Sunday, July 8, 2012
Ernest Borgnine, Oscar-Winning Actor, Dies at 95
His death, at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, was announced by Harry Flynn, his longtime spokesman.
Mr. Borgnine, who later starred on “McHale’s Navy” on television, made his first memorable impression in films at age 37, appearing in “From Here to Eternity” (1953) as Fatso Judson, the sadistic stockade sergeant who beats Frank Sinatra’s character, Private Maggio, to death. But Paddy Chayefsky, who wrote “Marty” as a television play, and Delbert Mann, who directed it (it starred Rod Steiger), saw something beyond brutality in Mr. Borgnine and offered him the title role when it was made into a feature film.
The 1950s had emerged as the decade of the common man, with Willy Loman of “Death of a Salesman” on Broadway and the likes of the bus driver Ralph Kramden (“The Honeymooners”) and the factory worker Chester Riley (“The Life of Riley”) on television. Mr. Borgnine’s Marty Pilletti, a 34-year-old blue-collar bachelor who still lives with his mother, fit right in, showing the tender side of the average, unglamorous guy next door.
Marty’s awakening, as he unexpectedly falls in love, was described by Bosley Crowther in The New York Times as “a beautiful blend of the crude and the strangely gentle and sensitive in a monosyllabic man.”
Mr. Borgnine received the Oscar for best actor for “Marty.” For the same performance he also received a Golden Globe and awards from the New York Film Critics Circle, the National Board of Review and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.
Mr. Borgnine won even wider fame as the star of the ABC sitcom “McHale’s Navy” (1962-66), originating the role of an irreverent con man of a PT boat skipper. (The cast also included a young Tim Conway.) He wrote in his autobiography, “Ernie” (Citadel Press, 2008), that he had turned down the role because he refused to do a television series but changed his mind when a boy came to his door selling candy and said, although he knew who James Arness of “Gunsmoke” and Richard Boone of “Have Gun, Will Travel” were, he had never heard of Ernest Borgnine.
Over a career that lasted more than six decades the burly, big-voiced Mr. Borgnine was never able to escape typecasting completely, at least in films. Although he did another Chayefsky screenplay, starring with Bette Davis as a working-class father of the bride in “The Catered Affair” (1956), and even appeared in a musical, “The Best Things in Life Are Free” (1956), playing a Broadway showman, the vast majority of the characters he played were villains.
Military roles continued to beckon. One of his best known was as Lee Marvin’s commanding officer in “The Dirty Dozen” (1967), about hardened prisoners on a World War II commando mission. He also starred in three television-movie sequels.
But he worked in virtually every genre. Filmmakers cast him as a gangster, even in satirical movies like “Spike of Bensonhurst” (1988). He was in westerns like Sam Peckinpah’s blood-soaked classic “The Wild Bunch” (1969) and crime dramas like “Bad Day at Black Rock” (1955).
He played gruff police officers, like his character in the disaster blockbuster “The Poseidon Adventure” (1972), and bosses from hell, as in the horror movie “Willard” (1971). Twice he played a manager of gladiators, in “Demetrius and the Gladiators” (1954) and in the 1984 mini-series “The Last Days of Pompeii.”
Mr. Borgnine’s menacing features seemed to disappear when he flashed his trademark gaptoothed smile, and later in life he began to find good-guy roles, like the helpful taxi driver in “Escape From New York” (1981) and the title role in “A Grandpa for Christmas,” a 2007 television movie.
“McHale’s Navy” and the 1964 film inspired by it were his most notable forays into comedy, but in 1999 he began doing the voice of a recurring character, the elderly ex-superhero Mermaidman, in the animated series “SpongeBob SquarePants.” He continued to play that role until last year.
He began his career on the stage but unlike many actors who had done the same, Mr. Borgnine professed to have no burning desire to return there. “Once you create a character for the stage, you become like a machine,” he told The Washington Post in 1969. In films, he said, “you’re always creating something new.”
Ermes Effron Borgnino was born on Jan. 24, 1917, in Hamden, Conn., near New Haven. His father was a railroad brakeman. His mother was said to be the daughter of a count, Paolo Boselli, an adviser to King Victor Emmanuel of Italy.
The boy spent several years of his childhood in Italy, where his mother returned during a long separation from her husband. But they returned to Connecticut, and he graduated from high school there.
He joined the Navy at 18 and served for 10 years. During World War II he was a gunner’s mate. After the war he considered factory jobs, but his mother suggested that he try acting. Her reasoning, he reported, was, “You’ve always liked making a damned fool of yourself.”
He studied at the Randall School of Drama in Hartford, then moved to Virginia, where he became a member of the Barter Theater in Abingdon and worked his way up from painting scenery to playing the Gentleman Caller in “The Glass Menagerie.”
In the late 1940s he headed for New York, where by 1952 he was appearing on Broadway as a bodyguard in the comic fantasy “Mrs. McThing,” starring Helen Hayes. He had already made his movie debut playing a Chinese shopkeeper in the 1951 adventure “China Corsair.”
Mr. Borgnine never retired from acting. In the 1980s he starred in another television series, the adventure drama “Airwolf,” playing a helicopter pilot. He took a supporting role as a bubbly doorman in the 1990s sitcom “The Single Guy.” His last film appearance was in “The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez,” not yet released, in which he plays an elderly man who becomes a celebrity to Latino employees at the nursing home where he lives. On television, he was in the series finale of “ER” in 2009 and appeared in a cable film, “Love’s Christmas Journey,” last year.
His other films included “The Vikings” (1958); “Ice Station Zebra” (1968); “Hoover” (2000), in which he played J. Edgar Hoover; and “Gattaca” (1997).
Mr. Borgnine, who lived in Beverly Hills, was married five times. In 1949 he married Rhoda Kemins, whom he had met when they were both in the Navy. They had a daughter but divorced in 1958. On New Year’s Eve 1959 he and the Mexican-born actress Katy Jurado were married; they divorced in 1962.
His third marriage was his most notorious because of its brevity. He and the Broadway musical star Ethel Merman married in late June 1964 but split up in early August. Mr. Borgnine later contended that Ms. Merman left because she was upset that on an international honeymoon trip he was recognized and she wasn’t.
In 1965 he married Donna Rancourt; they had two children before divorcing in 1972. In 1973 he married for the fifth and last time, to Tova Traesnaes, who under the name Tova Borgnine became a cosmetics entrepreneur.
She survives him, as do his children, Christofer, Nancee and Sharon Borgnine; a stepson, David Johnson; six grandchildren; and his sister, Evelyn Verlardi.
Asked about his acting methods in 1973, Mr. Borgnine told The New York Times: “No Stanislavsky. I don’t chart out the life histories of the people I play. If I did, I’d be in trouble. I work with my heart and my head, and naturally emotions follow.”
Sometimes he prayed, he said, or just reflected on character-appropriate thoughts. “If none of that works,” he added, “I think to myself of the money I’m making.”