Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Late Great Ernest Borgnine

There are those actors whose careers are so long and who are so prolific that it is hard to picture there ever having been a time when they were not acting. One of those actors was Ernest Borgnine. His career spanned over sixty years. It included everything from Marty (1955, for which he won an Oscar) to the television show McHale's Navy to The Dirty Dozen (1967) to Red (2010). Sadly, Ernest Borgnine died today at the age of 95. The cause was renal failure.

Ernest Borgnine was born in Hamden, Connecticut on 24 January 1917. His mother and father separated when he was very young, so that Mr. Borgnine spent a few years of his early life in Italy. Eventually his parents reconciled and he spent the remainder of his childhood in New Haven, Connecticut. At age 18 Ernest Borgnine enlisted in the U. S. Navy, where he served as a gunner's mate. During his service he earned the he 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. Following his service in the Navy, Mr. Borgnine considered what he wanted to do with his life. It was his mother who suggested that he go into acting.

Mr. Borgnine studied acting at the Randall School of Drama in Hartford, Connecticut. He later joined the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Virginia. It was in the late Forties that he moved to New York City to pursue acting. He made his film debut in the 1951 in China Corsair. He made his television debut in a 1951 episode of Captain Video and His Video Rangers. He appeared on Broadway in Mrs. McThing in 1952. During the Fifties he appeared in such films as The Whistle at Eaton Falls (1951), The Mob (1951), The Stranger Wore a Gun (1952), From Here to Eternity (1953), Johnny Guitar (1954), Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954), Vera Cruz (1954), Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), Marty (1955), The Catered Affair (1956), The Vikings (1958), Torpedo Run (1958), and Man on a String (1960). He appeared in the television shows Shadow of the Cloak, The Lone Wolf, The Ford Television Theatre, Waterfront, Make Room for Daddy, Zane Grey Theatre, and Laramie.

In the Sixties Ernest Borgnine played the lead role of Lt. Commander Quinton McHale on the TV series McHale's Navy. The show proved to be a hit, running for four years and producing two feature films (although the second one had little to with the show and did not star Ernest Borgnine). He also appeared on such shows as Alcoa Premeire (on which the character of Quinton McHale first appeared, in the dramatic episode "Seven Against the Sea"), G. E. Theatre, Wagon Train, Run for Your Life, and Get Smart. He appeared in such films as Go Naked in the World (1961), The Last Judgement (1961), Barabbas (1961), The Flight of the Phoenix (1965), The Oscar (1966), Ice Station Zebra (1968), The Wild Bunch (1969), The Adventurers (1969), and Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came? (1970).

In the Seventies Mr. Borgnine appeared in such films as Rain for a Dusty Summer (1971), Willard (1971), Bunny O'Hare (1971), Hannie Caulder (1971), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Emperor of the North (1973), Sunday in the Country (1974), Hustle (1975), Crossed Swords (1977), Convoy (1978), The Double McGuffin (1979), The Black Hole (1979), and Super Fuzz (1980). He starred on the short lived series Future Cop. He appeared on the TV show Little House on the Prairie and in the mini-series Jesus of Nazareth.

In the Eighties Mr. Borgine appeared in a lead role on the TV show Airwolf. He also appeared on such TV shows as Magnum P.I., Matt Houston, Highway to Heaven, and Murder She Wrote. He appeared in such films as Escape form New York (1981),  High Risk (1981), Deadly Blessing (1981), Code Name: Wild Geese (1984), Moving Target (1988), The Big Turnaround (1988), The Opponent (1988), and Tides of War (1990).

In the Nineties Ernest Borgnine had a regular role on The Single Guy. He also voiced the recurring role of Mermaidman on SpongeBob Squarepants. He appeared on such TV shows as The Commish, Home Improvement, Pinky and the Brain, The Simpsons, Jag, and Early Edition. He appeared in such films as Captiva Island (1995), Merlin's Shop of Mystical Wonders (1996), McHale's Navy (1997), Gattaca (1997), Small Soldiers (1998), BASEketball (1998), Mel  (1998), Shadows of the Past (1999), Castle Rock (2000), and Hoover (2000). From the Naughts into the Teens he appeared in such films as Whiplash (2002), September 11 (2002), The Long Ride Home (2003), Barn Red (2004),Oliviero Rising (2007), Enemy Mind (2010), Red (2010), Snatched (2011), and The Lion of Judah (2011). His final film, The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez, was just released this year. He appeared on such television shows as Touched by an Angel, 7th Heaven, Family Law, and ER. He last voiced Mermaidman in an episode of SquareBob Spongepants in 2011.

Ernest Borgnine was possibly one of the most prolific actors of his era and certainly an actor with one of the longest careers. He made his screen debut when he was 34. His last film was released when he was 95. It was a remarkable career in which he played nearly every role one can possibly play, with the possible exception of romantic lead (although arguably his turn as Marty Piletti as Marty could be counted as such). He was one of those actors who lit up the screen any time he was on, and who never gave a bad performance in his life. Indeed, he was a consummate professional. No part was too small and no material was beneath him. He put his heart into every performance he ever gave, whether it was playing Marty in the critically acclaimed film of the same name, Quinton McHale on McHale's Navy, or himself on The Simpsons. He could also perform in a vast array of material. Over the years Ernest Borgnine played in nearly every film genre there was, from drama (Marty) to comedy (McHale's Navy) to  Westerns (The Wild Bunch) to science fiction (The Neptune Factor) to horror (Burnt Offerings) to war films (The Dirty Dozen).

While much of Ernest Borgnine's success as an actor was due in a large part to his devotion to his craft and his professionalism, much of it was due to his versatility as well. Many lesser actors who looked like Ernest Borgnine might have found themselves typecast as heavies or comic actors, but Mr. Borgnine played a wide array of roles in a number of different film genres. He did play his fair share of villains, especially early in his career. He was impressive as both Fatso  Judson in From Here to Eternity and Bart in Johnny Guitar. Later he gave a memorable performance as Shack, the sadistic train conductor in Emperor of the North. That having been said, while Ernest Borgnine could be impressive as a villain, I suspect he will be remembered  for his many other roles. Indeed, when I think of Ernest Borgnine I think of his more sympathetic roles--the soft hearted butcher Marty in the film of the same name, the working class father worrying over his daughter's wedding in A Catered Affair, the cabbie in Escape from New York, Frank in Another Harvest Moon, and others. Not only did Ernest Borgnine play many more or less ordinary people, but he also played his share of heroic roles, including General Worden in The Dirty Dozen, Fletcher in Code Name: Wild Geese, the Amish farmer forced to defend his family in Violent Sunday, and others. Ernest Borgnine could take any role, whether it was a villain, a hero, or an ordinary guy, and make it entirely his own. Indeed, he had a gift of taking what could have been a flat role in the hands of a lesser actor and giving it humanity.

In the end, because of his talent, Ernest Borgnine was a character actor capable of playing both leading roles and supporting roles. This made him a rarity in Hollywood in the decades of the late 20th Century, and such actors as Mr. Borgnine are even rarer now. Indeed, it is a tribute to Ernest Borgnine's talent that while he played a bit part in his film debut in 1951, in his final film, The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez, he played the lead. Not many actors, let alone character actors, can boast of such an achievement, let alone a career as long as that of Ernest Borgnine.


Mark Means said...

Great post! Mr. Borgnine will be missed.

grandoldmovies said...

A lovely tribute to a fine actor, one of the best of his era. Thanks so much.

Toby O'B said...

A very nice tip of the hat; always the best can be found here.....