The entire family at ongoing TV series Military Makeover mourns the death of its beloved drill instructor, R. Lee Ermey, “The Gunny,” at age 74. Though the former Marine is renowned for his Hollywood portrayals of hardened authority figures, his most recent role was a five-year stint covering 13 seasons as co-host of Military Makeover, which airs on Lifetime TV. On the show, The Gunny acted as a confidant for military veterans receiving home makeovers to thank them for their service, as well as a task master keeping the production crew in line.
“We at BrandStar are deeply saddened by the loss of our beloved Gunny,” said Mark Alfieri, Founder and CEO of BrandStar, creators and producers of Military Makeover. “His impact over the last 13 seasons of Military Makeover is far-reaching. His commitment to helping veterans is what made him so special and infectiously charismatic in every episode, on set and with every military family. We are blessed to have had the honor of partnering with R. Lee Ermey over the past five years. He made a positive difference in the lives of our veterans, and he will be remembered forever in our hearts as The Gunny.”
Ermey loved what he did on the show, seeing it as more of a calling than an occupation.
“I can’t call this a job,” Ermey said recently about his Military Makeover duties. “It’s a habit that I have. But it’s a fun habit that helps my veterans, and anything that helps my veterans, I’m game for.”
To date, 13 seasons of Military Makeover have aired on Lifetime, with four families scheduled to receive makeovers in 2018.
Ermey shot to fame for his indelible portrayal of hard-nosed Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Stanley Kubrick’s epic 1987 Vietnam War film Full Metal Jacket. A United States Marine Corps staff sergeant, drill instructor and Vietnam veteran, Ermey joined the Full Metal Jacket set as a technical instructor. The realistic delivery of Hartman’s brutal, foul-mouthed diatribes in the movie was based on Ermey’s experiences in boot camp and the 2½ years he spent as a drill instructor during the Vietnam War.
It may come as a surprise to some, however, that Kubrick was initially reluctant to give the role of Hartman to Ermey because the legendary director thought the Marine Corps vet was “too nice.” Those who got the chance to know him say that the real R. Lee Ermey was a humble, kindhearted man—nothing like the menacing Hartman.
“I’m privileged to have met him and his family,” said wounded Army vet Zeke Crozier, who became close with Ermey after appearing in a past season of Military Makeover. “I’m humbled by his kindness and generosity and honored with his friendship. Rest easy, Gunny.”
Actor Vincent D’Onofrio, who played a hapless Marine recruit in Full Metal Jacket who became the main target of Hartman’s abuse, shared about The Gunny’s passing on Twitter:
U.S. Representative Kevin Yoder (R-KS) posted on Instagram about his experience with The Gunny at Crozier’s home makeover in Overland Park, Kansas.
“I got to know R. Lee Ermey a bit as the host of @MilitaryMkover when he came to give my friend and local veteran @handycappin_llc and his family a home makeover in Overland Park – helping vets was his mission. Sad to hear of his passing.”
Aside from his tour-de-force, Golden Globe-nominated turn for Kubrick, Ermey made his mark in Hollywood playing a series of no-nonsense military men, cops and judges in major movies like Seven, Mississippi Burning and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre reboot. Though Ermey often portrayed deeply flawed, even sadistic characters, he had an unforgettable way of infusing dark humor into his performances, ensuring viewers couldn’t turn away from the screen during his scenes.
Ermey was also prolific as a voice actor, lending his unmistakable growl to animated franchises like the Toy Story movies, The Simpsons, Family Guy and SpongeBob SquarePants. The Gunny also appeared frequently as himself on television—in documentary series like Mail Call, Lock N’ Load with R. Lee Ermey and, most recently, in Military Makeover.
The Gunny’s greatest and most rewarding role, however, was as an advocate for and friend to his fellow military veterans. Stories abound among families who appeared on Military Makeover about Ermey’s ability to connect deeply with vets through his generosity of spirit, compassion and willingness to just sit and lend a sympathetic ear. For many vets and their families, The Gunny’s presence alone was a comforting reminder that they weren’t alone.
“He touched our lives tremendously throughout the show,” said Edward Tague, a Marine Corps veteran from Lake Worth, Florida, whose home was remodeled in a recent season of Military Makeover. “A memory I have from the show actually is when we were walking off the set, he whispered to (my wife) Mandi, ‘Take care of him. He’s a national treasure.’ That’s how he treated all of his veterans—like national treasures. He was a national treasure himself. Thank you Gunny, and semper fi.”
Ermey identified most closely with soldiers who carried wounds—both seen and unseen—suffered in combat. A native of Emporia, Kansas, he enlisted in the Marines immediately after graduating from high school and planned to become a military “lifer.” His 11-year-career as a Marine ended because of injuries he suffered during combat operations in Vietnam. In 2002, Ermey was promoted to E-7, Gunnery Sergeant, the rank that earned him his iconic nickname.
It was the first and only time the Corps has promoted a retiree.
“They told me I was retired from the Marine Corps—I just never retired,” Ermey said. “I just kept working. I associate myself more with these people than I do anybody else in the world. That’s the way it is.”
Ermey’s folksy wit, straightforward demeanor and genuine compassion made him a beloved figure to veterans, fans and just about everybody who had the good fortune to cross paths with him. The Gunny was devoted to his wife Marianila Ermey—aka “Mrs. Gunny”—whom he married in 1975. Ermey is survived by his children Kim Bolt, Rhonda Chilton, Anna Liza Cruz, Betty Ermey, Evonne Ermey and Clinton Ermey; along with his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
The Gunny will be greatly missed, but his spirit and legacy will live on forever in the countless lives he touched.
Rest in peace, Gunny. Semper fi—and Oorah!