Ernest Borgnine dead at 95: Frequent Hollywood villain at his best as befuddled ‘ordinary’ men
Ernest Borgnine, a movie villain who won a Best Actor Academy Award for playing a kindly butcher in Delbert Mann’s 1955 sleeper hit Marty, died of renal failure earlier today at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Borgnine was 95.
Though best known for his villainous roles – he beats Frank Sinatra to death in From Here to Eternity and is part of a group of men harassing Spencer Tracy in Bad Day at Black Rock and Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar – Borgnine was at his best as befuddled, golden-hearted characters.
In addition to Marty the butcher, he is excellent as Bette Davis’ working-class (and bill-paying) husband and soon-to-be-married Debbie Reynolds’ father in Richard Brooks’ 1956 family drama The Catered Affair. Not coincidentally, both films were based on teleplays written by Paddy Chayefsky.
Rod Steiger had played Marty in the original television version. Produced by Burt Lancaster and Harold Hecht’s independent film company, the film version of Marty was a surprise Best Picture winner at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival.
For his performance as the lonely Bronx butcher who falls for Plain Jane Betsy Blair, Borgnine received not only Oscar recognition, but also awards from the New York Film Critics Circle, the National Board of Review, and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (as Best Foreign Actor), in addition to a Golden Globe for Best Actor – Drama from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. (Cannes’ Best Actor winner was Spencer Tracy for Bad Day at Black Rock. Currently – and perhaps back in 1955 as well – the Palme d’Or winner can’t take home any other Official Competition trophies.)
Ernest Borgnine’s film career spanned more than six decades. His first movie appearances were in supporting roles in three 1951 releases: China Corsair, The Mob, and The Whistle at Eaton Falls. His last film was Elia Petridis’ The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez, in which Borgnine’s embittered old man becomes a celebrity at his nursing home after Hispanic employees discover he once shook hands with iconic Mexican singer Vincente Fernandez. The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez is supposed to come out later this year.
Ernest Borgnine movies
Notable Ernest Borgnine movie appearances in the last sixty years include those in Delmer Daves’ Westernized version of The Asphalt Jungle, The Badlanders (1958), with Alan Ladd and Katy Jurado; Richard Fleischer’s period adventure The Vikings (1958), with Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, and Janet Leigh; Sam Peckinpah’s violent, epoch-making Western The Wild Bunch (1969), starring William Holden; and Ronald Neame’s blockbuster The Poseidon Adventure (1972), in which Borgnine is one of the capsized ocean liner’s handful of survivors.
Additionally, Borgnine collaborated with Robert Aldrich in six movies: the Gary Cooper-Burt Lancaster Western Vera Cruz (1954); the desert adventure drama The Flight of the Phoenix (1965), with James Stewart; the World War II adventure drama The Dirty Dozen (1967), with Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, and John Cassavetes; the Sunset Blvd. / The Bad and the Beautiful-like Hollywood expose The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968), opposite Kim Novak and Peter Finch; the Great Depression-set thriller The Emperor of the North (1973), with fellow The Dirty Dozen player Lee Marvin and Keith Carradine; and the crime drama Hustle (1975), with Burt Reynolds and Catherine Deneuve.
In recent years, Ernest Borgnine could be seen as J. Edgar Hoover in Hoover (2000); opposite fellow Hollywood veteran Piper Laurie in Another Harvest Moon (2010); in the little-seen sci-fier Enemy Mind (2010); and in a small supporting role in Robert Schwentke’s sleeper hit RED (2010), as Henry, the Records Keeper.
Borgnine didn’t have a role in Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, but had his name associated with the movie after commenting that he hadn’t seen the Western-set gay love story up for the Best Picture Oscar, had no intention of seeing it, and “if John Wayne were alive, he’d be rolling over in his grave.”
On television, Borgnine is best known for the comedy series McHale’s Navy (1962-66), featuring Joe Flynn and Tim Conway. Another popular TV series was Airwolf (1984-86), co-starring Jan-Michael Vincent and Alex Cord. Also worth noting is that Borgnine provided the voice for the Mermaid Man in the animated series SpongeBob SquarePants.
Among Ernest Borgnine’s five wives were his The Badlanders co-star Katy Jurado (1959-1962) and actress-singer Ethel Merman (late June to late July 1964). In her book of memoirs, Merman devoted a full chapter to her whirlwind marriage to Borgnine: a blank page. His last wife, often seen on the QVC home-shopping channel selling cosmetics, was Tova Borgnine.
Acting for the ‘thumbsuckers’
“I always enjoyed working as an actor,” Borgnine told the media backstage at the 2011 SAG Awards, where he was handed SAG’s Life Achievement Award. “… It’s been a thing of joy for me whenever I’m working.”
Borgnine, for one, didn’t believe in method acting. “You gotta make people understand,” he explained at the SAG Awards. “… There’s a lot of people in the world who are thumbsuckers. It’s wonderful. And you have their attention. The minute they take their thumb out, you’ve lost them. … You have to break it down to the lowest common denominator so the thumbsuckers are happy. Makes sense? I guess it does. It’s always worked for me, anyways. I’ve always been a thumbsucker myself.”
Ernest Borgnine was both the oldest and the earliest Best Actor Oscar winner still alive. Now, the earliest Oscar winner in the Best Actor category is Judgment at Nuremberg‘s Maximilian Schell, who won for the year 1961 and who’ll turn 82 next December 8. Next in line are Sidney Poitier (1963), Gene Hackman (1971), Jack Nicholson (1975), Richard Dreyfuss (1977), Jon Voight (1978), and Dustin Hoffman (1979).