Early life & military career
Born in Emporia, Kansas, Ermey enlisted in the United States Marine Corps in 1961, after being arrested several times as a teenager. A court judge gave him the choice of the military or jail. He later joked that the Marine Corps "put a screeching halt to my unconventional manner." He spent two years as a drill instructor at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego in San Diego, California from 1965 to 1967. In 1968, Ermey arrived in Vietnam where he served for 14 months with the Marine Wing Support Group 17.
He then served two tours of duty in Okinawa, Japan, during which he rose to the rank of Staff Sergeant and was medically discharged in 1972 for several injuries incurred during his tours. He did not receive a Purple Heart due to his injuries being noncombat in origin. Ermey has admitted that he still has nightmares about his combat experiences, a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder. Ermey was later bestowed with the honorary rank of Gunnery Sergeant by the Marine Corps.
Ermey was cast in his first movie while attending the University of Manila in the Philippines, using his G.I. Bill benefits. He first played a Marine drill instructor (SSgt. Loyce) in the 1978 Vietnam-era film The Boys in Company "C", which brought Ermey to the attention of Stanley Kubrick in later years. Ermey then played a helicopter pilot in Apocalypse Now, doubling as a technical advisor to director Francis Ford Coppola on that film. In 1982, Ermey coached Louis Gossett Jr. for the role of Gunnery Sergeant Foley in An Officer and a Gentleman.
For the next five years, Ermey played a series of minor film roles until 1987, when he was cast as tough drill instructor Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket; Ermey also served as the technical advisor on the film. Initially, he was only intended to be the technical advisor, but Kubrick changed his mind after putting together an instructional tape with Ermey, where Ermey went on an extended hair-raising DI tirade while being pelted by oranges and tennis balls, all without repeating himself, stopping, or even flinching.
Kubrick allowed him to write his own dialogue and improvise on set, a noted rarity in a Kubrick film. Kubrick later indicated that Ermey was an excellent performer, needing just two or three takes per scene, also a noted rarity for a Kubrick film. Ermey's performance won critical raves and he was nominated for a Golden Globe Award as Best Supporting Actor. He would subsequently play tough drill instructors in the pilot episode of Space Above and Beyond and in the film The Frighteners, both similar to his character in Full Metal Jacket.
He has since appeared in approximately sixty films, including Mississippi Burning, Dead Man Walking, Se7en, Leaving Las Vegas, Prefontaine, Saving Silverman, Man of the House, as well as the remakes of Willard and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Ermey also lent his voice to Toy Story and Toy Story 2, as well as Roughnecks and X-Men 3. He has appeared on television shows such as The Simpsons, Family Guy, Miami Vice, House, Scrubs, My Life As a Teenage Robot and Invader Zim, in addition to hosting the documentary series Mail Call.
Ermey has lent his distinctive voice to several video games, including Fallout Tactics: Brotherhood of Steel (as General Barnaky) and Crash Bandicoot: The Wrath of Cortex (as Wa-Wa). He also made a cameo in Real War: Air, Land, Sea, a retail real-time strategy computer game based on the official Joint Chiefs of Staff training game. Ermey traveled to Kuwait in June 2003 during the first phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom to film mail distribution by the Defense Department to service personnel for an episode of "Mail Call". According to a 2005 episode of Mail Call filmed at Whiteman Air Force Base, he is the 341st person to fly in the B-2 Stealth Bomber.
On May 17, 2002 he received an honorary promotion to Gunnery Sergeant (E-7) by Commander of Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF) United States Marine Corps General James L. Jones, becoming the first ex-military member in the history of the United States Marine Corps to be promoted.
He has also conducted morale tours visiting U.S. troops in locations such as Bagram Airbase, Afghanistan in which he filmed parts for his television show Mail Call. While at Bagram Air Base he held a USO type show in which he portrayed Gunnery SGT Hartman and conducted a comedy routine.
On Mail Call, Ermey discusses weaponry, tactical matters, and military history. 'Mail Call's subject matter is dictated by viewer emails; one episode may focus on an M 1A1 Battle Tank, while another may involve World War II secrets, while a third might focus on elements of Medieval warfare. The set consists of a military tent, other military gear and weapons, and Ermey's 30 cal. "Light machine gun" - armed jeep. Commercial breaks are signaled with what appears to be typical DI type language.