Ernest Borgnine, the beefy screen star known for blustery, often villainous roles, but who won the best-actor Oscar for playing against type as a lovesick butcher in “Marty” in 1955, died Sunday. He was 95.
His longtime spokesman, Harry Flynn, told The Associated Press that Borgnine died of renal failure at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center with his wife and children at his side.
Borgnine, who endeared himself to a generation of Baby Boomers with the 1960s TV comedy “McHale’s Navy,” first attracted notice in the early 1950s in villain roles, notably as the vicious Fatso Judson, who beat Frank Sinatra to death in “From Here to Eternity.”
Then came “Marty,” a low-budget film based on a Paddy Chayefsky television play that starred Rod Steiger. Borgnine played a 34-year-old who fears he is so unattractive he will never find romance. Then, at a dance, he meets a girl with the same fear.
“Sooner or later, there comes a point in a man‘s life when he’s gotta face some facts,” Marty movingly tells his mother at one point in the film. “And one fact I gotta face is that, whatever it is that women like, I ain’t got it. I chased after enough girls in my life. I-I went to enough dances. I got hurt enough. I don’t wanna get hurt no more.”
The realism of Chayefsky‘s prose and Delbert Mann’s sensitive direction astonished audiences accustomed to happy Hollywood formulas. Borgnine won the Oscar and awards from the Cannes Film Festival, New York Critics and National Board of Review.
Watch the clip from Borgnine’s “Lifetime Achievement Award,” with photos from his childhood and clips from his most memorable films:
“The Oscar made me a star, and I’m grateful,” Borgnine told an interviewer in 1966. “But I feel had I not won the Oscar I wouldn’t have gotten into the messes I did in my personal life.”
Those messes included four failed marriages, including one in 1964 to singer Ethel Merman that lasted less than six weeks.
But Borgnine’s fifth marriage, in 1973 to Norwegian-born Tova Traesnaes, endured and brought with it an interesting business partnership. She manufactured and sold her own beauty products under the name of Tova and used her husband’s rejuvenated face in her ads.
During a 2007 interview with the AP, Borgnine expressed delight that their union had reached 34 years. “That’s longer than the total of my four other marriages,” he commented, laughing heartily.
From 1962 to 1966, Borgnine – a Navy vet himself – starred in “McHale’s Navy” as the commander of a World War II PT boat with a crew of misfits and malcontents. Obviously patterned after Phil Silvers’ popular Sgt. Bilko, McHale was a con artist forever tricking his superior, Capt. Binghamton, played by the late Joe Flynn.
The cast took the show to the big screen in 1964 with a “McHale’s Navy” movie.
Ernest Borgnine and Grace Kelly with his 1956 Oscar for best actor in "Marty." (AP Photo)
Borgnine’s later films included “Ice Station Zebra,“ ”The Adventurers,“ ”Willard,“ ”The Poseidon Adventure,“ ”The Greatest” (as Muhammad Ali’s manager), “Convoy,“ ”Ravagers,“ ”Escape from New York,“ ”Moving Target“ and ”Mistress.”
More recently, Borgnine had a recurring role as the apartment house doorman-cum-chef in the NBC sitcom “The Single Guy.“ He had a small role in the unsuccessful 1997 movie version of ”McHale’s Navy.“ And he was the voice of Mermaid Man on ”SpongeBob SquarePants“ and Carface on ”All Dogs Go to Heaven 2.”
“I don’t care whether a role is 10 minutes long or two hours,” he remarked in 1973. “And I don’t care whether my name is up there on top, either. Matter of fact, I’d rather have someone else get top billing; then if the picture bombs, he gets the blame, not me.”
Ermes Efron Borgnino was born in Hamden, Conn., on Jan. 24, 1917, the son of Italian immigrant parents. The family lived in Milan when the boy was 2 to 7, then returned to Connecticut, where he attended school in New Haven. He joined the Navy in 1935 and served on a destroyer during World War II, weighing 135 pounds when he enlisted and 235 pounds when he left a decade later.
“I wouldn’t trade those 10 years for anything,” he said in 1956. “The Navy taught me a lot of things. It molded me as a man, and I made a lot of wonderful friends.”
According to the Associated Press Borgnine worked until the end of his life, and lived by a singular motto.
“I keep telling myself, `Damn it, you gotta go to work,’” he said in 2007. “But there aren’t many people who want to put Borgnine to work these days. They keep asking, `Is he still alive?’”
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