A few character actors make such an indelible impression with one role that they find it consistently impossible to outgrow that image. Anthony Perkins had it with Norman Bates, M. Emmet Walsh has it with Visser (from Blood Simple), and R. Lee Ermey will forever be associated with the sadomasochistic verbal rapist of a drill instructor, Gunnery Sgt. Hartman, from Stanley Kubrick's Vietnam opus, Full Metal Jacket (1987). Though Ermey never again quite matched the intensity of this role (or the gutter-bucket poetic invention of its obscene dialogue), it was enough to give him permanent recognition as a character actor among filmgoers, and to typecast him in a series of variants on that role, again and again, throughout his life.
Born on March 24, 1944, in Emporia, KS, Ermey enlisted in the armed forces as a young man and hightailed it to Vietnam on a non-commissioned basis, but injuries forced him to retire from active duty. He received full disability pay and moved to Manila in the early '70s, where he managed to ably support himself on his USAF allotment (thanks to the lower cost of living) while studying for a degree in criminology. Each morning, Ermey visited the coffee shop at the Manila Hilton -- well-reputed as the haunt of American filmmakers shooting on-location in the Philippines -- until one of the directors happened to notice Ermey and asked him to pose for a series of blue jeans ads. This experience led to his film debut, a role as a retired soldier in a local production. By 1976, Ermey had appeared in several Filipino films. He broke into Hollywood films that year, when he slipped onto the set for Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now and convinced Coppola to hire him as a helicopter pilot. Indeed, the ex-officer's Vietnam experience came in handy and Coppola utilized him as a technical advisor.