On July 8, the world lost another pillar of greatness, a link to a lost and nearly forgotten world, a connection to a time when legends walked the earth. Sunday morning, Ernest Borgnine peacefully passed away of renal failure, surrounded by his family. He was 95 years young.
Where can one begin to discuss the life of the man who has practically become the patron saint of the Podwits, someone who is so loved by this site that the last story of every podcast is a moment from the actor’s work, followed by a fact about the great man’s life? Borgnine’s career spanned the last eight decades, and was friends or had worked with every icon in the world of cinema. His body of work is a testament to not only his work ethic, but to a versatility that had allowed him to work right up to his passing. He was a genius thespian and should be studied by future generations of actors.
Ermes Effron Borgnino was born on January 17, 1917, in Hamden Connecticut to Italian parents who had just immigrated to the United States. When he was two, his mother brought him back to Italy, where he lived on the isle of Capri off the coast of Sorrento, until his mother brought him back to his father in Hamden after a brief separation, five years later. After graduating from Hill House High School in New Haven in 1935, he briefly worked selling vegetables from a cart before enlisting in the Navy to see the world. He was discharged in 1941, only to re-enlist after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that led America into World War II. Mr. Borgnine worked on the destroyer USS Lamberton, before being honorably discharged in 1945 as a 1st Gunner’s mate after ten years of service.
Setting back in Hamden, Borgnine was unsure what to do with his life, and according to his highly recommended 2008 biography Ernie, Mr. Borgnine would see “very old, young men” entering and exiting the factories in the area and, after seeing the world, couldn’t settle into such a steady, monotonous life. He tried various jobs like sweeping out barbershops and working as an apprentice before his mother gave him some advice that would change his life. While he was sitting in the kitchen one night, contemplating the “ifs” of life, his mother suggested he become an actor, saying that since he already made a damned fool of himself anyway, why not try a career at it. A light went off in his head and brought him to his lifelong passion.
He went to school in Hartford before settling at the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Virginia, where he honed his craft for several years, working his way up from a stage carpenter, to featured actor onstage. His first break came in 1949 on Broadway as a nurse in the play Harvey. That led to several other stage roles, and then to the blossoming new market of television. He and his then-wife Rhoda moved to New York City where he could cultivate a career. Times were tough, though, and acting parts were hard to get, so between roles on television’s Captain Video or other teleplays like the Goodyear Television Playhouse, he worked at Grand Central as a luggage porter. On one of those cold nights, Mr. Borgnine was walking down 8th Avenue, second-guessing his career choices in life and worrying about supporting a new family, when saw a mantra that would become his motto for life. A corner food vendor selling warm nuts in the cold night had written on his cart, “I don’t want to set the world on fire, I just want a place to keep my nuts warm.”
Shortly after that his luck changed, and he got his first motion picture role in The Whistle at Eaton Falls. Because of his stocky frame, he often played “heavies” in films like 1951’s The Mob, or 1953’s The Stranger Wore a Gun. It was his third film role that put him on the map, that of the sadistic bruiser “Fatso Judson” in 1953’s From Here to Eternity. The part gave him instant notoriety for beating a young Frank Sinatra to death in the film. It would be a role that audiences would remember for eternity and fans would mention to him for the rest of his life.
He stayed active and would have become typecast, but in 1954 Burt Lancaster’s production company agreed to translate a teleplay starring Rod Steiger onto the big screen as a tax write-off, and that big-screen translation immortalized Mr. Borgnine. The title role in 1955’s Marty, as a lovable but insecure butcher on Arthur Avenue who worries about finding a wife, not only highlighted the warm-hearted and sweet side of the actor, but also won him the Academy Award for Best Actor.
Now established as a multi-dimensional actor, Mr. Borgnine would go on to act in scores of pictures in every genre, from epics like The Vikings, Barabbas, and Jesus of Nazareth, to thrillers like Ice Station Zebra, The Flight of the Phoenix, and Escape From New York, blockbusters like The Poseidon Adventure, Fire! and The Wild Bunch, and even horror films like Willard and Devil’s Rain. You name it, Mr. Borgnine did it. The key to his success and popularity was not only his extreme versatility, for example his ability to take even the most mundane piece of exposition and make it Shakespeare-worthy, but also his non-pretentious attitude toward acting. He did not look down on certain parts or pieces of work, and instead accepted roles based on the interest the piece or character offered.
That led to hugely famous parts on the small screen as well, with numerous series under his belt that let him continue to expose himself to new generations of fans. Baby boomers knew him as “Commander McHale” on the cult classic McHale’s Navy, people my age and “Generation X” knew him from Airwolf and the sitcom The Single Guy, while the younger generation of today knows him from the TV incarnation of the animated All Dogs Go to Heaven or the immortal “Mermaid Man” on SpongeBob Squarepants.
Mr. Borgnine constantly worked for causes he believed in, such as helping and supporting Navy families and causes, and working as the “Grand Clown” from 1973 to 2002 in Milwaukee’s Great Circus Parade. He continued to work into his 95th year, never slowing, and constantly reinventing himself for new generations of audience to discover.
Ernest Borgnine held a unique place for the Podwits—he was almost a muse of sorts. He represented what cinema was and is, what could be achieved and what has been lost in the medium. Be it in the realm of the big screen or the small screen, Mr. Borgnine taught us how to laugh, cry, love and hate. He could do it all and, in fact, had done it all, and he was already a legend before the members of this small, humble site were even born, even before their parents were married.
It’s been said here before, but Mr. Borgnine linked us back to the time of legends, to what it meant to be a “Hollywood star” and “cinema royalty”. Scholars of film have lost an icon, fans have lost an idol, a family has lost a member, and the world has lost a shining light of greatness. We love you, Ernie, and will continue to love you for now and for eternity.
Rest in Peace old friend.