That “GUY” is Mr. R. Lee Ermey
Joe “Tuffy” Tofuri
I take computer keyboard in hand to tell the story of a wonderful human being who just happens to be very famous. This account involves the man, a small group of Air Force personnel, and a certain retired Air Force Master Sergeant, whose life has forever been changed by the mailing of a single letter.
Now Mr. Ermey’s fame, by name only, is not as widely recognized as many other famous individuals, although he’s worked in over 70 films, not including all his TV work. As a matter-of-fact, during the course of any casual conversation, should one happen to mention the name of R. Lee Ermey, hardly anyone would take notice. There’s even an article about Mr. Ermey on the internet entitled, “Hey! It’s that Guy!”
But if one were to say, “R. Lee Ermey, ya know, that guy from Full Metal Jacket … the crazy D.I., and the Mail Call guy,” then all of a sudden you will hear, “Oh, the GUNNY… HELL ya, I know who he is!”
Military personnel throughout the entire world have no problem, whatsoever, in immediately recognizing his name. And why is that? Well, that’s easy to explain… he’s beloved by them all, regardless of branch of service.
Mr. R. Lee Ermey spends a great deal of his personal time visiting with and motivating active duty military personnel all over the world. When he’s not filming a movie or working on Mail Call or other entertainment media projects, he visits with members of the Armed Forces… and mostly on his own dime.
I have spent the past few years contemplating developing this little “piece” about Mr. Ermey but have refrained from putting the words to paper until now. My hesitance to do so is predicated upon the man, himself … and that’s his integrity and honor. For R. Lee Ermey is not your everyday type movie star who seeks constant publicity and travels with a publicist, manager, agent, cameraman and a few make-up artists, not to exclude a poodle or two, and demands to be “put-up” in the grandest of hotels, with limo service always at the ready.
On the contrary, when Mr. Ermey travels on his own personal time, he is, well, alone. No agents, managers, cameraman, publicist, make-up artist, security, etc. He stays in Best-Westerns, Ramada Inns … well, you get the picture. He does not notify local newspapers to inform them of his visits to their cities, nor does he seek any form of publicity, whatsoever. This statement - in itself - is pure irony. After all, a Hollywood movie star that does NOT seek publicity is a rare occurrence, indeed.
But I decided the story needed to be told of this great American and patriot. He is a retired Marine, was a DI during the mid-60s, a Vietnam veteran, and is now a movie star who shines brightly in the eyes of those he touches, and his patriotic deeds, unfortunately, go completely unnoticed. Thus the reason for my writing this. I know it all to be true because I was fortunate enough to not only have spoken with Mr. Ermey countless times, but have met him a few times as well.
Now I would enjoy sharing with all of you the story of Mr. R. Lee Ermey and a completely unknown retired Air Force Master Sergeant, and published author, named ... Joe “Tuffy” Tofuri.
I spent almost 15 years of my Air Force career as a T.I. at Lackland AFB in San Antonio, TX, retiring in 1983. Hardly anyone outside of Air Force personnel recognizes what an Air Force T.I. is, but simply put, a T.I. is a Drill Instructor – they train Air Force basic recruits. I spent almost 28 years trying to write a book that was factual; yet also contained a great amount of “military humor” pertaining to a subject one would think was completely void of humor… basic training.
But I managed to muster up the humor and entitled my book with the name other T.I.s in my training squadrons referred to my flights of basic trainees ... ‘Tuffy’s Heroes”. It was finally accepted for publication and released in July of 2004.
Now, I have always been a Gunny fan ever since seeing his film, The Boys in Company C. So obviously, his film, Full Metal Jacket absolutely blew me away! And now his MAIL CALL TV series on the History Channel is typical R. Lee Ermey at his best … simply outstanding!
On the 16th of December, 2004, after watching Mail Call one evening, I decided to write Mr. Ermey a letter and ask him if I could send him a copy of Tuffy’s Heroes. I found a mailing address for him and mailed the letter with the meager hopes he would receive it. I considered the odds of ever hearing from Mr. Ermey or any members of his staff to be a big zero. I mean, c’mon, a movie star contacting a “nobody” author is definitely out of the question. But then again, Mr. Ermey is not your everyday movie star.
At 8:20pm on the night of 28 December, 2004, my phone rang. Sandra, my lovely wife, answered it. I was seated on the couch not paying any attention to the call, when she said, in an almost whisper, “Tuffy, you are NOT going to believe this.” She handed me the phone and I said, “Hello?”
“Hey, Tuffy, how are you? This is Lee Ermey and I had some free time so I thought I’d give you a call.”
He THOUGHT he’d give me a call? Are you kidding me?!
“Gunny?” I said, my voice shaking.
“Yeah, Tuffy, this is Gunny. Listen, I got your letter and would love for you to sign a copy of your book and send it to me. And if you don’t mind, Tuff, I gotta book commin’ out in February, so I’ll send you a signed copy. How’s that sound, huh?”
I was stunned; lost for words. I jumped off the couch and found it difficult to compose myself. I began speaking to him as if I were a child who just saw Santa Claus, and for the first time, he didn’t look a thing like Uncle Harry!
“Okay Tuffy, Okay,” he began to say, in an effort to calm me down. “Now you’re gonna hafta settle down a bit here or we ain’t gonna be able ta communicate, ya know?”
That was the Gunny, Mr. R. Lee Ermey, trying to calm down an unknown author who absolutely nobody has ever heard of before. So, he decided to pick up his phone and give the author a call and ask for a signed copy of his latest book. I mean, doesn’t this sort of thing happen every day? After finally calming down, we spoke for almost 40 minutes. On the following morning I signed a copy of “Tuffy’s Heroes” and happily mailed it off to him.
That conversation with Mr. Ermey is a memorable moment in my life and I felt pretty damned proud that a famous individual desired to read one of my books, especially Tuffy’s Heroes. His conversation was wonderful and he spoke genuinely of his pride for all members of the Armed Forces. I remember vividly a profound statement he made to me in reference to the military. He said, “Tuffy, I’ll bet I’ve met and shook hands with just about everybody in the military at least twice.” He hesitated a moment, as if thinking of something else to say, when he added, ever so gently, “I can’t wait ta meet ‘em all again.”
His phone call lingered in my mind and I could only hope that Mr. Ermey would enjoy my book. Let’s face it, I am not a renowned author whose books are known throughout the world. I’m just a retired G.I. who simply enjoys writing and telling stories. In my mind an individual of his stature didn’t have the time to call and praise each and ever author of books he reads. I just considered myself to be fortunate to have received a phone call from this great man in the first place. But once again, my thought process was completely incorrect.
At 8:30am on a Sunday morning in January, 2005 my phone rang. It was Mr. Ermey calling from his bathtub at 6:30 am, his time.
“Hey, Tuffy! I’m sitting in my bathtub here readin’ your book and I’m tellin’ ya, that two inch thing hit the nail right on the head, buddy! That’s some really great stuff!”
Of course, Mr. Ermey was referencing a comment I make in the book to a basic trainee named Airman Basic "Plopper". Now Plopper is only 5’ 4” tall, stutters, and suffers from extreme low self-esteem. I command Airman Plopper to grow two more inches before he graduates from basic training or I’ll throw him off my barracks’ roof or out my second floor flight office window … whichever comes first. Trust me, it’s a metaphor thing. So I then continued my conversation with the Gunny. “Well ah, thanks, Gunny,” I stammered, “I’m, ah, I’m glad you appreciate that-that two-inch thing,” I responded; caught off guard by his call.
“Ya know somethin’, Tuff, this ‘Plopper’ kid in yer book is exactly like Private Pyle in Jacket, know what I mean? Only a Drill Instructor would understand both these things.”
We spoke for about twenty more minutes and then he had to finish his bath and head to the Mail Call set. Once again, my “day” was complete, practically before it had begun, by receiving another phone call from Mr. Ermey. However I would soon learn, up close and very personal, just how generous Mr. Ermey actually is.
During the first week of February, 2005, we discovered that Mr. Ermey was coming to the San Antonio Alamo Dome to appear with a huge auto show. Needless to say, my wife and I excitedly purchased two tickets for the earlier of the two shows and could not wait for the day to arrive. I was finally going to meet my hero ... the Gunny.
We arrived at 10:15am on a cold and rainy morning hoping to get a good spot in line for the 12:00 show. There were already close to 300 people standing in line in front of a small platform stage with steps on both ends. A large Mail Call Banner, a small desk, and a single chair were situated on the stage. But by noontime, there may have been close to 1,000 people standing in that line waiting to see their hero.
The atmosphere among the people was electric and many of them were imitating some of his famous lines from Full Metal Jacket as was to be expected. Suddenly, Mr. R. Lee Ermey, The Gunny, stepped onto the stage. The sound of the crowd cheering and yelling was deafening. He spoke for about ten minutes and then took a seat in the chair behind his desk. One-by-one, family after family, walked up those steps to meet the great, Gunny Ermey, dressed in his Mail Call outfit with his signature hat. As each individual or family reached the desk, he immediately got up, walked around the desk and reached out his hand to the people. He talked with them, shook their hands, took pictures and held their children; never once did he ever lose his smile.
I felt a combination of pure excitement and anxiety to finally meet the man who is loved by every single member of our Armed Forces. I tried to think of things to say to him that would not make me appear to resemble a bumbling idiot. I began taking in deep gulps of air in an effort to control my breathing and calm myself.
“Hey! You’re acting like an idiot,” Sandra said to me.
“Uh oh,” there went that thought!
Anyway, when it was finally my turn to step onto that stage, Sandra decided to take a full range of photos and stood to one side. As I walked up those two wooden steps, she began snapping off the shots. Mr. Ermey jumped from his chair and smiled as he came around the desk with his outstretched hand.
“Gunny, my name is ...”
“I know who you are, Tuffy, and I’m happy to finally meet you. I meant ta call ahead and let you know I was gonna be here but I lost your number. Don’t forgot ta give it to me before you leave, okay?”
Once again, Mr. Ermey managed to astonish me with just a few simple, gracious words. How was it possible for this famous man to be happy to meet me? I couldn’t believe it was all happening to me again.
But that is Mr. Ermey’s way of doing things. He makes each individual he meets feel as though they have always known each other and we’re merely engaging in a friendly conversation. He was so layed back during our meeting and conversation that I suddenly felt calm and relaxed. We spoke for a while and he told me how much he enjoyed reading my book. That comment from him, of course, caused me to stick out my chest a touch, I must admit. Suddenly, an individual standing on the Alamo Dome floor directly beside the stage received a phone call and called out to Mr. Ermey. He told him that he only had about thirty more minutes to spend with the people standing in line because he had another show to do later that evening. In a very calm voice, Mr. Ermey replied, “I’ll leave after the last person in line meets with me.”
And folks, that’s precisely what Mr. R. Lee Ermey did. He stayed there until he met, shook hands with, and signed anything and everything every individual in that line put in front of him, to include taking photos with all of those people.
About 11:30 that same night, after his last show, Mr. Ermey phoned me at my home once again. He said he wanted to spend more time speaking with me that afternoon but he had to take care of all the people. I told him I understood and then dared to ask him if he would like to join me at the TI convention in October, 2005, here in San Antonio.
“Sounds great, sounds great, but I gotta know the dates so I can check my schedule.”
I gave him the dates, we ended our conversation, and my thoughts were of a great afternoon at the Alamo Dome with the Gunny.
In April, he called me on a Saturday afternoon and spoke of his upcoming schedule. “Okay Tuffy, here’s how it goes. Now, I work seven days a week and half the time I’m outta the country. I’m gonna be gone for about six weeks to go to Vietnam for the History Channel. Then I’m gonna do a special live Mail Call from Iraq. When I finish that, I got some free time commin’ so I’m gonna take the opportunity to go to as many bases over there as I can and see all the troops, ya know. When I get back I’ll give ya a call. The only thing that will keep me from going to your convention is if I’m hit with a movie.”
Suddenly, he said, “I gotta go, Tuff,” and he hung up. About twenty minutes later, he called again. “Sorry ‘bout that, Tuffy, but I forgot I had a live radio interview ta do. Okay, where were we?”
Yup, Mr. Ermey never leaves anyone just hangin’ out there!
He called again in July to let me know his schedule was still clear for the convention and would stay in touch with me. But two month prior to the convention, Mr. Ermey phoned to tell me he had a movie commitment and would be unable to attend. That, my friends, was a very, very sad day. I was disappointed to hear this because all the TIs were excited to meet their hero, the great Gunny Ermey. There was absolutely no way at all that I felt as though Gunny had let us down. He had given me advance warning, on several occasions, that a movie commitment would be the only thing that could prevent him from coming to the convention. But once again, I would be proven wrong by the extremely generous and strong character of Mr. R. Lee Ermey.
At 6:30am on the morning of the first day of the convention, Mr. Ermey phoned me.
“Tuffy, I’m up here in Taylor, Texas shootin’ this film. How far is San Antonio from here?”
“It’s about 150 miles south, Gunny.”
“Well listen, I’m gonna try my best ta get away and maybe come down for a day to the convention. But I can’t promise it’s gonna happen, ya know?”
Okay, Gunny, that’s great,” I replied, excited he may come after all.
At 3:30 that same afternoon, Mr. Ermey phoned again.
“I’m tryin’ my best, Tuffy, but things are tight up here on the set. I just wanted to call and let you know I’m not gonna quit on you and the troops, okay?”
He phoned several more times each day trying his best to “not let the troops down”. This became a tremendous concern for him. Here was a famous movie actor with over 70 films under his belt, working on a movie set, and he’s concerned he might let the morale of the troops down at Lackland AFB. I mean, every actor feels just like this, right?
On the morning of the last day of the convention, Mr. Ermey phoned me at 6:00am. The TI convention had a large party scheduled for that evening that would be very informal.
“Tuffy, I’m sorry I haven’t been able to make it down there. But listen, I get off the set around seven tonight. If there’s anything still goin’ on with the troops, I can take a quick shower and drive down to meet you.”
Completely unbelievable! This man does not understand the words, “I don’t have time.” My wife and I knew he would be exhausted so I said to him, “No Gunny, Sandra and I will drive up there and pick you up.”
So, it was off to Taylor, Texas to pick up the great Gunny Ermey. We discovered that he had been working from six in the morning until past nine or ten at night for the better part of three weeks. The night before, Mr. Ermey returned from the set at 8:00pm and had to be driven to a sound studio in Austin to do a “Voice Over” for some film footage he previously shot for the History Channel. He returned to the motel at 4:00am in the morning, slept until 6:00am, and was off to work on the set again. The man was thoroughly exhausted.
We drove back to San Antonio and headed for the T.I. party. We arrived at 10:15pm and the Gunny could not wait to meet the T.I.s. When we walked into that room and all those T.I.s and there spouses saw the Gunny, the place went into an uproar. He told them how very proud he was to be there and thanked them all for the great work they were doing. He then met each and every one of them, shook their hands, spoke with them, and signed everything from pictures to trophies to cigarette packs. One T.I. called his brother on his cell phone and handed it to Gunny. Gunny spoke to the individual over the cell phone as if he was Gunny’s long lost friend.
At 12:30am the party ended and we drove to our home. We fed Mr. Ermey and then he and I stayed up until 2:30 in the morning just jaw jackin’. He was surprised to see the famous Marine recruiting poster with the quote: We don’t promise you a rose garden, framed and hanging on a wall in my living room. He was also surprised when he noticed that Chuck Taliano, the D.I. on the poster, and known as the “Rose Garden D.I.” had personally signed it for me.
Finally, thoroughly exhausted, he said, “Tuffy, I gotta hit the rack.” He asked for an 0800 hours wake-up call, and walked upstairs into our guest bedroom to crash.
We drove him to the airport in Austin, Texas on the following morning and said goodbye to a great man; a patriot. He is an individual of worldwide fame who went completely out of his way just to meet with a group of Air Force T.I.s and motivate them. Not once did he ever mention an “appearance fee”. There were no agents, no cameramen, no publicist and no newspapers … just the Gunny and his troops. This is what makes him happy. Folks, it doesn’t get any better than that.
Mr. R. Lee Ermey is a man who loves our great country and the members of the Armed Forces that defend it. And in almost every conversation we had, he would speak of visiting this Army post or that Air Force base or another Marine base just so he could meet with and motivate the troops.
And now I speak of the sole reason for writing this. Not once have I ever seen or read a single article in the mainstream newspapers or observed on TV news stations about the things Mr. R. Lee Ermey does for the military … not once. There was an article in the Stars & Stripes about a book signing he did in Okinawa where he visited three military installations there, but you will never read a single thing about him in the civilian press. I asked him why the people of America were not aware of all the things he accomplishes for our country’s military personnel. His response was simple: “Tuffy, the American people have enough to worry about than readin’ some crap about movie stars. They don’t need to know what I do, I just do it.”
Now here's the most important fact that's most misunderstood about the man. In all the conversations I’ve had with Mr. Ermey, not once did he ever raise his voice ... not once. He is a soft-spoken, gentle man; the exact opposite of Full Metal Jacket’s Gunny Hartman. Gunny has a heart for our country and its troops the size of the great state of Texas, itself. He is, without a single reservation, the finest human being I’ve ever met.
So please remember, the next time you hear someone say, “Hey! Who’s that guy?” Just turn to them and say, “That ‘Guy’ is Mr. R. Lee Ermey.
Joe “Tuffy” Tofuri
USAF MSgt, retired
Master Military Training Instructor