"He Had Death on His Face": Kubrick, 'Full Metal Jacket' and an Actor's Heartbreak
Tim Colceri had just been given a beeper, an envelope full of cash and a driver to take him wherever he wanted. He wanted to go to a pub, so that's where he went. Before he could settle in amid the cigarette smoke and dark beer of the establishment, his beeper went off. It was a message from the man who'd summoned him to London.
"Tim, learn pages 1-28. Driver will pick you up tomorrow at 7. Stanley."
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Colceri rushed to his hotel and began cramming. A Vietnam veteran, he was used to hopping to attention when a superior barked an order. But those 28 pages were full of dialogue for Gunnery Sgt. Hartman, the character he had been hired to play based on a self-taped audition for Full Metal Jacket. Colceri gritted his teeth and went to work, shouting lines all evening in his hotel room.
He was going to make Stanley Kubrick proud.
Thirty two years after the film opened, Colceri remains best known for his work in Full Metal Jacket, though in a twist that's become part of the film's lore, he spent months preparing for a role he never got to play. After some behind-the-scenes maneuvering, technical adviser R. Lee Ermey convinced Kubrick to give him the part, with the filmmaker moving Colceri to the small, yet still memorable, role of the helicopter door gunner who famously shouted "Get some!" as he murdered Vietnamese civilians.
For Ermey, the drill sergeant would be a career-defining part that earned him a Golden Globe nomination. The actor, who died in 2018, became so enmeshed in the pop culture consciousness that he played a sendup of his Full Metal Jacket character in three Toy Story movies. For Colceri, his experiences with Full Metal Jacket would also come to define his life, in a very different way.
"I'm still suffering from it," Colceri tells The Hollywood Reporter with hesitation, as he doesn't like to complain. "It will never end."
Colceri's Full Metal Jacket journey began in 1982 when a friend saw a casting call in THR — then a daily newspaper — asking for taped submissions for a Stanley Kubrick military drama. The friend was sure that Colceri, who served in the marines from 1969-71, was perfect for the movie. Colceri recruited a young marine to play the part of a scared grunt, while he played the drill sergeant for a self-taped audition he sent to Kubrick in London.
"They saw thousands and thousands of tapes for three years. I'd completely forgotten about my tape," says Colceri, who received a call from London in 1985. It was Leon Vitali, Kubrick's longtime assistant and right-hand man.
Vitali informed the actor — whose most notable credits at that point were in a few commercials — that Kubrick was impressed with him, but that the director would also like to see the young marine with whom Colceri had taped his audition. Colceri recorded yet another audition tape with the young marine and sent it in. His scene partner never made it past that stage, but Colceri soon had signed an eight-week contract with Warner Bros. for $2,500 a week.
After the Warners meeting, he sat in a stairwell pouring over the 160-page script, half of it on white paper, half on yellow to mark the scenes that took place in Vietnam.
He had one thought: "Oh, my god, my character doesn’t stop talking for 60 pages."
Almost as soon as Colceri got to London, Kubrick overwhelmed the actor with work. Those 28 pages to learn were just the start. He rehearsed in his hotel room for three days with Vitali, until finally he was summoned to meet the director. Colceri found Kubrick to be affable as he stood in the freezing air, telling the actor not to believe stories about the filmmaker's penchant for demanding hundreds of takes from his performers.
"Mr. Kubrick, if you need 1,000 takes I'm prepared to give you 1,001,'" Colceri recalls saying.
By this point, Colceri was becoming self-conscious about spending his days holed up in a hotel room, spouting off drill-instructor dialogue as hotel staff shuffled down the halls, wondering what he was up to. Kubrick arranged for his star to move to a more private location, an apartment that was previously occupied by Superman actor Margot Kidder.
Colceri didn't know it, but he wouldn't see Kubrick again for more than a year. Kubrick was off filming the second half of the film, and wanted to keep his drill instructor isolated from the rest of the cast so that they wouldn't become overly familiar with the abusive, intimidating sergeant.
So the actor spent his days with Vitali. It was a grueling schedule, six days a week, 12 hours a day. Every night, Vitali took the tapes to Kubrick, who would rework the dialogue based on the footage. Vitali allowed no deviation from the words on the page, even as the pages changed constantly. All along, Kubrick — through Vitali — dangled the idea that he would begin shooting the next day, only for that day to come, and go.
It was tough for the actor, having to be on call and ready to film such a demanding role. After weeks of rehearsing, Colceri was near a breaking point.
"I had to memorize so much dialogue that I couldn't sleep, and they sent me to a doctor," Colceri says. "The doctor said, 'Here, take this yellow pill. It will knock you out.' I took it and it knocked me out, but I felt groggy the next day. I said, 'I don't want to take any more of these.'"
He and Biehn became fast friends. They were two young men on the town who spent money as though they were rich, not just guys with a healthy per diem of £1,600 a week. They enjoyed lavish meals, bought drinks for everyone and spent freely on clothes.
"We'd be broke, borrowing each other's money before the next per diem," Colceri recalls.
Biehn introduced the actor to the Aliens cast and Cameron, who showed Colceri around the set. He had Thanksgiving dinner with the team from Aliens, and was made to feel like he belonged among talented actors like Weaver and Bill Paxton; after all, he was the lead of a Stanley Kubrick movie.
But the cracks were beginning to show. Biehn, who had an encouraging filmmaker in Cameron, began noticing the stress Kubrick was putting on his friend. Biehn recalls feeling alarmed as he spent time helping Colceri prepare for a shoot that never happened as October dragged into November.
“When I know I’m going to be shooting an intense scene the next day, that becomes my complete focus until the camera rolls," Biehn says, noting that strain would harm any actor.
What Colceri didn't know at the time was that Ermey was angling for his role. A former Marine, Ermey took on the job of technical adviser on the film as a way to get his foot in the door.
"The Marine Corps never did teach me to lose gracefully," Ermey said in the 2017 documentary Filmworker, which chronicles Vitali's role in Kubrick's films.
Part of his job as technical adviser was berating young men — in character as the drill instructor — who hoped to land a part as a recruit. While Vitali never allowed Colceri to deviate from the script, Ermey was able to improvise his verbal abuse — lines that ultimately would give him an edge over Colceri.
Star Matthew Modine recorded a taste of it in a September 1985 diary entry, published in 2005 and later as Full Metal Jacket Diary: "Tim Colceri, who Stanley has cast in the role of the drill instructor, yells at the extras while Lee and Leon videotape their reactions. Tim has a good voice and a look for the role, kind of like Jim West in The Wild Wild West. After about a half hour of yelling, Tim says he's finished, probably not a good idea to blow out his voice before Stanley even starts to film him. … Tim leaves, and Lee steps in to continue the auditions. It's scary. Lee gets right in their faces and lets them have it. … if Tim watches how Lee does this, it will be great."
Vitali saw there was something special in Ermey's daily performances, and pointed it out to Kubrick, who saw something special too.
After 10 weeks of rehearsals, Aliens was wrapping and Biehn was preparing to go home for Thanksgiving. Then, on a Sunday, as Colceri sat in Biehn's apartment, Colceri looked out the peephole, and there was Vitali, pulling up in a car.
Kubrick's assistant got out with a letter in his hand.
"He looked at me and he had death on his face," recalls Colceri, who asked if Kubrick was taking the role away.
Vitali wouldn't answer, instead telling Colceri to read the letter.
"I am very sorry to have to tell you that after a hell of a lot of painful deliberation I have decided to use Lee Ermey to play Sergeant Gerheim," the letter began, referencing an earlier name for the character. "I have been in the position of a coach who has two starting quarterbacks and has to choose one. I know what a disappointment this will be to you just as it would have been to Lee, and I would have been a lot happier if someone else could have made the decision."
In the letter, he also offered Colceri the role of the door gunner, calling it "a smaller but very strong part in a very good scene."
"It just completely crushed me. I didn't know what to do. I looked at Leon, I looked at Michael. And I had to get out," Colceri says. "I walked around London for a little while by myself."
Biehn was left alone with Vitali, who expressed how badly he felt about the situation. Biehn wasn't having it. “You have three seconds to get out of my house," Biehn recalls telling Vitali. Only when he started to count did Kubrick's assistant bolt for his car.
"The hardest thing, I think, I actually had to do was go to this guy's house and give him a letter that Stanley had written," Vitali would later say in Filmworker. "My heart bled for him. It really did."
Colceri fought to keep his role, and in a letter begged Kubrick for three minutes of his time to prove he was the best actor for the role. Kubrick did not respond, other than to say through Vitali that the letter had hurt his feelings.
"I was so upset with him — I had that role for eight months — that he'd send a messenger to take it away from me. That he couldn't talk to me as a man," Colceri says.
Colceri ultimately agreed to come aboard as the door gunner. After spending less than a week rehearsing for the new part, Vitali called Colceri with yet another shock: Ermey was in serious condition after crashing his car into a tree, and Colceri might be needed to step in as the drill instructor after all. But a few days after that, Vitali called again, saying the insurance company would pay for production to be delayed until Ermey could heal. Another disappointment.
So Colceri returned to Los Angeles to await being summoned back to London to shoot the door-gunner scene. When he first joined Full Metal Jacket, he had no agent, no one to watch out for him. But now he was represented by the powerful ICM agent Ed Limato, who also repped Biehn and A-listers such as Denzel Washington, Richard Gere and Mel Gibson.
Seven months went by with Colceri in a holding pattern in L.A.. Then, another shock: The Full Metal Jacket production team sent ICM a letter saying the door-gunner scene had been cut.
"I went from the best role, to a good role, to no role," says the actor.
Colceri fought back. He hired a lawyer who sent a letter to Kubrick and Warner Bros., arguing that the actor had kept his head shaved for two years, which kept him from going out for commercial work. It's unclear if it was his letter that did the trick, but one way or another he was welcomed back.
The other men in the scene — Modine and Kevyn Major Howard — had already filmed their half by the time Colceri arrived in London, where he was greeted with a bear hug by Vitali. Though the men were at odds, they had forged a strange bond through their countless hours of rehearsing together.
Like old times, they spent a few days going over the door-gunner lines, until Colceri was ushered onto the helicopter, which was sitting on Kubrick's property. And for the first time in a year, Colceri saw the director.
"I want to strangle him," Colceri remembers thinking.
But at the same time, he was so flustered to be in Kubrick's presence that all he could get out by way of a greeting was a polite, "Mr. Kubrick."
The director was cordial, as always. Soon they were sharing a plate of cheese and red wine out of a styrofoam cup, getting along well. Kubrick told Colceri he has more energy than his Spartacus star, Kirk Douglas. This affirmation, from the man he'd spent a year being angry at, meant everything to the actor.
"I'm looking at Stanley talking in a back yard with a helicopter right behind him and I just started laughing. 'Nobody will ever believe me,' " Colceri says.
The nice moment didn't last long, however. When Kubrick asked Colceri to recite his dialogue, it became apparent that Vitali had given the actor the wrong lines to memorize.
"I wanted to kill one of them. I didn't know which one. I was so mad by then that I didn't say anything, but my stink eye to both of them was letting them know this was bullshit," Colceri says.
Kubrick summoned Colceri into his home, and suddenly the actor was face-to-face with the typewriter on which the filmmaker had written the firing letter. Kubrick took a piece of paper length-wise (as was his custom) and started typing. Kubrick rewrote the dialogue astonishingly fast — with Colceri assisting by saying the lines he had memorized. With the scene rewritten, Kubrick dispatched Colceri and Vitali 100 miles north to Northfolk to shoot the next morning.
When Kubrick arrived on set the next day, it was a special moment for Colceri. He'd been waiting to receive direction from the master filmmaker, sure that Kubrick would take Colceri's acting to the next level. Colceri had already shot a few takes without Kubrick, and showed the director what he'd been working on. Kubrick didn't like the joyful laughter Colceri injected into the character, and gave one simple direction. As Colceri recalls it: "Tim, don't laugh like that anymore. Give me an everyday killer smile."
Colceri didn't quite know what an everyday killer smile was, but he gave it a shot. After 13 more takes, Kubrick was satisfied. Next came the difficult task of firing round after round at the extras playing innocent civilians. By nightfall, they had it.
Colceri was spent, ready to crash at the hotel and finally wash Full Metal Jacket out of his system. But Kubrick ordered him and Vitali to drive the long road back to London to look over the film they'd shot and ensure it was good. Then, and only then, would Colceri be done.
"We were exhausted. I don't know how Leon even drove. I was nodding out the whole way, I was so tired," Colceri says.
Soon, Colceri returned to the United States. Life went on for 11 months as he waited to hear if the door gunner had made the final cut. The trailer came out in theaters, and he started getting calls from excited friends noting he was in the trailer.
On July 18, 1987, Colceri fulfilled a promise to Biehn that the pair would go to the premiere together. The Beverly Hills event was packed, and Colceri was wowed, seated near stars such as Clint Eastwood and Nicolas Cage. When the movie began, he was transfixed by Ermey's performance as the drill sergeant. Colceri silently recited the lines right along with Ermey, critiquing ones he could have done better, admiring others that had been added after his time. Colceri was swept along until suddenly he appeared onscreen as the door gunner.
Kubrick had opted to use a take filmed before the director had arrived for the day — one where Colceri's character laughed and felt joy in the murders he was committing. He had no idea if his performance was good or bad, but he heard chuckling in the audience. That must be a good sign. Biehn elbowed him, telling him he was great.
Then came a moment that meant more than any other.
"All of a sudden at the very end of the movie, starring credits come up," Colceri recalls, his voice cracking a bit. "And [Kubrick] gave me a starring credit and I almost cry every time I get to that point because all that I went through, at least he showed me the respect. I'm so proud of that. And I went through hell to get to that point."
Looking back, Colceri believes when Kubrick fired him, the director was doing what he thought was best for the film. He points to Kubrick's decision to use the door gunner take that the director wasn't even present for as evidence that all he cared about was the final product — he chose the best take, even though it was the opposite of what he'd asked the actor to perform.
Thirty two years later, Colceri can still get nervous when things seem to be getting delayed. Even while talking with him over a period of weeks for this article, he would jokingly express concern that perhaps it would never be published. After all, he had heard, "it'll happen next week" too many times.
"I'm mad at Stanley Kubrick, but yet I still respect him and felt lucky I got to be in his movie. I also feel they were lucky to have me," Colceri says. "It took me years to figure that out."
He's worked in a number of small roles and commercials in the decades since Full Metal Jacket, but the one he'll mention with pride if you talk to him long enough was a two-episode arc on Showtime's Weeds in which he got to play Sergeant Lewis, a drill sergeant who would have felt at home in the world of Full Metal Jacket.
He also became golfing buddies with Ermey. They even appeared in a 2001 B-movie called Megiddo: The Omega Code 2 in which Ermey played the president. Colceri's old friend Biehn played the vice president and Colceri played an admiral.
"We were in the Oval Office. I look around going, 'This is ridiculous,'" Colceri says.
The actor, who now lives in Las Vegas, has turned his experiences into a one-man show he is performing at the Glendale Elks Lodge Sept. 21-22 under the title The Get Some Tour. (You can see a clip here.)
Its origins date back to when Ermey died in 2018. Colceri was asked to speak at a Las Vegas memorial for the late actor. He got up and and for 45 minutes detailed his experiences on Full Metal Jacket.
"The only thing I regret is he never once said to me, as a fellow Marine, 'That must have been tough for you to lose that role,'" Colceri says of Ermey. "I would have loved for him to say that. He never, ever said it."
Colceri still gets recognized for his role. And for decades he used to tell anyone who would listen that yes, he was the door gunner, but did you know he was originally drill instructor?
It's a habit he's been shaking recently.
"Why can't I say after 35 years, 'Hey, you know what? I did. I did play the door gunner, and I did a good job doing it.' It's taken me a long time to feel that way, because of the hurt I went through."
— Jim Anderson contributed to this story.
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