Sponge Bob Square Pants’ Mermaid Man has died. For those of us over 12, one of Hollywood’s greatest character actors, Ernest Borgnine, has passed away at the age of 95.
The range of Borgnine’s work was stunning. From the poignantly lonely Marty to the rambunctious McHale, from the sadistic Sergeant Judson in From Here to Eternity to the weirdly optimistic Cabbie in Escape from New York, Borgnine brought a high level of professionalism and believability to all his work. In true character actor tradition, there were no small roles, just sixty-five years of being a working actor.
Borgnine was born the only child of Italian immigrants Anna Boselli and Camillo Borgnino, on January 24, 1917, in Hamden, Connecticut, and baptized Ermes Effron Borgnino. He lived in Italy from 1919 to 1923 when he parents separated, but his parents reconciled and settled in New Haven.
Borgnine joined the Navy in 1935, and remained until the end of World War II, attained the rank of Gunner’s Mate First Class aboard the USS Lamberton. He received the Navy Good Conduct Medal, the American Defense Services Medal with Fleet Clasp, the American Campaign Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Medal and the World War II Victory Medal.
In a 2007 interview with the British Film Institute, Borgnine explained, “After World War II, we wanted no more part in war. I didn’t even want to be a boy scout. I went home and said that I was through with the Navy, and so now, what do we do? So, I went home to mother, and after a few weeks of patting on the back and ‘You did good,’ and everything else, one day she said, ‘Well?’ like mothers do, which meant, ‘Alright, you gonna get a job or what?’”
In spite of his disavowal of Navy life, Borgnine spent his remaining years working on behalf of Naval families worldwide. For this, he was awarded the honorary rank of Chief Petty Officer, the Navy’s highest enlisted rank when Borgnine served.
Borgnine’s mother listened to his reluctance to work in a factory and encouraged him to pursue an artistic career. He enrolled in drama school and after graduation was accepted at the repertory Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Virginia. He won his first stage role in 1947 in State of the Union. After a turn as the Gentleman Caller in The Glass Menagerie, he headed to New York in 1949 and debuted as the male nurse in Harvey (currently being revived on Broadway, starring Jim Parsons of Big Bank Theory).
In 1951, he arrived in Hollywood, and two years later in From Here to Eternity, played Sergeant Fatso Judson, the vicious stockade who torments and kills Angelo Maggio, who was played by Frank Sinatra. His future as a bad guy seemed assured. He had that kind of face. But in 1955, he took the role that changed his future career direction. In Marty, he played a plain, lonely, awkward butcher who eventually meets and courts an equally plain and lonely young woman. Borgnine’s performance is stunning, even today, so quietly filled with hope and resignation, optimism and despair. Marty laments, “Whatever it is women want, I don’t got it,” and somehow you knew that it was only women who saw the exterior who thought that way, because Marty had a heart as big as the Bronx. For Marty, Borgnine received the Best Actor Oscar in 1956.
After Marty, Borgnine was offered a fuller range of roles, and handled them all with excellence. No longer tied to the typecasting, he was able to do comedy, straight drama, action films, just about anything he wanted to do.
Like many of the actors of his generation, he moved back and forth between movies and the new television medium. TV back then had a full slate of anthology drama shows, many offering Broadway plays and new dramas written for the small screen. He would go on to do guest roles in episodic television as the anthologies faded away.
In 1962, Borgnine created one of television’s greatest characters, Lt. Commander Quinton McHale, captain of a PT boat stationed in the South Pacific during World War II. It was intimated that they were based somewhere near Australia. McHale’s Navy launched the career of comedian Tim Conway (who voiced Mermaid Man’s sidekick, Barnacle Boy). The crew of the PT-73 was a group of misfits led by a man with little regard for the nit-picky regulations of Naval life. He was constantly working to thwart the up-tight Capt. Wallace B. Binghamton, played by Joe Flynn. The series lasted until 1966, though it probably should have ended the year before. At its best, it was hysterically funny, and most of the veterans I grew up with enjoyed it. For them it was a combination of wish-fulfillment and fond memories of some singular incident of naughty behavior. There was a feature length movie in 1964, and Borgnine had a cameo in the 1997 remake film which starred Tom Arnold.
He took on his second TV series in 1983, co-starring with Jan-Michael Vincent in Airwolf. The show ran to 1986. He also took the role of the doorman, Manny Cordoba, in the Johathan Silverman series, The Single Guy, from 1995 to 1997.
And through it all, he kept up his film career. His final role was in last year’s The Man Who Shook The Hand of Vincente Fernandez.
Borgnine published his autobiography in 2008. Ernie is a very loose, conversational set of recollections from his career and sometimes flamboyant personal life.
Borgnine was married five times, first to a non-actress named Rhoda Kemins (1949-1958) with whom he had a daughter, Nancee in 1952. He followed that with a four years marriage to Latina actress Katy Jurado (1959-63), whom he described as “beautiful, but a tiger.” For a whole month in 1964, he was married to legendary star Ethel Merman. From 1965 to 1972, he was married to Donna Rancourt, and fathered son Christopher and daughters Sharon and Diana.
In 1973, Borgnine found lasting happiness in his marriage to Tova Traesnaes, who was with him when he died Sunday at Cedars of Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles. Tova was a businesswoman with a line of beauty products that Borgnine helped promote.
On January 30, 2011, Ernest Borgnine received the Screen Actor’s Guild Life Achievement Award during the 17th annual SAG Awards. And, though his was a life full of achievement, it was also a life well lived. Ernest Borgnine always seem to enjoy the sheer act of living, and appreciated the fans who made his career possible. In addition to the book tour for his autobiography, Borgnine took a bus trip around America in 1996, just to see the country and meet his fans. The film made of that trip, Ernest Borgnine on the Bus, was the portrait of a man who loved his life and his work and those who enriched both. He gave back, particularly in his work with military families and wounded servicemen and veterans. The saddest thing when a life ends is if it ends filled with regrets for things done and not done. Ernest Borgnine’s was a life that should have held few regrets.