace in I’m Dangerous Tonight. A fantastic TV movie that gave me chills when I was 6, I’m Dangerous Tonight explores an old Aztec curse placed upon a red cloak which is turned into a stunning dress by the leading lady. Upon wearing the cloth, all inhibitions and morals are forgotten and lost. This movie is very rare and thus extremely hard to find, but you can view it on YouTube. I highly recommend checking it out. Once again, Ermey was an authority figure and his performance was nothing short of amazing.
In 1991 Ermey found himself in The Terror Within II, essentially a remake of The Terror Within, but pawned off as a sequel. His supporting role of Von Demming was outstanding, but the film is forgettable.
That same year Ermey started alongside Wil Wheaton, Sean Astin and Andrew Divoff in Small Soldiers. With his background in the Marines, Ermey was perfect for the role of General Kramer. Certainly is an interesting concept; Terrorists hold a military school hostage until their demands are met but the students, who are all misfits and rebels, decide to fight back. The concept works and the movie is sensational, although it is rather long. If you haven’t seen it, Toy Soldiers is certainly worth the watch.
In 1993 Ermey starred alongside Richard Gere and Jodie Foster in Sommersby. (Fun Fact: Former Horror Icon Of The Month, Muse Watson, also appeared in Sommersby) He also starred in Body Snatchers alongside Meg Tilly, Forest Whitaker and Terry Kinney. Body Snatchers is a fantastic movie to pass the time. I remember first seeing it when I was about ten. It’s basically about a teenage girl and her father who discover alien clones are replacing humans on a remote U.S. military base. Ermey played General Platt and drew on his years of military experience so his performance would be perfect.
In 1995, Ermey teamed up with Christian Slater, Kevin Bacon and Gary Oldman in Murder In The First. Ermey starred as Judge Clawson and his performance was chilling. (Fun Fact: Brad Dourif and Kyra Sedgwick also starred in the movie)
That same year Ermey found his inner child and loaned his voice to Sergeant in Toy Story, a role which he would reprise over two more movies.
The following year saw Ermey work alongside Jeffrey Combs, Dee Wallace, Jake Busey and Michael J. Fox in the comedy/horror by Peter Jackson, The Frighteners. I love this movie. Ermey plays Sgt. Hiles, a ghost in the cemetery who protects his land from the likes of Michael J. Fox’s character, Frank Bannister. Bannister was injured after a car accident killed his wife and from that point on was able to see spirits. Using this gift, he befriended ghosts and had them haunt houses so he could come in and ‘exorcise’ the houses for a fee. Sgt. Hiles didn’t appreciate this and often had words with Bannister whenever Bannister would visit the cemetery. Ermey’s booming voice and ability to shout orders was indeed frightening and his ‘showdown’ with the Grim Reaper proved that not even ghosts are able to avoid ‘death.’ If you haven’t seen The Frighteners, go and see it. It is highly recommended and is very entertaining, especially Combs’ character.
Over the course of the remaining 90’s and early 00’s, Ermey found himself on TV in series like Cracker and Action as well as loaning his voice to shows like Roughnecks: The Starship Troopers Chronicles and Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: The Adventure Begins.
It wasn’t until 2003 when the horror genre called for Ermey again. And this time they did it in a big way; with two remakes of classic movies, Ermey’s characters were very much the antagonists. Let’s begin with Willard.
Willard Stiles is a social misfit who takes care of his ill and frail but verbally abusive mother in a run down old mansion where a large colony of rats also live. His boss, Mr. Frank Martin (Ermey) is a vile man whose professional interest in Willard eventually leads to a personal, financial one. Crispin Glover as Willard was amazing as Crispin hardly ever stars as a leading man, while Ermey as Frank is just chilling. His persona was nothing short of evil and I was willing Willard and his rat friends to kill him. If you haven’t seen this remake of Willard, I do highly recommend it. It was very good.
Now let’s move onto the other remake that had tongues wagging; The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. That’s right; R. Lee Ermey was in the remake of the brutal movie about a family of cannibals in which he played one of them. Starring as the Sheriff, you would think Ermey would be on the side of the victims, but in a neat little twist, it turns out he’s just as evil as Leatherface. The scene where he taunts the soon to be victims over the death of the hitchhiker was very disturbing. (Fun Fact: Kirsten Dunst, Katie Holmes and Jessica Alba were all considered for the role of Erin which eventually went to Jessica Biel)
In 2006, Ermey would reprise his role as the Sheriff in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning. Oddly enough, we learn how he became the law in Travis County before the massive killing spree starts. I will say that this movie is vastly gorier then the remake, there is more profanity and overall it’s just over the top. But just like with the remake, Ermey was chilling in his role, barking orders at Leatherface and the victims before taking a beating himself. Without a doubt Ermey’s performance was nothing short of pure genius and was quite intimidating.
In 2008, Ermey found himself in Solstice alongside Shawn Ashmore and Amanda Seyfried. The storyline is as follows; Six months after the suicide of her twin sister, Sofie, Megan still grieves her death and misses her. In the Saint John's Eve, Megan travels with her friends Christian, Zoe, Mark and Alicia to her family's house in Nowell Lake, Louisiana, to celebrate the summer solstice. While shopping supplies in a local store, Megan befriends the seller Nick and buys a magazine with an article about communication with the dead in the summer solstice, the time of year when there is the greatest length of daylight. While in her house, Megan is haunted by a spirit that she believes is Sofie trying to communicate with her. In her investigation, she suspects of the weird hick Leonard and while snooping in his house, she finds the picture of the missing girl Malin and unravels a dark secret about the suicide of her sister. Now I have to say, I enjoyed this movie. Think Lake Mungo meets Silent House teamed with The Amityville Horror. The film is surprisingly good and is worth the watch.
After Solstice, Ermey made a second guest appearance on House before loaning his voice to Batman: The Brave And The Bold video game and TV series as Wildcat. He guest starred on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit in 2010 before starring alongside Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill and Ben Stiller in the comedy/sci-fi movie, The Watch.
Now that 2012 has come to an end, Ermey has slowed down on the movie front, loaning his voice to Kung Fu Panda: Legends Of Awesomeness TV series as General Tsin.
R. Lee Ermey is one of a kind. With a military background, it cemented him as a gruff, authority figure in many movies. Using this to his advantage Ermey was able to create memorable characters with his unique voice and appearance. His characters are creepy, even when he’s not a bad guy, but that just shows how talented this man is. He’s been a mayor, a sheriff, several generals and other military figures but he will always be remembered for his service in the Marine Corps.
The recipient of the Meritorious Unit Commendation, Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal and Vietnam Gallantry Cross, Ermey has lived a life that one would only image would be reserved for the big screen. Today, he adds one more honor to that list; Truly Disturbing’s Horror Icon Of The Month.
R. Lee Ermey. His name produces fear, his voice cements the chills down the spine of viewers and his presence on screen is enough to produce a scream or two. Authority figure with an agenda is often his role within a film, and no one does it better.