Pug-nosed character actor Ernest Borgnine may have had a brief career as a leading man after winning the best actor Oscar for “Marty,” but he continued working in films and TV virtually to the end of his life.
The oldest living winner of the actor Oscar died Sunday at 95 of kidney failure at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
Borgnine starred on television as Lt. Commander Quinton McHale on comedy series “McHale’s Navy,” which ran from 1962-66, and in a feature based on the series in 1964.
Though his popularity as a leading man was brief, and he never matched the quality of his work in “Marty,” Borgnine worked consistently and in a wide variety of films, with some 200-odd screen appearances.
He was best as a baddie, which is how he began his career in such films as “Vera Cruz,” “Bad Day at Black Rock” and, especially, “From Here to Eternity,” where as Sgt. “Fatso” Judson he beat the life out of Frank Sinatra’s Pvt. Maggio. After a dry spell reversed by his popular stint on television, he worked in Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch,” “The Dirty Dozen” and “Willard,” as well as in the TV adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front.”
Borgnine made his Broadway debut in 1949 in Mary Chase’s “Harvey,” in which he also toured the country. He appeared abroad in an American production of “Hamlet” as Guildenstern and played one of the leads in “Born Yesterday” in summer stock. In 1952 he had one of the leads in another Chase comedy, “Mrs. McThing,” opposite Helen Hayes. That production ran for almost a year.
Borgnine made his film debut in B movie “China Corsair” in 1951, followed by “The Whistle at Eaton Falls” and “The Mob.” He quickly became typecast as a heavy due to his girth and strong features.
His big break came in “From Here to Eternity,” which went on to win the Academy Award for best picture of 1953. He won the lead in the film version of Paddy Chayevsky’s TV play “Marty,” which Rod Steiger had done on TV despite director Delbert Mann’s reservations that he wasn’t “a big enough actor for the part.” In the 1955 film version, produced on a low budget by Harold Hecht and Burt Lancaster, Borgnine played an ugly duckling Bronx butcher who finally finds love.
There seemed little hope for the movie, but it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and went on to win a best actor Oscar for Borgnine, best picture and director Oscars. Chayevsky also won for adapted screenplay. “I remember when they announced, ‘Ernest Borgnine is going to play Marty,’ a lot of people said, ‘Why, he’s a killer. He can’t play that kind of role.’ And they came up and apologized after I won the Academy Award,” he told Variety in 2008.
Borgnine was quickly cast in another Chayevsky effort, “The Catered Affair” opposite Bette Davis, and in “Jubal” with Glenn Ford. By 1957, he was back to playing blackguards in “The Vikings” and “The Badlanders.” In the late ’50s he tried a comeback in low-budget realistic dramas such as “Man on a String” and “Pay or Die” but with no luck.
After “Go Naked in the World,” he was off to Europe to work in Italian productions such as “Il re di Poggioreale,” Vittoria De Sica’s “The Last Judgment” and “Barabbas.”
“McHale’s Navy” made Borgnine a household name. For the rest of the ’60s, his supporting roles were in quality fare such as “Flight of the Phoenix,” “The Dirty Dozen,” “Ice Station Zebra” and “The Wild Bunch.”
There were also dogs like “The Oscar” and “The Legend of Lylah Clare.” In the early ’70s, the films were not of the same quality and included an oldster-hippie pairing with Davis in “Bunny O’Hare” and opposite Raquel Welch in “Hannie Caulder.” The best of the bunch was “The Poseidon Adventure.” But it was the last major hit in which Borgnine appeared. He worked in films like “Hustle,” “The Black Hole,” “The Day the World Ended” and “Escape From New York,” with some TV work in between, and did a two-year stint from 1984-86 in the TV series “Airwolf.” Borgnine later landed a recurring role from 1995-97 on TV’s “The Single Guy” as doorman Manny.
Borgnine worked into his 90s and appeared in films such as “Another Harvest Moon,” “Turnaround” and “Spike of Bensonhurst,” and became the oldest actor to earn a Golden Globe nom for the Hallmark film “A Grandpa for Christmas.” In 2009 he appeared on the final two episodes of “ER” and received an Emmy nom for guest actor in a drama series.
In 2010 he had a sprightly cameo in the Bruce Willis-John Malkovich actioner “Red” as the CIA recordkeeper, and his last screen appearance was the starring role in Elia Petridis’ film “The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez,” which is to be released this year.
He also did voice work late in his life for animated fare such as “SpongeBob SquarePants” and “All Dogs Go to Heaven.”
Borgnine was born Ermes Effron Borgnino, in Hamden, Conn. His Italian parents took him to Milan to live for the first seven years of his life.
He returned and graduated from high school in New Haven, then worked as a truck driver until enlisting in the U.S. Navy, where he served for 10 years. With his G.I. loan, Borgnine studied at the Randall School of Dramatic Art for a year and from 1946-50 worked at the Barter Theater in Abingdon, Va., doing everything from painting scenery and walk-ons to the occasional lead role.
The actor was the subject of the 1997 documentary “Ernest Borgnine on the Bus,” which followed a trip he took around the country.
In 2011, the Screen Actors Guild lauded him with the life achievement award during the 17th SAG Awards.
Borgnine was married five times, most prominently to actress Katy Jurado and, briefly, to Ethel Merman. “If you blinked, you missed it,” Merman once said of the 38-day marriage.
Borgnine’s fifth wife, the former Tova Newman, was known for a successful line of cosmetic products. In addition to her, he is survived by a daughter, Nancee, by his first wife; son Cristofer, an actor-cinematographer, and daughter Sharon from his fourth marriage; a stepson, David Johnson; six grandchildren; and his sister, Evelyn Verlardi.