Ernest Borgnine, who died Sunday at 95, had the resume of a Hollywood star, but not the distance usually associated with one.
Maybe it was the famous gap-toothed smile. Maybe it was the deep, hearty laugh that punctuated a conversation. Maybe it was that, despite numerous roles in film and theater, he was welcomed by generations into their living rooms as the feisty skipper of TV’s McHale’s Navy.
During an acting career of more than 60 years, the Connecticut native worked with Helen Hayes on Broadway, with Gary Cooper and Spencer Tracy in film, and, for a much younger generation, as a voice actor in SpongeBob SquarePants on television. He and Frank Sinatra signed their Christmas cards “Fatso” and “Maggio,” their respective characters in 1953’s From Here to Eternity, a breakout role for Borgnine.
Borgnine’s secret for long-term success was to not be another Hollywood pretty face.
“I was a character actor. Do I look like a good-looking man? No,” he said in a 2011 interview timed to his acceptance of the Screen Actors Guild’s Life Achievement Award. “But, see, I keep working when the rest of the boys are retired.”
The beefy actor wasn’t too finicky about scripts, either. “I read it. If I don’t fall asleep, it’s pretty good.”
Borgnine won the 1955 Academy Award for best actor, beating out Jimmy Cagney among others, for playing one of those unglamorous roles, the lonely butcher Marty Pilletti in the film Marty.
“Jerry Lewis had bet me a buck ninety-eight that I’d win. I’d gone home and taken 198 pennies and put them in a red sock, and as I went up there, they all wondered what I passed to Jerry Lewis,” said the actor, who had been married nearly 40 years to his fifth wife, Tova.
Borgnine’s 200-plus credits include Bad Day at Black Rock, Barabbas, The Dirty Dozen, The Wild Bunch and The Poseidon Adventure. Perhaps at odds with his friendly, grandfatherly demeanor, he played a heavy in some of his early film roles.
Borgnine initially resisted series TV, which was anathema to most film actors in the early 1960s. However, when a kid selling candy couldn’t identify him but was familiar with Gunsmoke‘s James Arness, it persuaded him to enlist for four seasons in McHale’s Navy.
Borgnine was a regular in later TV series, such as Airwolf in the 1980s and and The Single Guy in the 1990s. He was still acting in his final years, appearing in 2010’s RED.
Borgnine credited his mother for suggesting that he try acting when he went looking for work after 10 years in the U.S. Navy. “She said, ‘Have you ever thought of becoming an actor? You always like to make a damn fool of yourself in front of people. Why don’t you give it a try?’ ”
Fortunately for millions of film and TV fans, he did.
(Source: USA Today News)