I only met R. Lee Emery once. It was brief, it was bold and it was great. I had just finished my first film, “Return to Tarawa,” which featured Ed Harris and recounted the bloody Battle of Tarawa in 1943, and I was able to give him a DVD in Las Vegas. He was very polite and thanked me for my service to America. I was in shock that he said that to me, and it has stayed with me ever since.
Yesterday, the final red carpet was rolled out for R. Lee, most known for his iconic role as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Stanley Kubrick’s legendary 1987 tale of the United States Marine Corp, “Full Metal Jacket.”
It was a perfect blue sky and sunny southern California morning, as I drove out to the Simi Valley funeral home where Gunny was in perfect peace in his dress blues in a gorgeous flag-draped mahogany casket.
In death, he looked very much like he did in life, with his white Marine gloves holding tightly onto a Heath candy bar, and the ribbons on his dress blues shining as brightly as the California sun. I saluted him and said “Godspeed, Marine.”
I was joined by Kevyn Major Howard, who played Rafterman in “Full Metal Jacket,” along with Tim Colceri, who played the door gunner with the catchphrase “Get Some!” Both men were somber and traded stories about their time on the set with Kubrick and R. Lee.
“R. Lee was clever,” Colceri told me. “The part of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman was originally mine,” he went on to say with a laugh. R. Lee convinced Kubrick to let him train on set with the crew, and it became apparent very quickly that R. Lee had done some serious preparation, and Kubrick decided to put him in the part instead.
“It worked out fine,” Colceri said. “I have been in 60 movies, and everyone remembers my lines from the chopper flight as the gunner with Rafterman and Joker. R. Lee was more clever than I was, and he deserved the part,” he said. “I am just here to say goodbye, as a friend and a Marine.”
Howard, who attended the service with with his family, said his work on “Full Metal Jacket” has allowed him to live his dream of going around the country to promote his Fueled by the Fallen charity that displaces and races memorial cars for fallen military members and public safety personnel. “Today was Gunny’s last escort,” he said.
A special detachment of the Marine Honor guard gave a final salute to Sgt. Ermey, closed the casket and rolled it to the waiting hearse, with the USMC crown and anchor on both front doors.
We arrived at a church in Palmdale, 200 people along with 12 Marines in dress blues, and a bagpiper blew the Marine Corps anthem for a final goodbye. A poem was read and 12 doves released, before the casket was carried into the church.
After producing two films about the Marines’ work in the Pacific, I was honored to be part of saying goodbye to this iconic and incredibly loved U.S. Marine and Hollywood legend. R. Lee Emery will always be on TV, a smartphone or a website, 24/7, for the rest of humanity.
“Outstanding” and Semper Fi, Marine.