Iconic actor Ernest Borgnine left behind a rich television and film legacy.
I have written more broadly about Borgnine’s career in a past blog, so here I want to look at Borgnine’s acting choices and strengths by discussing 10 of his roles.
I happened to watch part of The Flight of the Phoenix, a film where Borgnine had a small, supporting role. I marveled at his performance and it got me thinking about his acting career, and some of my favorite Borgnine roles. Once thing I noticed in this film, Borgnine’s crazed look is very close to his happy look and his angry look. All of them are intense, they just each draw a different kind of energy and it is reflected in his eyes. There are subtle variations of that “look” which he could also effectively turn on a dime.
Borgnine played a lot of generals, cops, outlaws, criminals and loud characters in his career. If you wanted an imposing, gregarious type that could command the screen, you hired Borgnine. He brought marquee value. He was a character actor who scored a Best Actor Academy Award in a small film. Although he did not have many leading roles after that, he was always a co-star or featured actor in a lot of big films.
If you were going to pick 10 roles that showcase his broad talent and variety of characters, what would they be? On IMDB.com, he has 211 actor entries. You will notice that most of my selections are from Borgnine’s 20-year period (1954-1974) of entertaining, usually distinctive work.
A Grandpa For Christmas (2007) In his later years, Borgnine played a lot of grandfather roles. These were usually family-oriented, light-weight productions, and not many were memorable. In this Hallmark film, he plays a man that discovers he has a granddaughter and suddenly has to raise her while his daughter, who he is estranged from, recovers from a car accident. Borgnine received an Emmy Award nomination for this role. Borgnine worked right up till he passed away at 92. In his later years he did a lot of voice work, including a character in SpongeBob SquarePants.
The Single Guy (1995-1997) Borgnine played Manny the doorman in the building that the Jonathan Silverman character lived in. This sitcom was a pale version of Seinfeld, and Manny was a kind-hearted, but somewhat obtuse supporting character, like Sgt. Schultz in Hogan’s Heroes, sometimes the cause or at least the person who complicates a situation. In some ways, Manny was the Tim Conway character on McHale’s Navy, a good-natured bumbler. Manny never had a lot to do, but Borgnine did not need much to give Manny life. I like the role because it was nice to see Borgnine every week and the show was generally funny.
The Devil’s Rain (1975) This might be the strangest role of the 10. I had heard of this film, but it took me 45 years to see it from start to end. A low budget horror film about a satanic cult, the leader of which was burned at the stake, but later came back to hunt down the dependents of those who killed him. Borgnine plays a disciple of Satan, who tries to get an important book containing the names of those who have sold their soul to Satan. Borgnine chews the scenery, he turns into a goat with horns as this cult film turns into loopy special effects, bodies melting and fire raging. The film does not make much sense and wastes the talents of Borgnine, Eddie Albert, Ida Lupino, Tom Skerritt, William Shatner and a young John Travolta. On a scale of 1 to 10, Borgnine delivers a 12, as he really gets into this bizarre role.
Emperor of the North (1973) This is essentially a two-person character film. It is Lee Marvin as a hobo and Borgnine as the brutal train conductor who attempts to keep Marvin’s character and other hobos off his train. Directed by Robert Aldrich, it is a violent, unrelenting film about Depression-era life and a battle of wits between Marvin and Borgnine. There is not much dialogue, but there is a lot of character exposition. Borgnine’s conductor wears a continuous scowl as he swings his hammer hoping to crack hobo skulls. This role rivals Bognine’s most sadistic characters.
The Poseidon Adventure (1972) One of the first big budget disaster films, with an all-star cast. Borgnine plays Rocco, a New York City police detective who is vacationing with Linda, his new wife, a former prostitute. They are two of the survivors, who search for a way out of the upside down ship. Rocco is loud and possessive, and his disposition gets worse as the film proceeds. He’s a man used to fighting to get his way. Marrying Linda seems to make his life complete, even though they argue a lot, but the love is there. When she dies, he is stricken with grief and anger, jeopardizing his group finding a way out. Borgnine goes from anger to despair, back to anger. Borgnine spends the entire film as a twisted ball of emotion.
The Wild Bunch (1969) Borgnine plays Dutch Engstrom, a member of the Wild Bunch. Dutch was second in command, and like Pike, the leader, was realizing that their West was quickly disappearing; time was running out. Even though Dutch was a killer, he retained a sense of honor. He did not partake of the whores and debauchery, he was more focused on their mission. When they realize they must rescue their colleague instead of getting away, they also realize they will probably die trying. This is where their sense of honor takes over. Even though Borgnine plays a killer, it is one of his more restrained characterizations. When he does flash a grin, you better watch out. Borgnine does not need big emotion to convey a powerful performance.
Ice Station Zebra (1968) Borgnine plays a Russian defector helping the Americans find a satellite that the Russians also want. Borgnine tries a Russian accent, which is passable, and turns out to be a double agent. This is a co-starring role along with Rock Hudson and Patrick McGoohan. Ice Station Zebra was a big budget MGM film with impressive effects and underwater photography. Despite the promotion, the film failed to become a blockbuster hit. This was a different kind of villain role for Bognine, more secretive and relying on acting, rather than brutish.
The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) An all-star cast headed by Jimmy Stewart, Borgnine has a small part, a mentally unstable oil driller that loses his remaining sanity and wanders out into the desert alone to his death. Borgnine goes from frenetic to delusionally happy, friendly to fighting. Borgnine often plays unstable characters, but not mentally weak. He’s usually a threat to others, not himself. The Flight of the Phoenix is a wonderful film, with many fine performances. Borgnine makes the most of his limited screen time.
McHale’s Navy (1962-1966) For four seasons, Borgnine played Lieutenant Commander Quinton McHale who leads the crew of the PT-73 in the Pacific during WWII. McHale spends his time on moneymaking ventures while keeping Captain Binghampton away from his operation. Borgnine was balancing films with this series. He generally played straight-man to Tim Conway and thought up lies to tell Binghampton to divert his attention. This show did not hurt Borgnine’s career, he worked steadily in films and scored some of his best roles after it went off the air. McHale was a cardboard role for Borgnine but it is the role that most people associate him with.
Marty (1955) Borgnine plays a homely, single butcher, who lives with his mother. He meets a school-teacher at a dance and these two lonely people fall in love. Sounds like a generic story idea, but it was written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Delbert Mann, which turned it into something special. The film won Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director and Best Screenplay. After menacing roles in From Here to Eternity and Bad Day at Black Rock, Borgnine switched gears and played an awkward and insecure character, dying for a relationship with a woman who was not his mother.
Bad Day At Black Rock (1954) I could have chosen From Here to Eternity over this film, Borgnine plays similar characters, sadistic bullies without regard for human life. Borgnine gets more screen time in this film so I picked it, even though From Here to Eternity was more celebrated. Borgnine and Lee Marvin compete for the meanest character in the film. Marvin is more cunning, Borgnine more volcanic. In Technicolor, Borgnine’s menacing look is in full display.