Actor Ernest Borgnine dies at 95
Ernest Borgnine, who won the 1955 Academy Award for “Best Actor” for his portrayal of Marty Piletti in the 1955 movie, Marty, died of renal failure on July 8, 2012 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Centre in Los Angeles, California. His wife and children were at his side. Borgnine was 95 years old.
Looking back on Hollywood, Borgnine once remarked: “Ever since they opened the floodgates with Clark Gable saying, ‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,’ somebody’s ears pricked up and said, ‘Oh boy, here we go!’. Writers used to make such wonderful pictures without all that swearing, all that cursing. And now it seems that you can’t say three words without cursing. And I don’t think that’s right.”
Borgnine’s career spanned more than six decades. He was an unconventional lead in many films of the 1950s. On television, he played Quinton McHale in the 1962–66 series McHale’s Navy and co-starred in the mid-1980s action series Airwolf, in addition to a wide variety of other roles. Children know Borgnine for his role as Mermaid Man in the animated television series SpongeBob SquarePants. At age 92, Borgnine earned an Emmy Award nomination for his work on the television series, ER.
Borgnine joined the United States Navy in 1935, after graduation from James Hillhouse High Schoolin New Haven, Connecticut. He was discharged in 1941, and re-enlisted when the United States entered World War II and served until 1945 (a total of ten years), reaching the rank of Gunner’s Mate 1st Class. He served aboard the destroyer USS Lamberton (DD-119). His military decorations included the Navy Good Conduct Medal, American Defense Service Medal with Fleet Clasp, American Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal and the World War II Victory Medal.
After the war was over he returned to his parents’ home with no job and no direction. Since he wasn’t willing to settle for a dead-end job at one of the factories, his mother encouraged him to pursue a more glamorous profession and suggested that his personality would be well-suited for the stage. He surprised his mother by taking the suggestion to heart, although his father was far from enthusiastic. After graduation, he auditioned and was accepted to the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Virginia, so-called for its audiences bartering their produce for admission during the Great Depression. In 1947, he landed his first stage role in State of the Union. Although it was a short role, he won over the audience. His next role was as the Gentleman Caller in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. In 1949, he had his Broadway debut in the role of a nurse in the play Harvey. More roles on stage led him to being a decades-long character actor.
In 1951, he moved to Los Angeles, California, where he eventually received his big break in From Here to Eternity (1953), playing the cruel Sergeant “Fatso” Judson in charge of the stockade, who taunts fellow soldier Angelo Maggio (played by Frank Sinatra). Borgnine built a reputation as a dependable character actor and appeared in early film roles as villains, including movies like Johnny Guitar, Vera Cruz and Bad Day at Black Rock. But in 1955, the actor starred as a warm-hearted butcher in Marty, the film version of the television play of the same name, which gained him an Academy Award for Best Actor over Frank Sinatra, James Dean (who had died by the time of the ceremony) and former Best Actor winners Spencer Tracy and James Cagney.
Borgnine’s film career continued successfully through the 1960s, 1970s and the 1980s, including Emperor of the North Pole, The Vikings, The Flight of the Phoenix, The Dirty Dozen, Ice Station Zebra, The Poseidon Adventure, The Black Hole and Escape from New York. One of his most famous roles became that of Dutch, a member of The Wild Bunch in the 1969 Western classic from director Sam Peckinpah.
Of his role in ‘The Wild Bunch’, he later said, ‘I did [think it was a moral film]. Because to me, every picture should have some kind of a moral to it. I feel that when we used to watch old pictures, as we still do I’m sure, the bad guys always got it in the end and the good guys always won out. Today it’s a little different. Today it seems that the bad guys are getting the good end of it. There was always a moral in our story.’
Borgnine made his TV debut as a character actor in Captain Video and His Video Rangers, beginning in 1951. These two episodes led to countless other television roles that Borgnine would gain in Goodyear Television Playhouse, Short Short Dramas, The Ford Television Theatre, Waterfront, The Lone Wolf, Fireside Theatre, The O. Henry Playhouse, Frontier Justice, Laramie, The Blue Angels, Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre, Run for Your Life, Little House on the Prairie’s two-part episode – “The Lord is My Shepherd”, The Love Boat, Magnum, P.I., Highway to Heaven with old friend Michael Landon, Murder, She Wrote, Walker, Texas Ranger, Touched by an Angel and the final episodes of ER, among many others.
It was 1962 that Borgnine joined the ranks of other sitcom stars such as John Forsythe, Andy Griffith, Danny Thomas, Alan Young, Fred MacMurray and Buddy Ebsen. That year he signed a contract with Universal Studios for the lead role as the gruff but lovable skipper Lieutenant Commander Quinton McHale in what began as a serious one-hour 1962 episode called Seven Against the Sea for Alcoa Premiere. It served as the pilot for McHale’s Navy. (Why it was not included in the DVD box sets remained unknown, but the rarely-seen pilot with Borgnine was screened at the Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention a few years ago). McHale’s Navy was a World War II sitcom that co-starred two formerly unknown comedians/actors, the late Joe Flynn as Capt. Wallace B. Binghamton and Tim Conway as Ensign Charles Parker. Both of them got along very well with Borgnine, especially Conway. The insubordinate crew of PT-73 helped the show become an overnight success during its first season, although it did not land in the Top 30 until 1963, when it tied with Hazel in the ratings. Borgnine thrived on the adulation from fans for their favorite Navy man. He received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series in 1963. At the end of the fourth season in 1966 low ratings and repetitive story lines brought McHale’s Navy to an end. Borgnine was not happy about the show’s cancellation and was concerned about what television role he might play in the future. He also starred in the 1964 film version of the series and later appeared in a cameo performance in the 1997 remake.
Borgnine returned to a new contract with Universal Studios in 1983, for a co-starring role opposite Jan-Michael Vincent, on Airwolf. After he was approached by producer Donald P. Bellisario, who had been impressed by Borgnine’s guest role as a wrestler in a 1982 episode of Magnum, P.I., he immediately agreed. He played Dominic Santini, a helicopter pilot, in the series which became an immediate hit. Borgnine’s strong performances belied his exhaustion due to the grueling production schedule, and the challenges of working with his younger, troubled series lead. The show was cancelled by CBS in 1986.
The Single Guy
He auditioned a third time for a co-starring role opposite Jonathan Silverman in The Single Guy as doorman Manny Cordoba, which lasted two seasons. According to Silverman, Borgnine would come to work with more energy and passion than all other stars combined. He was the first person to arrive on the set every day and the last to leave.
On April 2, 2009, Borgnine starred in the last episode of the long-running medical series ER. His role was that of a husband whose long marriage ended with his wife’s death. In his final scene, Borgnine’s character is in a hospital bed lying beside his just-deceased wife. His performance garnered an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series, his third nomination and his first in 29 years (since being nominated for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series or a Special in 1980 for All Quiet on the Western Front).
Borgnine’s autobiography Ernie was published by Citadel Press in July 2008. Ernie is a loose, conversational recollection of highlights from his acting career and notable events from his personal life. In the wake of the book’s publication, he began a small promotional tour, visiting independent bookstores in the Los Angeles area to promote the book’s release and meet some of his fans. No one ever left the table disappointed, and for years fans had nothing but praise of the actor, who attempted to make as many of his fans happy. For all the good he did, Borgine lived a full life with no regrets. Hollywood should dim the lights for a moment of silence. It would have been something Ernie would have loved.