For years, I didn’t like Ernest Borgnine. In many roles he played loud, sadistic, bullies. And he was good at it. He was a scary guy.
Later in life, he played kindly, grandfathers and the like, he wrote a very good book, and he confessed to masterbation. How could you not like the guy, especially with that big toothy grin.
Just this evening, I caught the last of the Poseidon Adventure on cable. In the 25 minutes that I saw, he owned the movie, even topping Gene Hackman. His character was angry, distraught and broken, yet he had to pull himself up and lead. This was all in the same scene.
Borgnine was never very subtle. He had a very gregarious personality that poured into his acting. In certain roles, he wasn’t loud, but he had a seething anger that burned through his eyes like giant klieg searchlights. Even in a medium shot his eyes filled the screen.
Borgnine served two stints in the Navy before studying acting. He moved to New York and began to get theatrical roles including appearing on Broadway. This led to some early television work and several film roles. His big break was as Fatso in From Here to Eternity. This began a long career playing heavies.
He played a supporting role in Bad Day at Black Rock, and stole nearly every scene he was in. The film has a terrific cast including Spencer Tracy, Lee Marvin, Walter Brennan and Robert Ryan. If his role as Fatso didn’t cement his legacy as the most sadistic face on the screen, this film did.
Then something funny happened. He was cast as Marty in the title role as the lonesome butcher in the film remake of a television drama. He was awarded the Academy Award for Best Actor for this role.
Even though Borgnine won the top acting award, he moved back to supporting roles and television work. He co-starred in many films and guest starred in many television series, but he wasn’t ever going to be a leading man.
Most of us look upon Borgnine as irascible Quinton McHale from the TV series, always into flimflam and one step ahead of Captain Binghamton. The show ran for four seasons and Borgnine starred in one of the two films made.
Borgnine co-starred in many films going forward, and worked in television when needed. Borgnine was like fellow actor George Kennedy, he was instantly recognizable, he added value to the marquee and gave you a strong supporting role.
In the next decade his memorable roles include: The Flight of the Phoenix, The Dirty Dozen, Ice Station Zebra, Hannie Caulder, The Poseidon Adventure, Emperor of the North and Convoy.
In Emperor of the North, he plays a sadistic railroad conductor whose job it was to punish Depression-era hobos who tried to catch a free ride on his train.
And then there was this little Western he made in 1969 called The Wild Bunch. He was the second lead in the film, one of the vicious outlaws. This film changed Westerns forever. It was Borgnine’s character that gave the film its moral spine. Even outlaw killers have integrity and a line they won’t cross. It is Borgnine’s character that brings it into focus.
Borgnine would venture into television series work, he did a lot of voice work, since he had a distinctive voice, and he co-starred in the 1980s series Airwolf, and the 1990s series Single Guy.
It was later in life that Borgnine took more family friendly roles and had fun talking about his life and career. He wrote his autobiography and even reflected on his very short (42 day) marriage to Ethel Merman. In her autobiography, she devoted one blank page to the marriage. His story was a bit longer but in essence called it a big mistake.
Ernest Borgnine enjoyed a six decade film career and worked until he died. He might not have been the favorite actor of many, but whether he was McHale or Fatso, it is hard not to recognize the impact he had on television and films.
And when he was asked on Fox & Friends about the secret to his longevity, he replied, “I masterbate a lot.” He was interesting to the very end.