The past month has brought us the loss of many acting heavyweights, some of whom went unappreciated during their final years. Now comes the saddest loss in quite some time.
Ernest Borgnine, the avuncular and omnipresent acting legend with a film and television career spanning more than six decades, passed away on Sunday, July 8 at the age of 95. The cause of death was renal failure, or kidney failure, according a statement the actor’s longtime spokesman Harry Flynn gave to the Associated Press. Borgnine died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles surrounded by his wife and children.
Born to Italian immigrant parents in Hamden, Connecticut, on January 24, 1917, Ermes Effron Borgnino spent most of his younger years in New Haven, Connecticut before joining the U.S. Navy in 1935. He served in the Navy for six years before being discharged, only to re-enlist in 1941 when America entered World War II. During his service Ernest received the Navy Good Conduct Medal, American Defense Service Medal with Fleet Clasp, American Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, and the World War II Victory Medal. In 2004 he was granted the honorary rank of Chief Petty Officer from the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy for his support of the Navy and naval families worldwide.
Following the war, Borgnine, not wanting to settle for a low-paying factory job, pursued his ambitions of becoming an actor. He made his Broadway debut in 1949 playing a nurse in the play Harvey. Two years later he moved to Los Angeles and launched a career acting in small films and playing a villain on the popular kids’ show Captain Video. Another two years after that he scored a plum role as “Fatso” Judson in Fred Zinneman’s classic WWII drama From Here to Eternity, co-starring with Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, Donna Reed, Montgomery Clift, and Frank Sinatra. In 1955 Borgnine played the title role in the film Marty, winning for his performance his first and only Oscar.
For the rest of his career the actor would play a variety of authority figures, heavies, and sweet-natured characters. Among the best films he appeared in were Johnny Guitar, The Vikings, Bad Day at Black Rock, The Flight of the Phoenix, the WWII action classic The Dirty Dozen, Sam Peckinpah’s 1968 western masterpiece The Wild Bunch, the original Willard, The Poseidon Adventure, Emperor of the North (which re-teamed him with Dirty Dozen co-star Lee Marvin), John Carpenter’s post-apocalyptic cult classic adventure Escape from New York, Walt Disney’s noble sci-fi failure The Black Hole, and the 1998 sports movie spoof BASEketball.
Borgnine had also worked extensively in television throughout his career. For six years he portrayed Lt. Commander Quinton McHale on the comedy series McHale’s Navy. Borgnine received an Emmy nomination for his work on the show. In 1997 a film version of the show with Tom Arnold in the role of McHale (and geek god Bruce Campbell in a supporting role) hit theater screens and promptly flopped, but Borgnine’s cameo was one of the movie’s few bright spots. He also made appearances on shows like Wagon Train, Future Cop, Zane Grey Theater, Little House on the Prairie, The Love Boat, Home Improvement, The Single Guy, J.A.G., and All Dogs Go to Heaven. Fans of Spongebob Squarepants will recognize Borgnine as the voice of the water-logged retired superhero Mermaid Man (with beloved comic actor Tim Conway voicing his sidekick Barnacle Boy). He also played ace helicopter pilot and mechanic Dominic Santini for three seasons on the CBS action drama Airwolf.
Borgnine’s last notable film appearance was in the 2010 comic book action-comedy RED where he shared a wonderful yet brief scene with Bruce Willis.
It took me some time to write this because of the great impact Borgnine had on me growing up. I never met the man personally but I knew his work, and he always brought a lifetime’s worth of presence and experience to every role he played. Best of all Ernest Borgnine was rarely seen without a beatific smile on his face. Regardless of the quality of the movie or TV show which he appeared, the actor also shined through the material. He made some good films, some stinkers, and a lot of classics of cinema. There will never again be an actor like him.
RIP – Ernest Borgnine
January 24, 1917 – July 8, 2012