The last time R. Lee Ermey stepped out of his cowboy boots, he stepped into the Nikes of Prefontaine’s Bill Bowerman, the volatile University of Oregon track coach who guided Steve Prefontaine’s illustrious career. Unbreachable authority figure, custom shoemaker to his athletes, and eventual cofounder of Nike, Bowerman came easily to Ermey, who has made a specialty of portraying tough nuts in about 35 movies since Francis Ford Coppola cast the former Marine drill sergeant as a helicopter pilot in 1979’s Apocalypse Now.
”This guy [Bowerman] was handed to me on a silver platter,” says Ermey, 52, whose face may be vaguely familiar but whose penetrating bark is unmistakable. ”He’s such a flamboyant character, I really didn’t have to invent anything.”
That is rare for Ermey, who likes to depart from the script whenever possible, even, he claims, in portions of his personal-best role as gunnery sergeant Hartman in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987): ”Kubrick just let me write. He never directed me.” Recently he’s been heard shouting in Seven (as a police captain), Toy Story (as the voice of platoon leader Sarge), Dead Man Walking (as a murder victim’s aggrieved father), and in a Coors Light commercial, in which it takes John Wayne to quiet him.
”I stumbled into show business when the Vietnam films were starting,” says the Kansas native, who was studying drama in Manila when Coppola came to town. ”After medical retirement from the Corps, I didn’t know what to do, so I bought a run-down bar and whorehouse in Okinawa.” As Ermey tells it, GIs got ”honorary memberships” for helping him renovate, but ”I was doing a little black-marketing and the Okinawan FBI was hot on my trail, so I boogied on out to the Philippines.” There he met Nila, his wife of 21 years.
Never shy or retiring, Ermey thinks of those as the not-so-bad old days. ”I feel sorry for the kids today,” he volunteers. ”They can’t have fun like we could. The worst thing we had to worry about was the clap. Today, you die. It just isn’t fair.”
He says the same about the fallen Steve Prefontaine, who died in a car wreck in 1975. Ermey loves what he calls ”this little movie with a simple, heroic message,” and expresses it by railing against its shoestring budget of $8 million — and the fact that he worked for scale. ”I don’t know what it is with these idiots down there in Hollyweird,” he growls. ”They just have no taste.”