In Memory of Ernest Borgnine
Ernest Borgnine is an actor that over the years I’ve come to appreciate more and more. His tenacious persona in the many films and television shows he acted in impressed me from a young age. I think my first introduction to “Ernie” (as he liked to be called) was McHale’s Navy (1962-66) the classic World War II era sitcom. I was too young to watch it on its original run, but I did catch it after in went into syndication. The next thing I saw him in was the AIRWOLF series (1983-86), of course being a child of the 80s, I grew up on all those great action-adventure shows and this one was one of my favorites. On the show Ernie played Dominic Santini, the owner of Santini Air a charter/aerial movie stunt business and was the co-pilot of the title high-tech stealth helicopter.
Born Ermes Effron Borgnino in Hamden Connecticut in 1917, Ernie was the son of Italian immigrants. After his parents separated when he was two, he and his mother lived in Italy for a few years. In 1923, Mr and Mrs Borgnino reconciled and they moved to North Haven, CT where the family name was changed to Borgnine. As a youth Ernie was always into sports but actually never showed any interest in acting or the performing arts. Following graduation from high school in 1935, Ernie immediately enlisted in the Navy. He was discharged in 1941 but after the attack on Pearl Harbor he re-enlisted and served until 1945 when the war ended. He received several awards for his bravery in battle and held a prestigious rank. Upon his return home, Ernie had no plans of what he wanted to do for a career but one day his mother inspired him to try his hand as an actor since he was naturally an outgoing person and loved movies. He was later accepted to the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Virginia and in 1947 he got his first role in the stage production of State of The Union. He had only a minor role but he clearly stood out and gained notice from the audience. He followed this play with The Glass Menagerie and then Harvey where he played a nurse.
In 1951, Ernie moved to Los Angeles where he was cast in his first film roles in The Whistle at Eaten Falls followed by a part in The Mob. He followed those with co-starring part in From Here To Eternity (1953) as Staff Sgt. James R. “Fatso” Judson, a cruel brute who beats up Frank Sinatra. It was obvious that he had a presence and personality perfect for the big screen. One of his other memorable heavies from the early days was in John Sturges’ Bad Day At Black Rock (1955). The great Spencer Tracy plays McCreedy a war veteran who travels to a small Southwestern town to give a posthumous medal to a Japanese man whose son saved his life. While on his travels, McCreedy discovers some of the locals have murdered him and covered it up. Borgnine is Coley Trimble one of the brainless bullies McCreedy faces off with. In a nice twist that proved he was not just a one trick pony who could only be bad guys, he next starred in the title role of Marty a story about a sensitive 34 year old bachelor and his trials and tribulations finding love. The film turned out to be a major hit with audiences and won Ernie an Academy Award for Best Actor.
Throughout the 1960s Ernie appeared in action classics like Flight of The Phoenix (1965) about a cargo plane that crash lands in the Sahara, The Dirty Dozen (1967) a WWII men on a mission film, The Split (1968) a crackerjack crime thriller starring Jim Brown and Gene Hackman and Ice Station Zebra (1968) a Cold War adventure. He closed out the decade with what is now one of his most well known films, Sam Peckinpah’s Western masterpiece The Wild Bunch (1969). He even got a chance to venture overseas and be part of the spaghetti western craze with A Bullet For Sandoval (1969) Directed by Julio Buchs.
In the 1970s Ernie continued his successful run with some exceptional performances in both A and B-movies. The eco-terror cult film Willard (1971) was about a young man who uses a family of rats to get revenge on his enemies (including one played by Ernie). The western Hannie Caulder (1971) featured him as a dirty outlaw who along with his partners (played by Strother Martin and Jack Elam) are given their comeuppance by a victim turned avenger (Raquel Welch). The Poseidon Adventure (1972) was a spectacular Irwin Allen disaster film set aboard an ocean liner that capsizes. Ernie played police detective Mike Rogo, a short tempered man whose new wife (Stella Stevens) is an ex-prostitute. He really is spectacular in that and it’s one of my favorites of his many roles. With Emperor of The North (1973) he conjured another memorable thug called “Shack”, a sadistic train conductor who lives to mess up any hobos riding his rails in the Northwest during the Depression. In the supernatural horror film The Devil’s Rain (1975), he got to go to the outer edges of evil playing a satanic cult leader Jonathan Corbis. In 1978, he once again worked for Sam Peckinpah, in Convoy, as dastardly highway sheriff Lyle “Cottonmouth” Wallace who is out to take down a band of rebellious truckers led by “Rubber Duck” (Kris Kristofferson). It was like a much darker version of Jackie Gleason’s policeman in Smokey & The Bandit.
Some of Ernie’s most loved work in the 80s would be smaller parts in cult classics such as Sgt. Willy Dunlop in Sergio Corbucci’s sci fi-crime-comedy Superfuzz (1980) and as the affable “Cabbie” in John Carpenter’s dystopian action adventure Escape From New York (1981). His part as Isiah Schmidt in Deadly Blessing (1981) took him back to similar territory as The Devil’s Rain but instead of satan worshippers this time the villains were called “Hittites” a religious order that could be considered the Anti-Amish. Suffice to say, noone could play villains quite like Ernie.
Ernest Borgnine was one of those unique icons that generations of film fans grew up watching and he certainly touched all of us with his talents and vibrance in the many roles he took on. I think while he wasn’t the “leading man” type, he was and is the kind of artist who was an inspiration to actors of all shapes and sizes. His life is one of those classic American stories that anyone can look at and aspire to reach. He was a man who had an equal amount of great luck, great friends/supporters and ultimately a magnificent career as a performer in a field he loved.
I hope this little tribute to one of my favorite character actors will encourage film fans who may not be as familiar with him to seek out his work and give it a look. Here’s to you Ernie!
In Memory of Ernest Borgnine (1917-2012)