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Doug Clark: ‘Gunny’ has a terrifying bark, but he won’t bite

Far be it from me to shatter a popular myth, but …

R. Lee Ermey is a pussycat.

I know. I hung out with the man the world knows as “Gunny” – the very depiction of a butt-kicking, trash-talking drill instructor from hell.

And not once did Gunny Ermey get in my face and call me a “fat body.”

Nor did he inspect my person for any hidden jelly donuts or order me to get down and give him 25 push-ups.

“I’m basically a nice person,” he told me.

Thank God. The misery that Ermey inflicted on porky Private Pyle in “Full Metal Jacket” stuck with me ever since 1987, when the Stanley Kubrick Vietnam war movie hit the screens.

All I’m saying is that I probably would have soiled myself had Ermey so much as growled at me during our interview.

Ermey was in town last week doing his bit for Operation Spokane Heroes. This is a great organization that supports the families of military personnel serving overseas.

Ermey played some golf, and visited Fairchild Air Force Base and the Spokane VA Medical Center. He made a Friday night appearance at the Bing Crosby Theater, where I caught up with him.

Ermey and I chatted in the theater’s green room. Gunny relaxed on a couch and smoked a couple Marlboros. Ermey, 66, still has the chiseled looks, the bushy eyebrows and the same unmistakable gravel road of a voice that dressed down those nervous raw recruits in the Kubrick film.

I became an R. Lee Ermey fan the first time I watched it.

Ermey was absolutely spellbinding as the profane and diabolical Gunnery Sgt. Hartman.

Anyone who hasn’t seen “Full Metal Jacket” should run to their nearest video store and rent it. (Mind you, it’s pretty intense.)

The movie brought Ermey a critic’s award as well as a Golden Globe nomination. It also gave Ermey a lifelong career not to mention a lifelong nickname.

Ermey has parlayed that Gunny persona into many movie roles and two History Channel TV shows, “Mail Call” and “Lock N Load.”

Most recently, he appears in a hilarious Geico TV commercial where Ermey plays a therapist with his trademark drill sergeant temperament.


You can watch the commercial on his website, That’s also the place to buy Gunny knickknacks like T-shirts and talking Gunny bobblehead dolls. You can get Gunny’s raspy voice ordering you around via your car’s navigation system.

“Might not be a bad idea to make a U-Turn, numbnuts!”

Much of Ermey’s success is rooted in the fact that he’s the real deal. He spent 11 years in the U.S. Marine Corps, with three of those years (’65-’67) whipping recruits into shape.

Ermey said that some of the men who endured his real-life training methods have told him that he was tougher on them than what he portrayed in “Full Metal Jacket.”

Just the thought that might be true gives me the shivers.

After retiring from the Marines, Ermey took college drama classes and landed a role as a helicopter pilot in Francis Ford Coppola’s famed “Apocalypse Now.” He found work as a technical adviser on a number of military films, often using his TA jobs to wriggle his way onto camera.

That’s exactly how he landed the role of Gunnery Sgt. Hartman, Ermey said.

Kubrick hired Ermey to be an adviser. Then Ermey had a demo film made of him railing at a group of actors who were hoping to get in the movie. Ermey said he used the same insults and invective that he had used as a Marine staff sergeant.

Kubrick saw the demo. The rest is history.

The real bonus that comes from meeting a guy like Ermey is discovering not one trace of the phony baloney that infects so many people in show business.

“I don’t have anything in common with Hollyweird,” said Ermey, adding that he enjoys it when fans stop him in restaurants and other public places to say hello.

“I’m patient with people,” he said. “They like what I do and I like them.”

Yep. A pussycat.

Doug Clark is a columnist for The Spokesman-Review. He can be reached at (509) 459-5432 or by e-mail at

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