The Importance of Being Ernest Borgnine (1917 - 2012)

by Bill Gibron

9 July 2012

Considering where he came from and how long he remained important, Ernest Borgnine's death at 95 represents the loss of one of his industry's most important links to the past.

In the world of the slick and suave, he was dumpy and direct. To quote his most famous role, he was a ‘fat, ugly man’ in an arena which tended to devalue same. Still, with his warm warts and all persona and beaming gap-toothed grin, Ernest Borgnine was a trendsetter. Moving from character to lead actor is no small feat, and yet within four years of beginning his career in film, the man had an Oscar, the respect of his peers, and a sensational start to what would be another six decades in show business.

Born to first wave immigrant Italian parents, it would take a while before Borgnine’s star would start to shine. In school, he was more interested in sports than performing, and by the age of 18 he had begun a 10 year career in the Navy. After World War II, he took his mother’s advice and headed toward the stage, securing some minor work before hitting Broadway in the classic Harvey (where he played a nurse). Hoping to advance his opportunities, he moved to Hollywood. Soon, he was cast as villains, and in the classic character roles of the day.
In 1953, he wowed audiences with his breakthrough performance as Staff Sergeant James R. “Fatso” Judson in the popular potboiler From Here to Eternity. With a powerhouse cast featuring Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, Montgomery Clift, and Frank Sinatra, the film brought Borgnine to the fore, his name now associated with a major box office hit and award season favorite. But it was in Paddy Chayefsky’s brilliant common man drama that he came into his own. Previously a smash on television, the revised Marty went on to win Borgnine his one and only Academy Award as Best Actor, as well as numerous other accolades, including the Golden Globe, a BAFTA, and at Cannes, the movie itself would win the Palm d’Or.

The rest of the ‘50s would find Borgnine in high demand. Within a span of five years, he made more than 13 films, including favorites such as The Catered Affair and The Best Things in Life are Free. As the ‘60s arrived, his profile increased even more when he accepted the role of Lieutenant Commander Quinton McHale in the military sitcom McHale’s Navy. On the air for four seasons, it became even more popular in syndication, where children appreciated its combination of cheeky irreverence and physical humor. During the decade, Borgnine continued his considered character turns. Toward the end, he would make two of his most memorable films - 1967’s The Dirty Dozen and 1969’s controversial The Wild Bunch.

In 1971, he played the evil boss Al Martin in the killer rat cult classic Willard. The next year, he scored one of his biggest successes with the Irwin Allen disaster epic The Poseidon Adventure. He was the sadistic railroad conductor in the train hopping effort The Emperor of the North and Lucifer worshipping leader of a Satanic sect in the otherwise dismal The Devil’s Rain. By the ‘80s, he was in his late 60s and suddenly a kitsch commodity. He appeared in Disney’s The Black Hole, John Carpenter’s Escape from New York, Wes Craven’s Deadly Blessing, and the Italian actioner Super Cops. Yet he never treated such turns as throwaways. Instead, Borgnine built characters, leading to memorable moments and fervent fan appreciation. 

In fact, his genre work opened doors for the aging actor, showcasing his skills and willingness to work within any legitimate arena. TV had provided more opportunities (he played a helicopter pilot for three seasons in the beloved Airwolf) and the advent of home video offered even more direct to video roles. In fact, for the next 30-plus years - 30! - Borgnine would appear in dozens of D-list entries. One, a cock-up of an old horror film and some magic nonsense became Merlin’s Shop of Mystical Wonders, which would gain notoriety amongst lovers of the infamous bad movie mockfest, Mystery Science Theater 3000.

As he reached his 80s, Borgnine expanded his horizons. He did voice work in animation, completing characters in All Dogs Go to Heaven 2, though most ‘kids’ will recognize him as Mermaid Man from the indescribably popular SpongeBob SquarePants (alongside his McHale’s Navy sidekick Tim Conway as Barnacle Boy). He even played himself on The Simpsons. Regular TV also came calling again, though his attempt at another sitcom hit (The Single Guy) struggled. Eventually, Borgnine settled into his part in motion picture and Oscar history. Whenever a documentary or a cable channel needed someone to speak of classic Hollywood, his electric grin and extrovert approach made him a go-to guide.

Even in his 90s, Borgnine continued to work. In the new millennium alone, he made nearly two dozen films. He was a favorite on talk shows and even entered the world of Internet memes and viral video with his off color answer to a question about life and longevity. For many, his best years were behind him, a career carved out of old triumphs and modern irrelevance. But the truth was far more telling. Across several marriages (most famously to Broadway diva Ethel Merman) and a constantly changing cultural clime, Borgnine remained significant. More than that, he argued for an unusual looking man’s place in world of stars and starlets.

Considering where he came from and how long he remained important, Ernest Borgnine’s death at 95 represents the loss of one of his industry’s most important links to the past. Like Olivia de Havilland (96 and still going strong) and other regal remnants from the Golden Age of Hollywood, he was a conduit to where movies once were and where they eventually ended up. He was jolly and genuine, not above helping his last wife, Tova, with her line of home shopping health and beauty products. Indeed, if a man who made his career out of playing both heavy and humorous could be considered a gentleman, Borgnine was that. His peers may have only awarded him a single gold statute, but to his craft, he was a lifelong legend. 

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