Ernest Borgnine

Ernest Borgnine
Ernest Borgnine

Ernest Borgnine was one of the very best of character actors with an extraordinary long career.   He was born in Connecticut of Italian parents.   After military service in World War Two be began an acting career on the stage.   He first became noticed on film in 1953 in “From Here to Eternity” where he beat up Frank Sinatra in a street brawl.   He went on to make “Bad Day at Black Rock” with Spencer Tracy, Lee Marvin and Anne France and then won an Oscar for the lead role in “Marty”.   Among his many movie credits are “The Vikings”, “The Flight of the Phoenix”, “The Dirty Dozen”, “Convey” and “The Wild Bunch”.   He died in 2012 at the age of 95 and was acting on film until he was was 93.

Ronald Bergan’s “Guardian” obituary:
With his coarsely podgy features, bug eyes, gap-toothed grin and stocky build, Ernest Borgnine, who has died aged 95 of renal failure, seemed destined to remain one of nature’s supporting actors in a string of sadistic and menacing parts. Instead he won an Oscar for a role which was the antithesis of all his previous characters.

In 1955, the producer Harold Hecht wanted to transfer Paddy Chayefsky’s teleplay Marty to the big screen, with Rod Steiger in the title role, which he had created. But Steiger was filming Oklahoma! so was unavailable. Borgnine was offered the role after a female guest at a Hollywood reception quite disinterestedly remarked to Hecht that, ugly as he was, Borgnine possessed an oddly tender quality which made her yearn to mother him. “That,” Hecht said later, “is when I decided to give him the part.”

Marty, a 34-year-old butcher from the Bronx, meets a plain schoolteacher at a Saturday night dance. They are drawn together by their fears of rejection and loneliness. One of the first films to bring new naturalism, new talent and new life to Hollywood from TV, Marty was known in the trade as a “sleeper”, a film that, without any obvious box-office appeal, becomes a hit. It won four Oscars – best director (Delbert Mann), best film, best screenplay and best actor for Borgnine.

Borgnine also won awards from the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review, and was voted man of the year by the butchers of America. This decidedly unalluring actor had enjoyed the good fortune to encounter a role made to measure for his particular talents and physique. Though no finer part ever came his way, he was at least grateful to no longer be automatically cast as a heavy. In fact, it was as a comic character, in the popular TV series McHale’s Navy (1962-66), that he was to make his most enduring impression on the American public.

He was born Ermes Effron Borgnino in Hamden, Connecticut, to Italian parents. His father worked on the railways and his mother was said to be the daughter of a count. Borgnine lived in Milan between the ages of two and seven, later attending high school in New Haven before joining the navy in 1935. Rising through the ranks, he left the service as a chief gunner’s mate. He then enrolled in the Randall School of Drama in Hartford, Connecticut, after which he joined the Barter theatre in Virginia.

In 1952, Borgnine made his first and last Broadway appearance, in the comic fantasy Mrs McThing, starring Helen Hayes. His film debut had come the year before in China Corsair, an adventure starring Jon Hall, in which Borgnine played a double-crossing Chinese villain. He continued in the same vein as a racketeer’s henchman in The Mob (1951), and he was a nasty piece of work called Bull Slager, opposing the hero Randolph Scott, in The Stranger Wore a Gun (1953), the first of more than a dozen westerns in which he appeared.

As far as truly nasty characters went, Borgnine was particularly memorable in From Here to Eternity (1953) as Sergeant “Fatso” Judson, the beer-bellied bully of the dreaded stockade who makes Frank Sinatra’s life a misery. He was equally hissable in Johnny Guitar (1954), Vera Cruz (1954) and Bad Day at Black Rock (1955). After being cast against type in Marty, he was given far more varied roles. In The Square Jungle (1955), he was the gentle trainer of a boxer (Tony Curtis). In Jubal (1956), a western version of Othello, he was powerful and touching as a cattle-ranch owner who is convinced by the villainous Steiger that his wife has been unfaithful with the hired hand Glenn Ford. In The Catered Affair (also known as Wedding Breakfast, 1956), which, like Marty, was derived from a Chayefsky teleplay, he was Bette Davis’s hot-headed Bronx cab-driver husband. He played the songwriter Lew Brown in The Best Things in Life Are Free (1956), his only film musical, though thankfully he got to sing just a few notes.

In the following years, Borgnine was seldom off the screen: downcast in Three Brave Men (1957), as a navy clerk fired because of alleged communist leanings; bellowing in The Vikings (1958), as a barbaric chief; and happy-go-lucky in Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (1959), as an Australian sugarcane cutter called Roo, without attempting the accent.

Borgnine spent much of the 1960s playing the bumbling Lieutenant Commander Quinton McHale in the popular TV series McHale’s Navy, and was also kept busy marrying and divorcing. He had married Rhoda Kemins in 1949 and, after their divorce, he wed the actor Katy Jurado on New Year’s Eve 1959. Shortly after their divorce, he wed Ethel Merman in 1964 but the marriage lasted little more than a month. In Merman’s autobiography, she mischievously followed the statement “And then I married Ernest Borgnine …” with a blank page. His fourth wife was Donna Rencourt: their marriage lasted for seven years from 1965. During this period, he became an active freemason; he was later honoured with the 33rd degree of the masonic order and its grand cross. Borgnine proclaimed, “I’m proud of the fact that I belong to an organisation that made me a better American, Christian, husband and neighbour.”

Two of Borgnine’s most notable screen roles in the 60s were in complete contrast to this masonic ideal – he was a tough general in Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1967) and one of the wildest of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969). In the 1970s, he drifted from genre to genre, including one of the first “disaster movies” of the period, The Poseidon Adventure (1972). But he was always best at what he did first – playing the heavy. Aldrich’s Emperor of the North (1973) featured him as a sadistic train conductor during the Depression who threatens to kill any hobo boarding his train, and in Peckinpah’s Convoy (1978) he played the cop pursuing truck driver Kris Kristofferson. In 1973 he married Tova Traesnaes, who headed her own cosmetics company.

In the 1980s, Borgnine had another TV hit with the series Airwolf and worked with a younger generation of film directors including John Carpenter (Escape from New York, 1981), Wes Craven (Deadly Blessing, 1981) and Paul Morrissey (Spike of Bensonhurst, 1988). However, he appeared most often in conventional action pictures, a few of them with a distasteful vigilante theme, and in three crass TV movie sequels to The Dirty Dozen.

Throughout the 1990s and into the new century, Borgnine expended most of his energy on the golf course while continuing to appear mostly in supporting roles, though he did take the lead in the Sean Penn-directed segment of the omnibus film 11’09”01 – September 11 (2002) and in The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez, to be released later this year. In the latter, he played an elderly man, bitter at never becoming famous. Borgnine himself was an example of an actor who made a handsome living from an ugly mug.

He is survived by Tova and his children, Christofer, Nancee and Sharon.

• Ernest Borgnine (Ermes Effron Borgnino), actor, born 24 January 1917; died 8 July 2012

• This article was amended on 11 July 2012. The original assigned the wrong role in The Dirty Dozen to Borgnine: the general he played was tough rather than “brutal… more corrupt than the gang of cons he looked down on”. This has been corrected.

 The above “Guardian” obituary can also be accessed online here.
Ernest Borgnine
Ernest Borgnine

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