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One of the most prolific and talented character actors in American film, Academy Award winner Ernest Borgnine appeared in every genre of motion picture for over 60 years, remaining active onscreen well into his ninth decade. After making both his Broadway and feature debuts in 1951, Borgnine made his mark as the vicious Sgt. "Fatso" Judson in "From Here to Eternity" (1953). Just two years later, he earned audiences' sympathy as the titular lovesick butcher in "Marty" (1955), a role that earned him the Oscar for Best Actor. From there, he was the star of the popular television sitcom "McHale's Navy" (ABC, 1962-66), before returning to film with "Flight of the Phoenix" (1965) and "The Dirty Dozen" (1967). He was in top form as the right-hand man to William Holden's aging outlaw leader in Sam Peckinpah's violent revisionist Western "The Wild Bunch" (1969) and was a thorn in Gene Hackman's side in "The Poseidon Adventure" (1972). In the 1970s, Borgnine found second life with a return to the small screen after a notable appearance in "Jesus of Nazareth" (NBC, 1977) and an Emmy-winning performance in "All Quiet on the Western Front" (CBS, 1979). He maintained a solid television presence with in "Airwolf"...
One of the most prolific and talented character actors in American film, Academy Award winner Ernest Borgnine appeared in every genre of motion picture for over 60 years, remaining active onscreen well into his ninth decade. After making both his Broadway and feature debuts in 1951, Borgnine made his mark as the vicious Sgt. "Fatso" Judson in "From Here to Eternity" (1953). Just two years later, he earned audiences' sympathy as the titular lovesick butcher in "Marty" (1955), a role that earned him the Oscar for Best Actor. From there, he was the star of the popular television sitcom "McHale's Navy" (ABC, 1962-66), before returning to film with "Flight of the Phoenix" (1965) and "The Dirty Dozen" (1967). He was in top form as the right-hand man to William Holden's aging outlaw leader in Sam Peckinpah's violent revisionist Western "The Wild Bunch" (1969) and was a thorn in Gene Hackman's side in "The Poseidon Adventure" (1972). In the 1970s, Borgnine found second life with a return to the small screen after a notable appearance in "Jesus of Nazareth" (NBC, 1977) and an Emmy-winning performance in "All Quiet on the Western Front" (CBS, 1979). He maintained a solid television presence with in "Airwolf" (CBS, 1984-86), "The Commish" (ABC, 1991-96) and voicing Mermaid Man on "SpongeBob SquarePants" (Nickelodeon, 1999- ). By the time he made his final appearances in "Red" (2010) and "The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez" (2012), Borgnine was recognized as a versatile performer who was equally adept at playing all-too-human heroes as well as hissable villains.
Born Ermes Effron Borgnine on Jan. 24, 1917 in Hamden, CT, he was the only child of immigrant parents from Northern Italy. After his parents, Charles and Anna, separated when he was two, Borgnine lived in Italy with her mother before returning to the United States at the age of five. After James Hillhouse High School in 1935, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy and was discharged in 1941, only to re-enlist when the United States entered World War II, serving as a gunner's mate 1st class until 1945. Borgnine returned to civilian life and labored at various factory jobs, but he found little enjoyment in a blue-collar career. Sensing his disillusionment, Borgnine's mother suggested that his larger-than-life personality and imposing presence might be positive qualities for an actor. In agreement, he enrolled at the Randall School of Drama in Hartford, CT and later joined the well-regarded Barter Theater in Abington, VA, where he honed his craft while working odd jobs at the theater. Finally, Borgnine had a break come his way in 1949 when he landed a supporting role as a nurse in a Broadway production of "Harvey" with Joe E. Ross.
Flush with success from his work on the stage, Borgnine relocated to Los Angeles in 1951 and began landing supporting roles in films and on live television shows. His large frame, boxer's face - which frequently flashed his trademark gap-toothed smile - and husky tone made him a natural for heavies. Not surprisingly, he made his first impression on movie audiences as Sgt. James R. "Fatso" Judson, the vicious enlisted man who kills Frank Sinatra's Maggio in "From Here To Eternity" (1953). Borgnine's forceful turn in the Oscar-winning Best Picture led to other bad-guy roles in major films, including the Western "Johnny Guitar" (1954) and "Bad Day at Black Rock" (1955), in which he portrayed one of the local heels who threaten Spencer Tracy. In 1955, director Delbert Mann approached Borgnine to play the lead in a feature film version of Paddy Chayefsky's TV drama, "Marty." The original star, Rod Steiger, was unavailable, leading Borgnine to be tapped as the title character, a lonely Bronx butcher who finds love with a shy schoolteacher (Betsy Blair). Borgnine's heart-rending performance earned him Academy Awards for Best Actor in the United States, as well as a Golden Globe. No longer relegated to villain status, the newly minted star enjoyed a wide variety of roles throughout the 1950s and 1960, including a cuckolded rancher in the Western "Jubal" (1956), the cabdriver husband of Bette Davis in "The Catered Affair" (1956), a Norse chieftain in "The Vikings" (1958) and a Mob-busting New York cop in "Pay Or Die" (1960).
In 1962, Borgnine starred in an episode of the anthology series, "Alcoa Premiere" (ABC, 1961-63) as the commander of a World War II Navy PT boat crew that had gone native while avoiding Japanese patrols in the South Seas. The episode later served as the launching pad for "McHale's Navy" (ABC, 1962-66), a broad service comedy that enjoyed healthy ratings during its relatively long network run. The hit show even spawned two theatrical features, "McHale's Navy" (1964) and "McHale's Navy Joins the Air Force" (1965), though Borgnine did not participate in the latter due to scheduling conflicts with his role in Robert Aldrich's superior adventure film, "The Flight of the Phoenix" (1965). Meanwhile, Borgnine married famed singer Ethel Merman in June 1964 and famously divorced after barely a month. When asked about it years later, Borgnine quipped that he thought he was marrying Rosemary Clooney. After two more failed marriages, he wed cosmetics entrepreneur Tova Traesnaes in 1973 and stayed with her until his death in 2012. After "McHale's" concluded its network run, Borgnine returned to a busy schedule of film appearances in Hollywood and abroad. Among his better projects were the World War II action flick "The Dirty Dozen" (1967), again for Robert Aldrich; "Ice Station Zebra" (1968), in which he played a duplicitous Russian for his "Bad Day at Black Rock" director John Sturges; and as the sympathetic outlaw Dutch Engstrom, second in command behind William Holden in Sam Peckinpah's violent classic "The Wild Bunch" (1969). Borgnine also appeared in several Italian westerns and action films during this period, and was notable for being the first "Center Square" on "The Hollywood Squares" (NBC, 1965-1982) when it premiered.
Borgnine became even busier in the 1970s, though the quality of his films varied from project to project. Regardless, Borgnine maintained a high level of believability in his performances no matter the project. After stealing scenes as the sadistic boss who was devoured by Bruce Davison's trained rats in "Willard" (1971), he was the morally questionable New York cop who clashes with Gene Hackman's unorthodox preacher in "The Poseidon Adventure" (1972). He next played a brutal conductor locked in combat with a willful train-hopping hobo (Lee Marvin) in Robert Aldrich's violent "Emperor of the North Pole" (1973) and was real-life boxing coach Angelo Dundee opposite Muhammad Ali (as himself) in "The Greatest" (1977). Following a reunion with Peckinpah for the truck-driving action pic, "Convoy" (1978), Borgnine survived the box office debacle "The Black Hole" (1979). During this period, Borgnine returned to television more frequently, most notably as a celebrity guest on "The Dean Martin Show" (NBC, 1965-1974), but also as a series regular on the short-lived sci-fi program, "Future Cop" (ABC, 1976-77) and as a Roman centurion in "Jesus of Nazareth" (NBC, 1977). Meanwhile, his performance as a worldly-wise soldier in Delbert Mann's moving adaptation of "All Quiet on the Western Front" (CBS, 1979) earned him an Emmy nomination.
Despite maintaining a high level of output, Borgnine found less substantial roles in the following decade. Still, even as he entered his sixth decade, the actor showed no signs of slowing down or losing interest in his craft. Episodic television provided a steady flow of work for him, and he enjoyed a renewed burst of popularity as the jocular co-pilot and sidekick to taciturn hero Jan-Michael Vincent on the action series, "Airwolf" (CBS, 1984-86). But there were interesting supporting roles for Borgnine throughout the decade, including the enthusiastic Cabbie in John Carpenter's "Escape from New York" (1981), the menacing leader of a rural religious community in Wes Craven's little-seen "Deadly Blessing" (1981), and as J. Edgar Hoover in the drama, "Blood Feud" (1983), starring Robert Blake as Jimmy Hoffa and Cotter Smith as Robert F. Kennedy. But for the most part, Borgnine passed the decade in obscure low-budget productions on both sides of the Atlantic. When pressed, he simply stated that he liked to work.
As he continued to work throughout the 1990s, albeit in largely unseen independent films or foreign productions, Borgnine enjoyed the occasional guest shot on an episodic television series, and had a few fun turns like Caesar the janitor in the futuristic sci-fi thriller "Gattaca" (1997) and a reunion with several of his surviving "Dirty Dozen" co-stars, who voiced a squadron of animated toy commandos in Joe Dante's "Small Soldiers" (1998). His expressive voice made him a natural go-to for cartoon voiceover work, and he was heard in the "All Dogs Go to Heaven" sequels and series (ABC/Fox Family, 1996-99), among many others. Borgnine also made a brief return to sitcoms with the tepid comedy "The Single Guy" (NBC, 1995-97), for which he earned a smattering of press that trumpeted a perceived comeback of sports, even though a passing glance at his endless list of credits made it clear that Borgnine had never gone away. The relative slowdown of his career allowed Borgnine to indulge in a passion for driving around the country in a customized motor home, from which he would meet and talk with people in small towns. His wanderlust was the subject of a short documentary, "Ernest Borgnine On the Bus" (1997).
As the 1990s flowed into the 21st century, Borgnine was introduced to a new audience when he was cast in a recurring voice role as Mermaid Man, a television superhero admired by absorbent man-boy "SpongeBob SquarePants" (Nickelodeon, 1999- ) on the top-rated cable cartoon. He was back in front of the camera playing a chauffeur wooing a small-town grandmother (Eileen Brennan) in the direct-to-video release "The Last Great Ride" (1999), and his booming baritone was tapped again to narrate the documentary "An American Hobo" (2002). Borgnine earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor in a Miniseries or TV Movie for his starring turn as a retired song-and-dance man in the TV movie, "A Grandpa for Christmas" (Hallmark, 2007), while reflecting on his own history in showbiz with the release of the 2008 memoir Ernie. He further added to his historic resume with a guest appearance in the series finale of NBC's Thursday night staple "ER" (NBC, 1994-2009), offering a performance as a grieving widower that was recognized with an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Guest Actor. Following a small role as Henry the Records Keeper in the action comedy "Red" (2010), starring Bruce Willis and Helen Mirren, Borgnine was honored with the 47th Annual Life Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild. Following his final television appearance in "Love's Christmas Journey" (Hallmark Channel, 2011) and his final film "The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez" (2012), the 95 year old Borgnine suffered from renal failure and died on July 8, 2012 in Los Angeles surrounded by his wife and children. As the outpouring of grief flowed from friends and colleagues, it was clear that Hollywood had lost a legend whose long, successful career was the stuff most actors could only dream of.
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