Character actor R. Lee Ermey gained a whole bunch of traction from being casted by Stanley Kubrick and although he played many variations on the drill instructor archetype throughout his career, there’s also a host of varied, layered and always captivating appearances in this man’s work. Built like an all American tough guy and possessing of the badass presence to back it up, he’s embodied many cowboy, mercenary, law enforcement and the occasional regular joe type roles, these ten of which are my favourite!
10. Verne Plummer in DJ Caruso’s The Salton Sea
This is basically a minuscule cameo with one brief line but he’s playing against type and his quick presence in this beautifully dark neo-noir adds to an already eclectic cast. He and Shirley Jones play parents to Val Kilmer’s murdered wife, in a short but effective scene where they try and reconnect. The grief in all three is palpable and casting him was a nice touch.
9. Captain Phillips in JP Simon’s The Rift
This is one of those ‘underwater aliens’ SciFi horror schlock flicks that speckle the 80’s and 90’s like barnacle gemstones. Ermey plays the captain of a submarine that encounters mutant marine life, AI insubordination and deep sea extraterrestrials that wreak havoc in beloved, cheesy FX. His selfless reaction when he gets infected is something way more grounded than the film even deserves, and together with Ray ‘Leland Palmer’ Wise, he steals the show.
8. Conventioneer in Mike Figgis’s Leaving Las Vegas
Another cameo, but he always shone no matter the size of the role. Elizabeth Shue’s hooker tries to proposition him in a casino and his reaction is remarkably down to earth for that part of town. Affronted and insulted, he informs her he’s married, expresses disgust and moves on. It’s quick, wholesome and perfectly intoned.
7. Brisco County Sr in The Adventures Of Brisco County Jr
This is a fantastic, forgotten 90’s SciFi western with Bruce Campbell as the legendary gunfighter son of Ermey’s equally notorious but short lived bounty hunter. He doesn’t live past the pilot but his death basically kicks off all the action, plus he gets to display grit and badassery aboard a speeding locomotive.
6. Mr. Martin in Willard
A strange film about a weird dude (Crispin Glover) with an unhealthy affinity to rats, Ermey plays his domineering, asshole boss with that perfectly volcanic relish reserved for his villainous work. He and Glover have this oddly pitched but successful chemistry in an intense game of psychological warfare.
5. Police Captain in David Fincher’s Se7en
Many characters revolve around Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt’s harried detectives in Fincher’s dark horror masterpiece, one of which is Ermey as their stern, well spoken boss. Never given a name beyond the moniker of ‘Police Captain’, he’s a world weary veteran with haunted eyes and a restless, intuitive spirit.
4. Sheriff Buck Olmstead in Jeb Stuart’s Switchback
A salt of the earth small town sheriff, Buck does everything he can to help and befriend Dennis Quaid’s rogue FBI agent whose son is in the hands of a nasty serial killer. The character dynamic between the two carries the film and Ermey shows that when not being intense he can play mellow, compassionate fellows too. Underrated, beautifully photographed thriller as well, with a cool cast.
3. Clyde Percy in Tim Robbins’ Dead Man Walking
A grieving father full of quiet anguish and restrained outrage, he displays his talent for subtle drama in this examination of one death row inmate (Sean Penn) and the traumatic aftermath of his crimes rippling through a southern community. As he confronts a nun (Susan Sarandon) who is acting as counsel for his son’s killer, the bewildered sorrow and still burning sadness in his eyes, voice and mannerisms are palpable. Fantastic, against type performance from this actor.
2. Sheriff Hoyt/Charlie Hewitt in Marcus Nispel’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning
This one is all fire and brimstone, illustrating the kind of menace, terror and outright fury he could inject into a performance. Charlie is the deranged patriarch of the homicidal backwoods family who birthed legendary serial killer Leatherface. The first film sees him slyly impersonate a local sheriff until the wheels slowly come loose and an unfortunate group of kids find out that he’s there to do anything but serve and protect. In the second film he goes straight up fucking bonkers though, steals the show in a barnstorming, show-stopping tirade of terrifying behaviour, murderous actions and sadistic, maniacal glee. He’s scarier than Leatherface himself in that one and cements a horror villain for the ages into canon.
1. Gny. Sgt. Hartman in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket
This is the one that put him on the map, and the first of many times where he steals the show like a goddamn hurricane. Hartman is essentially a one note presence, but because of Ermey’s real life career as a drill instructor there’s a brash authenticity and jagged realism to his performance that is instantly magnetic.