Ernest Borgnine dies at 95; actor played lonely Bronx butcher in ‘Marty’

July 8, 2012

Ernest Borgnine, the stocky entertainer who won an Academy Award for his leading role in “Marty” (1955), portraying a lonely Bronx butcher, and became one of the busiest character actors of the next four decades, died July 8 at a hospital in Los Angeles. He was 95.

He had a kidney ailment, said his spokesman, Harry Flynn.

“You don’t have to be tall, dark and handsome to be a movie star,” Mr. Borgnine said after winning the Oscar, “but I was the first one to prove it.”

The beefy Mr. Borgnine was not alone in thinking he was far from leading-man material. His earliest film roles showed him to be effective as menacing characters, especially as a stockade sergeant who torments Frank Sinatra in “From Here to Eternity” (1953) and a thug who tries to pick a fight with a one-armed Spencer Tracy in “Bad Day at Black Rock” (1955).

Off screen, Mr. Borgnine was considered quiet and genial — traits that made directors aware of his range.

His breakthrough film was “Marty,” based on a Paddy Chayefsky teleplay and one of the first projects Hollywood adapted from the rival TV industry.

Some cinema historians suggested the movie was not supposed to be a success, with Burt Lancaster’s production company undertaking the project as a tax write-off after several lucrative films.

“Marty” had a small budget and characters who looked plain and spoke in the rhythms of everyday conversation. It starred no-name actors, including Betsy Blair (then Gene Kelly’s wife) as the homely teacher whom Marty romances.

Chayefsky’s dialogue was startling to audiences accustomed to hearing more polished movie speech.

“What do you wanna do tonight?” Marty’s pal Angie (played by Joe Mantell) asks as they pine for women.

“I dunno, Angie,” Marty replies. “What do you wanna do?”

To the teacher he likes, Marty says, “You know, us dogs aren’t really so much of the dogs that we think we are.”

On Oscar night, Mr. Borgnine beat out Tracy, who had been nominated as a leading man for “Bad Day at Black Rock.”

Ermes Effron Borgnine was born Jan. 24, 1917, in Hamden, Conn. His parents were Italian immigrants who had changed their surname from Borgnino.

After high school, Mr. Borgnine found work driving a vegetable truck and spent a decade in the Navy, including World War II service as a gunner’s mate aboard a destroyer.

An actor from his high school days, he used the G.I. Bill to attend the Randall School of Dramatic Art in Hartford, Conn. He then found work at the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Va., but he described himself as a nervous performer inclined to forget his lines. He said his solution was to laugh — long and loud — until he remembered the dialogue.

In New York, he alternated between television and theater work. He was the villainous Nargola in the children’s TV show “Captain Video” in the late 1940s and appeared on Broadway as a hospital attendant in Mary Chase’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Harvey,” about a man who says he befriended an invisible giant rabbit. He also played a gangster in Chase’s hit “Mrs. McThing,” starring Helen Hayes.

Onscreen, Mr. Borgnine’s role as a gangster in “The Mob” (1951) attracted the notice of the casting director for “From Here to Eternity.”

In that Oscar-winning film, based on the James Jones novel set around the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, Mr. Borgnine played Sgt. “Fatso” Judson. He bloodies Sinatra’s hot-headed character, Private Maggio.

Mr. Borgnine was said to have been such an effective symbol of brutal authority that people would harass him on the street to see if they could get a rise out of him.

Mr. Borgnine told the Los Angeles Times that when Sinatra’s young son first saw the film, he said, “Dad, when I meet that man, I am going to kill him.”

Sinatra, who won an Oscar as Maggio, was said to have replied, “No. When you meet that man, you put your arms around him and kiss him. He helped me win an Academy Award.”

After “Marty,” Mr. Borgnine said he did not want to be typecast as an Everyman, just as he had previously been viewed only as a tough. He appeared in more than 75 films of widely varying quality, often portraying crusty and rugged men of action.

Among his best roles were the Amish farmer in “Violent Saturday” (1955); a Bronx taxi driver whose wife (Bette Davis) plans an expensive wedding for their daughter in “The Catered Affair” (1956); and an oil driller who goes mad after a desert plane crash in “The Flight of the Phoenix” (1965).

He also was an American general in “The Dirty Dozen” (1967); a supposed Soviet defector in “Ice Station Zebra” (1968); a member of William Holden’s aging gang in “The Wild Bunch” (1969); and a trainer in “The Greatest” (1977), based on the story of Muhammad Ali and starring the boxer.

On television, Mr. Borgnine headed the cast of the ABC sitcom “McHale’s Navy”(1962 to 1966) as an easy-mannered lieutenant commander. He played a Roman centurion who comes to believe in Jesus in the 1977 miniseries “Jesus of Nazareth” and had a memorable guest role as a sensitive recluse in a two-part episode of “Little House on the Prairie” in 1974.

He and Jan-Michael Vincent flew in a supersonic helicopter in the series “Airwolf,” which aired on CBS from 1984 to 1986. He also made regular appearances as a friendly doorman on the NBC comedy “The Single Guy” in the mid-1990s.

At the time of the NBC series, he toured the country on his 40-foot, custom-made bus he dubbed “Sunbum” and greeted fans at each stop.

Mr. Borgnine’s marriage to Rhoda Kemins, a former Navy nurse, ended in divorce. So did marriages to actresses Katy Jurado and Ethel Merman, to whom he was married for 32 days in 1964. A marriage to Donna Rancourt also ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 39 years, cosmetics businesswoman Tova Traesnaes Borgnine; a daughter from his first marriage, Nancee Borgnine of Los Angeles; two children from his fourth marriage, Cristofer Borgnine of Los Angeles and Sharon Borgnine of Moose Lake, Minn.; a stepson, David Johnson of Los Angeles; a sister; and six grandchildren.

He once gave a candid interview with the British Film Institute in which he spoke of his marriages and in particular about the swift union with Merman, a major Broadway star at the time. He said the marriage collapsed during their honeymoon in Hawaii when people recognized him but not her.

“By the time we got home it was hell on Earth,” he said. “And after 32 days I said to her, ‘Madam. Bye.’ ”

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