Ernest Borgnine: More Than a Lifetime of Roles
In Hollywood, where looks are, if not everything, almost everything, Ernest Borgnine proved that you don’t have to be pretty to succeed.
Borgnine—in his most benign, audience-friendly roles—had the appeal of a chubby, jolly uncle, with a big smile accentuating his toothy gap and size. Most of the time he was a killer, a bad, very bad guy in war films, westerns and crime dramas, menacing, scary, loud, rambunctious and deadly. See “Jubal,” “Vera Cruz,” “The Mob” and “From Here to Eternity.”
There was an exception to the Borgnine rule, though. In 1955, when he played the lead role of a lonely, lovelorn Bronx butcher, shyly courting an equally shy school teacher played by Betsy Blair in “Marty,” he won an Oscar and became a star—or at least a high-grade character actor who had a long career which never really stopped until recently.
Borgnine, who died at the age of 95 on July 8, proved to be versatile, going on to appear in 75 movies, starring in at least two television series and working steadily almost right up to his death in a role in this year’s “The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vincente Fernandez.”
Borgnine’s great gift was that he was almost always unforgettable, even in forgettable movies and projects. “Marty,” for instance, was a fellow who called himself—affectionately—a dog, a regular guy, awkward in romance and matters of the heart. But he was eloquent in presence, thanks to the dialogue given to him by Paddy Chayefsky, arguably one of the finest television and screen writers of all time, who would go on to write screenplays for the legendary “Network” and “The Hospital.” “Marty” was originally a television play during the golden age of television live drama (Rod Steiger played the role on television). Borgnine, in fact, followed “Marty” with the film version of another Chayefsky television play, “The Catered Affair,” in which he co-starred as a fretting father with Bette Davis and Debby Reynolds, the latter playing his daughter about to be married.
As a bad guy, he was imposing, scary and unforgettable, sometimes managing to mix pathos with violent, heartless aggression as he did in “From Here to Eternity,” when he played Fatso Judson, a stockade guard who murders Frank Sinatra, playing a GI named Maggio. In the film—and in James Jones’s best-selling novel—Maggio’s friend Prewitt (played by Montgomery Clift) kills Fatso in a knife fight. To this day, it’s hard to forget Borgnine’s bewildered cry: “You killed me. Why’d you have to go and kill me?” Sinatra, incidentally, won a Supporting Actor Oscar for Maggio, reviving a flounder career that would turn into legend.
Borgnine was memorable, too, as one of “The Wild Bunch,” starring William Holden as the leader of a band of aging bank robbers and killers in the west in a movie directed by Sam Peckinpah, delivering one of the more facile comments on moral relativity ever written, as in “At least we ain’t never hung nobody.”
Borgnine also succeeded on television in the military sitcom “McHale’s Navy," which ran for four years in the early 1960s.
What he was not so hot—at least until late in his life— was marriage. He married and was divorced four times, three times, including combustible rounds with Mexican actress Katy Jurado and Broadway star and legend Ethel Merman. The marriage to Merman lasted a Kim Kardashian-style 32 days.
But his last marriage to Tova Traesnaes endured for 39 years.
What also endures in the Borgnine Hollywood saga is that the character actor also rises and remains long after the last act and unforgettable.