Hollywood legend Ernest Borgnine dies
With his coarsely podgy features, bug eyes, gap teeth 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 Academy Award for a role which was the antithesis of all his past characters.
In 1955, 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 busy filming Oklahoma!. Borgnine was offered the role when, at a Hollywood reception, a woman guest 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.
Borgnine also won best actor at Cannes, the New York Film Critics' award and Nation Board of Review award, as well as being voted man of the year by the butchers of America. The decidedly unalluring actor had had 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 to be automatically cast as a heavy. In fact, it was as a comic character, in the popular TV series McHale's Navy (1962-65), that he was to make his most enduring impression on the American public.
He was born Ermes Effron Borgnino in Hartford, Connecticut, to Italian parents and lived in Milan between the ages of two and seven. He attended 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 Dramatic Arts in Hartford, after which he joined the Barter theatre in Virginia.
Borgnine made his Broadway debut in 1945 as the hospital attendant in Harvey and his film debut in 1951 in China Corsair, an adventure starring Jon Hall, in which Borgnine played a double-crossing villain. He continued in the same vein as a racketeer's henchman in The Mob (1951), and was a nasty piece of work called Bull Slager opposing 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 blockade who makes Frank Sinatra's life a misery.
He was equally hissable in Johnny Guitar (1954), Vera Cruz and Bad Day at Black Rock (both 1955). After his casting against type in Marty, Borgnine was given far more varied roles, especially the four vastly contrasting films he made in 1956.
In Jubal, a western version of Othello, he was powerful and touching as a cattle-ranch owner who is convinced by villainous Rod Steiger that his wife has been unfaithful with hired hand Glenn Ford.
In The Square Jungle, he was the gentle trainer of boxer Tony Curtis, showing his erudition by quoting the Bard at his protégé: "Uneasy is the head that wears the crown." In The Catered Affair (later The Wedding Breakfast), which, like Marty, was derived from a Paddy Chayefsky teleplay, he was Bette Davis's hot-headed Bronx cab-driver husband, and played songwriter Lew Brown in The Best Things in Life Are Free, his only musical, though thankfully he got to sing only 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 Aussie sugar-cane 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 marrying and divorcing.
He had been married first to Rhoda Kemins from 1948 to 1959, then wed actress Katy Jurado, whom he divorced in 1963. In 1964, his marriage to Ethel Merman lasted only a few months. 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 the same period, he became an active freemason, and was later honoured with the 33rd degree of the masonic order, and their order of the 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 same decade were in complete contrast to this Masonic ideal – he was a brutal general in Robert Aldrich's The Dirty Dozen (1967), more corrupt than the gang of cons he looked down on, and one of the wildest of Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969).
In the 1970s, Borgnine drifted from genre to genre, including one of the first "disaster movies" of the period, The Poseidon Adventure. But he was always best at what he did first – playing the heavy.
Robert Aldrich's Emperor of the North (1973) featured him as the sadistic train conductor during the Depression who threatens to kill any hobo that gets on his train, and in Peckinpah's Convoy (1978) he played the speed trap cop pursuing truck driver Kris Kristofferson. In 1973 he married for the fifth time: Tova Traesnaes, who headed her own cosmetics company.
In the 1980s, Borgnine worked with a younger generation of directors including John Carpenter (Escape from New York), Wes Craven (Deadly Blessing), and Paul Morrissey (Spike of Bensonhurst), but 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 does take the lead in The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez, to be released later this year. Ernest Borgnine was an example of an actor who made a handsome living from an ugly mug. He is survived by Tova and his children.
Ernest Borgnine (Ermes Effron Borgnino), actor; born 24 January 1917; died 8 July 2012