The Late R. Lee Ermey: “I Was Basically a Stand-Up Comic”

The Late R. Lee Ermey: “I Was Basically a Stand-Up Comic”
the gunny interview knives
R. Lee “The Gunny” Ermey appeared on the cover of the April 2010 issue of BLADE.

Editor’s note: The following article is from the April 2010 issue of BLADE. At the time, R. Lee “The Gunny” Ermey had signed on as a spokesperson for SOG Specialty Knives & Tools. Here he talks with Steve Shackleford about knives and his career in films.

Ermey, best known for his portrayal as Gunnery Sgt. Hartman in Full Metal Jacket, died April 15, 2018, at age 74. 

The Gunny, the Knife Enthusiast

the gunny knife shows
R. Lee “The Gunny” Ermey made frequent appearances at BLADE Show on behalf of knife companies.

Gunny comes by his love of knives honestly. He has over 100 custom and factory pieces in his collection, including his great grandfather’s pocketknife. First and foremost, though, he uses his knives.

“I’m a firm believer that the only thing a dull knife is good for is cutting yourself, because that’s exactly what you do with a dull knife,” he said. “I believe a man ought to be able to shave with that knife and after he shaves with it, he ought to be able to fold it up and then go chop a tree down.”

He also keeps up with the news and is outraged at the way knives are portrayed by the media.

“What really upsets me, I’ve seen this young Eagle Scout [Matthew Whalen],” Gunny began. “Because he had a knife, a little pocketknife in a survival kit in the trunk, they put him out of school. What the hell kind of a survival kit have you got without a knife? You’d be a dead man.

“When I grew up, I was probably 6 years old, I started carrying a pocketknife and I’ve carried one ever since. It’s a tool, you know. I grew up on a farm and I went to school and I can’t ever recall any kid pulling his pocketknife out at school and wanting to do harm to another kid. Times have changed. We need to start taking responsibility for our actions, we need to teach our children a bit of discipline.”

Gunny was just getting warmed up.

“My Swiss Army knife, what, they’re 2 inches long these little guys. I travel constantly, and I’ve had about 20 of those little knives taken away from me at the airport. I finally took one and just broke the knife blade off it and there’s still a big debate if I can go on board because there’s a scissors on it.

There’s a toothpick and a tweezers and I use those tools constantly. After a meal I have to use that toothpick. Society’s gone to the dogs as far as I’m concerned. They need to pull their heads out of their butts and realize that a Boy Scout carrying a pocketknife that’s got a spoon and a fork on it is just a tool, it’s not a weapon.”

A Standup Guy

The Gunny SOG Knives
Spencer Frazer (right), SOG founder and president, and Gunny go over the company catalog. (photo courtesy of Bill Rogin)

Gunny enlisted in the Marines in 1961 and was medically retired as a staff sergeant in 1971 for injuries incurred during his tours, which included 14 months active duty in the Vietnam War, and, as you might guess, as a drill instructor (at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego and Parris Island, South Carolina). In ’Nam he carried his issued Ka-Bar USMC fighting/utility knife, using it for everything from cutting threads off his uniform to opening “C” rations. He also carried a pocketknife and, of course, his trusty machete.

He said many of his fellow Marines bought their own fixed blades and folders in addition to the issue Ka-Bar.

Did he ever use a knife as a weapon over there?

“No. And I hope I never have to. I would just leave the area,” he laughed. “I would go get my gun. I don’t care for the up-close-and-personal stuff.”

Like most fresh out of the military, Gunny was unsure of what to do after his discharge, so it came as no surprise when he fell back on his Marine background.

“I didn’t have any formal training that would improve my lifestyle and I looked around and thought, what can I do, and I found out,” he recalled. “I was basically pretty much a standup comic when I was in the Marine Corps. I was an instructor, and in order to be a good instructor you have to be able to keep the troops awake. It’s almost like being a standup comic.

R Lee Ermey Marines
Gunny made a number of visits to the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan for the U.S. Navy Department of Morale and Welfare. Here he is with a group of Marines in front of Saddam Hussein’s palace in December 2008. (Rob Scott photo)

“So, when I retired, I wrote a couple of scripts and I went off to Hollywood. I did some of the comedy clubs and was pretty successful at it, and then I found out they were going to start shooting a Vietnam war movie in the Philippine Islands.”

Gunny boarded a military transport, flew to the Philippines where The Boys in Company “C” was being filmed in 1978, landed the part of a Marine drill instructor and his acting career had begun.

However, it was 1987’s Full Metal Jacket that, as Gunny put it, “kicked all the doors open.”

In it he established his onscreen persona as the gung-ho drill instructor, Gunnery Sgt. Hartman.

Not only did the role earn Gunny a nomination for a Golden Globe Award as Best Supporting Actor, it played a key part in his receiving an honorary promotion to gunnery sergeant from the Commandant of the Marine Corps. According to Wikipedia, it made Gunny the first retired military member in the history of the Corps to be promoted. Wikipedia, it seems, needs to check its sources.

SOG Powerlock
Gunny carries a SOG PowerLock multitool. It includes a pliers/gripper, hard wire cutter, crimper, double-toothed wood saw, a partially serrated blade, three-sided file and more.

“I’m not just the first but the only,” retired member in Corps history to be promoted, Gunny noted with pride.

He continues to be active in supporting young Marines, making morale-building visits to Iraq and Afghanistan when he can, as well as Guantanamo Bay and Okinawa, Japan. In between comes his acting and promotional work.

“I spend 90 percent of my time working with the military,” he said. “The other 10 percent I have to do shows and movies and whatever it takes because I have to support the 90 percent.”

The new SOG spokesman would seem to have his priorities in order. And, luckily for his new employer, SOG is one of them.

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