By Benjamin Gaul
He mugged his way through a career that spanned nearly seven decades and more than 200 film and television parts. Ernest Borgnine died of renal failure at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center with his wife and children at his side, said spokesman Harry Flynn.
Ernest Borgnine, who died Sunday at age 95, worked his craft to the end. One of his final roles was a bit part as a CIA records-keeper in 2010’s action comedy “Red.” During a 2007 interview with The Associated Press, he said “I keep telling myself, ‘Damn it, you gotta go to work. But there aren’t many people who want to put Borgnine to work these days. They keep asking, ‘Is he still alive?'” He was also quoted as saying “I just want to do more work. Every time I step in front of a camera, I feel young again. I really do. It keeps your mind active and it keeps you going.”
Ermes Efron Borgnino was born in Hamden, Conn., on Jan. 24, 1917, the son of Italian immigrant parents. The family lived in Milan when the boy was 2 to 7, then returned to Connecticut, where he attended school in New Haven.
When Borgnine joined the Navy, he weighed 135 pounds; when he left 10 years later, he weighed 100 pounds more.
From his late-blooming start as an actor –after his 10-year Navy career– through modern times, when he had a recurring voice role on “SpongeBob SquarePants,” Ernest Borgnine became the oldest actor ever nominated for a Golden Globe and received the lifetime-achievement award last year from the Screen Actors Guild.
Most of his early career was spent playing tough and bad-guys, but Borgnine showed his true pussycat colors as lovesick Marty Piletti, a Bronx butcher who, against all odds and his own expectations, finds romance with a wallflower in “Marty,” adapted from Paddy Chayefsky‘s television play. Borgnine won the best-actor Oscar, and the film picked up three other awards, including best picture.
It turned out to be Borgnine’s only Oscar nomination, yet it was a star-making part that broke him out of the villain mold. Borgnine went on to play in hundreds of films like “The Dirty Dozen,” ”The Wild Bunch,” ”The Flight of the Phoenix,” ”The Poseidon Adventure” and “Escape from New York,” but after “Marty,” the veteran sailor’s most memorable character appropriately came with the title role of the 1960s TV comedy “McHale’s Navy” and its big-screen spinoff.
Despite his big-hearted nature, Borgnine was often typecast as a thug, playing bad guys in a series of Westerns including Randolph Scott‘s “The Stranger Wore a Gun,” Joan Crawford and Sterling Hayden‘s “Johnny Guitar” and Gary Cooper’s “Vera Cruz” and Victor Mature and Susan Hayward’s historical saga “Demetrius and the Gladiators.”
No one knew Borgnine could act at all — himself included — until he came home from World War II after his 10-year Navy stint. He enlisted in 1935, was discharged in 1941, then re-enlisted when the war began, serving on a destroyer.
At home one day, contemplating what to do now that the war was over, Borgnine’s mother suggested acting.
“She said, ‘You always like getting in front of people and making a fool of yourself, why don’t you give it a try?'” Borgnine recalled last year, shortly before receiving his SAG lifetime honor. “I was sitting at the kitchen table, and I saw this light. No kidding. It sounds crazy. And 10 years later, I had Grace Kelly handing me an Academy Award.”
“Marty” made his career, but the success also brought complications for Borgnine.
“The Oscar made me a star, and I’m grateful,” Borgnine said in 1966. “But I feel had I not won the Oscar, I wouldn’t have gotten into the messes I did in my personal life.”
Those messes included four failed marriages, including one in 1964 to singer Ethel Merman that lasted less than six weeks.
Then, Borgnine’s fifth marriage in 1973 to Norwegian-born Tova Traesnaes, endured and brought with it an interesting business partnership. She manufactured and sold her own beauty products under the name of Tova and used her husband’s rejuvenated face in her ads.
During a 2007 interview with The Associated Press, Borgnine expressed delight that their union had reached 34 years. “That’s longer than the total of my four other marriages,” he commented, laughing heartily.
Among Borgnine’s other films were “Three Bad Men,” ”The Vikings,” ”Torpedo Run” and “Barabbas,” ”Ice Station Zebra,” ”The Adventurers,” ”Willard” and “The Greatest” (as Muhammad Ali’s manager).
“I don’t care whether a role is 10 minutes long or two hours,” he said in 1973. “And I don’t care whether my name is up there on top, either. Matter of fact, I’d rather have someone else get top billing; then if the picture bombs, he gets the blame, not me.”
In 2007, Borgnine became the oldest Golden Globe nominee ever, at 90, for the TV movie “A Grandpa for Christmas.” It came 52 years after his only other Globe nomination, for “Marty,” which he won. He didn’t win that second time, but Borgnine was as gracious as could be about it. “Hey, I already got one,” Borgnine said. “I was nominated and I think that’s wonderful. You don’t have to win them all.”
Of his Navy experience, in 1956 Borgnine said “I wouldn’t trade those 10 years for anything. The Navy taught me a lot of things. It molded me as a man, and I made a lot of wonderful friends.”
After earning $2,300 total as an actor in 1951, Borgnine almost accepted a position with an electrical company. But the job fell through, and he returned to acting, moving into a modest house in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley.
His first marriage was to Rhoda Kenins, whom he met when she was a Navy pharmacist’s mate and he was a patient. They had a daughter, but the marriage ended in divorce after his “Marty” stardom. He then married Mexican actress Katy Jurado in 1959, and their marriage resulted in headlined squabbles from Hollywood to Rome before it ended in 1964.
In 1963, he and Ethel Merman startled the show business world by announcing –after a month’s acquaintance– that they would marry when his divorce from Jurado became final. The Broadway singing star and the movie tough guy seemed to have nothing in common, and no one was surprised when their marriage ended 38 days later, after a fierce battle. “If you blinked, you missed it,” Merman once cracked.
Next came one-time child actress Donna Rancourt, with whom Borgnine had a daughter, and finally his happy union with Tova.
Borgnine finally made a rare concession to his age when, at 88, he gave up driving the bus he would tool around the country in, stopping to talk with local folks along the way.
On Jan. 24, 2007, Borgnine celebrated his 90th birthday with a party for friends and family at a West Hollywood bistro.
Ernest Borgnine will be remembered for at least 100 more years, not necessarily for his hundreds of roles, but as a warm, genuine, kind, energetic tribute to what a man can be and do and achieve, when he puts his mind to it and never stops moving forward.
We will miss you, Marty.