Yesterday we lost Ernest Borgnine at age 95. If you’re older, or like me and just a fan of classic movies, then you know him as the tough guy character actor in movies like “From Here to Eternity” or “The Dirty Dozen,” or the surprisingly sweet, lonely bachelor in “Marty.” If you’re young, you know his voice as Mermaid Man on “Spongebob Squarepants.”
Borgnine was born in Connecticut in 1917. After graduating from high school, he joined the Navy and stayed there for ten years. Not sure what to do after that, his mother suggested he try being an actor (which probably makes him the only person in the history of the world who was encouraged to become an actor by a parent). He started in theater, worked in early TV, then after doing a few small roles in film in the early 1950s, got his breakthrough role in 1953′s “From Here to Eternity” where he played a sadistic sergeant. Two years later, he got the role of a lifetime in “Marty.” More people today have probably seen him in the tough guy action classics like the aforementioned “The Dirty Dozen,” “The Vikings,” and “The Wild Bunch,” it’s “Marty” that really stands out. A small black and white movie adapted from a TV play, it won Best Picture in a time period when Hollywood was creating big overblown productions that they frantically hoped would counter TV. In reality, “Marty” was more in step with the times, as the NY Times obit for Borgnine points out, a good match for “average guy” material like the play “Death of a Salesman” and the TV show “The Honeymooners.” Borgnine won his only Oscar for the role, and though he was never nominated again, if you can have one classic part like “Marty,” then you’ve done well.
Borgnine had a solid run on TV in the sitcom “McHale’s Navy” but also continued to work in movies. As he got older he went from being a reliable tough guy to a reliable grandpa. As noted above, he continued to work up until very recently with his voice gig on “Spongebob Squarepants.” For a good appreciation of Borgnine’s career, I recommend Deadline’s memoriam for him.
Hollywood has always been a tough place for people who don’t look like, well, movie stars, but Borgnine’s long and worthy career proves that sometimes even this shallow industry is smart enough to recognize special talent.