In praise of Ernest Borgnine: a salute to one of Hollywood’s great character actors

A best actor Oscar for Marty was just the crowning of a remarkable career for Ernest Borgnine, which included roles in Johnny Guitar, The Dirty Dozen, The Wild Bunch and Escape from New York.

24 January 2017

By David Parkinson

The Dirty Dozen (1967)

In 1956, Ernest Borgnine won the Academy Award for best actor for playing the timid and monosyllabic protagonist of Marty. Still living with his mother in his mid-30s, Bronx butcher Marty Pilletti falls for timid schoolteacher Betsy Blair after seeing her crying at a dance. Yet, rather than being typecast as a palooka with a heart of gold after this, Borgnine resumed his career as a dependably hissable tough guy, who was never afraid to lock horns with the hero or even punch his lights out, as sadistic stockade sergeant Fatso Judson had done to Frank Sinatra’s Private Angelo Maggio in From Here to Eternity (1953).

From Here to Eternity (1953)

To be fair, Ermes Borgnino – as he was born – had a face for villainy, while his hulking physique gave him an intimidating presence. Yet he often came off second best when trading blows with the likes of gunslinger Sterling Hayden in Nicholas Ray’s western Johnny Guitar (1954) and one-armed stranger Spencer Tracy, who uses judo throws on him in Bad Day at Black Rock (1955). In the former, Borgnine was called out for not smoking and for being teetotal and “mean to horses”.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

He further demonstrated his sadistic side as the monstrous conductor striving to prevent hobos from riding his Depression-era train for free in The Emperor of the North Pole (1973) and as the corrupt sheriff out to exploit the truckers passing through his patch in Convoy (1978).

Although he often threw his weight around, Borgnine could also use his wits, as proved by his genially manipulative Russian double-agent in Ice Station Zebra (1968). He was also renowned for challenging the authority of the hero, notably as the truculent foreman who dies in the desert after refusing to obey pilot James Stewart’s orders in The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) and as the bluff detective questioning preacher Gene Hackman’s leadership in The Poseidon Adventure (1972).

The Wild Bunch (1969)

Yet, in criss-crossing genres during his 61-year career, Borgnine also did a nice line in gruff decency, as the major who champions Lee Marvin’s ragtag band in The Dirty Dozen (1967), the sidekick with a soft spot for old ladies in The Wild Bunch (1969) and the selfless taxi driver in Escape from New York (1981).

He also played the Amish farmer who helps Victor Mature capture some bank robber in Violent Saturday (1955). Yet, when he played the leader of the fanatical Hittites in Deadly Blessing (1981), Borgnine landed a Razzie nomination. The unwanted accolade wouldn’t have bothered him, however. He was simply content to keep working, and, when asked about his technique, he admitted there was “no Stanislavsky”. “I don’t chart out the life histories of the people I play,” he confessed. “I work with my heart and my head, and naturally emotions follow.”

Escape from New York (1981)

This trust in his own instincts allowed Borgnine to tap into the Marty side of his personality, as he held his own against Bette Davis as the father of the bride in A Catered Affair, succumbed to the skulduggery of scheming cowboy Rod Steiger as a cattle rancher in Jubal (both 1956) and doted on his son as the workaholic on holiday in The Rabbit Trap (1959).

With his rumpled brow and gap-toothed grin, he could also spring biopic surprises in playing songwriter Lew Brown in The Best Things in Life Are Free (1956), crusading cop Joseph Petrosino in Pay or Die (1960), Muhammad Ali’s manager Angelo Dundee in The Greatest (1977) and FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover in Hoover (2000).

Nothing seemed to daunt Borgnine, whose mother Anna once told him, “You’ve always liked making a damned fool of yourself.” He excelled as the rascally PT-boat skipper in the sitcom McHale’s Navy (1962-66) and had a ball voicing Mermaid Man in SpongeBob SquarePants (1999-2012). He even revelled in being eaten by rats in Willard (1971) and being transformed into a ram-headed demon in The Devil’s Rain (1975).

All he needed were a couple of scenes to steal a movie like Gattaca (1997) or Red (2010). In his last lead, he played an entertainer who lamented missing out on fame in The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez (2012). But no one will ever forget Ernest Borgnine.

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