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Ernest Borgnine dies at 95; won Oscar for 'Marty,' showed comic side in sitcom

The stocky, gap-toothed Connecticut native won an Academy Award for his portrayal of a lonely Bronx butcher looking for love in the 1955 drama 'Marty.' He also starred in the popular TV show 'McHale's Navy.'

July 09, 2012|Dennis McLellan, Los Angeles Times
  • Life Achievement Award recipient Ernest Borgnine at the 2011 Screen Actors Guild Awards held at The Shrine Auditorium.
Life Achievement Award recipient Ernest Borgnine at the 2011 Screen Actors… (Jason Merritt, Getty Images )

Ernest Borgnine seemed born to play the heavy when he burst onto the Hollywood scene as "Fatso" Judson, a sadistic stockade sergeant who viciously beats a private to death in the 1953 movie "From Here to Eternity."

But two years later came the title role in "Marty," where the stocky, gap-toothed Borgnine defied typecasting and earned recognition as a versatile actor by inhabiting the part of a lonely Bronx butcher looking for love.

He went on to a prolific seven-decade career in film and television, moving easily from scoundrels and serious portrayals to a comedic role on the 1960s TV sitcom "McHale's Navy" and a spate of grandfatherly parts.

Photos: Ernest Borgnine | 1917-2012

Borgnine, who won an Academy Award for his performance in "Marty," died Sunday of apparent kidney failure at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, said his longtime publicist, Harry Flynn. He was 95.

The role opposite Frank Sinatra in "From Here to Eternity," based on James Jones' acclaimed novel depicting Army life in Hawaii before the attack on Pearl Harbor, moved Borgnine into the top echelon of movie villains in films such as "Vera Cruz" and "Bad Day at Black Rock."

He left expectations behind in "Marty," the 1955 film version of Paddy Chayefsky's original TV play about a sensitive Italian American bachelor butcher who longs for more than simply hanging out with his pals on Saturday night.

"Well, waddaya feel like doing tonight?" Marty's best friend, Angie, played by Joe Mantell, asks in the movie's often-quoted exchange.

"I don't know, Ang', wadda you feel like doing?" Marty replies.

Borgnine's sensitive portrayal of the self-described "fat ugly man" not only earned him an Oscar for best actor, but the movie also won Academy Awards for Chayefsky and director Delbert Mann, as well as the best picture Oscar.

In a film career that began in 1951, Borgnine appeared in more than 115 movies, including "Johnny Guitar," "Demetrius and the Gladiators," "The Flight of the Phoenix," "The Oscar," "The Dirty Dozen,""The Wild Bunch,""Willard," "The Poseidon Adventure" and "Emperor of the North."

From 1962 to 1966, he played the title role in the ABC sitcom "McHale's Navy." As the regulation-breaking commander of a PT boat in the South Pacific during World War II, Borgnine was pitted against the constantly frustrated Capt. Binghamton (played by Joe Flynn). Tim Conway played McHale's bumbling sidekick, Ensign Charles Parker.

Born Ermes Effron Borgnino in Hamden, Conn., on Jan. 24, 1917, Borgnine was the son of Italian immigrants. His parents separated when he was 2, and his mother took him to live in Italy, returning after a few years.

Borgnine graduated from New Haven High School in 1935, then worked a few weeks as a vegetable truck driver before enlisting in the Navy as an apprentice seaman. He was discharged two months before the attack on Pearl Harbor and promptly reenlisted. He spent the war as a gunner's mate on a destroyer.

After his discharge, Borgnine returned home, unsure of what he was going to do.

Finally, his mother suggested he give acting a shot. After all, she told him, "You're always making a fool of yourself in front of people."

After six months of study at the Randall School of Dramatic Art in Hartford, Conn., on the GI Bill, Borgnine got a job at the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Va., working behind the scenes before finally landing a $30-a-week acting spot in the theater's road company.

"We kept 14 shows in our heads all the time," he told Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper in 1956. "We'd go from 'John Loves Mary' to 'Much Ado About Nothing' — what training! Dramatic school is OK, but the road is where you learn."

He continued his acting apprenticeship over the next four years, including making his Broadway debut playing the hospital attendant in"Harvey."

More stage work followed, supplemented by television appearances, including playing a villain on the science fiction series "Captain Video and His Video Rangers."

Borgnine made his motion picture debut in 1951, appearing in three films: "China Corsair," "The Whistle at Eaton Falls" and "The Mob." But he was unemployed in New York when the call came to play his next film role: Fatso Judson in "From Here to Eternity."

Borgnine made a convincingly menacing Fatso — so much so that when young Frank Sinatra Jr. saw the movie for the first time, Borgnine later told The Times, "He looked at it and said, 'Dad, when I meet that man, I am going to kill him.' And his father said, 'No. When you meet that man, you put your arms around him and kiss him. He helped me win an Academy Award!' "

Borgnine was on location in Lone Pine, Calif., playing another menacing heavy, this time in "Bad Day at Black Rock," when director Mann and writer Chayefsky flew up to have him read for the lead in "Marty."

As Borgnine recalled during a panel discussion at the Lone Pine Film Festival in 1999, he met with Mann and Chayefsky in his hotel room.

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