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Ernest Borgnine

Ernest Borgnine

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Also Known As: Ermes Effron Borgnino Died: July 8, 2012
Born: January 24, 1917 Cause of Death:
Birth Place: Hamden, Connecticut, USA Profession: Cast ... actor vegetable delivery man
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BIOGRAPHY

One of the most prolific and talented character actors in American film, Academy Award winner Ernest Borgnine appeared in every genre of motion picture for over 50 years, remaining active onscreen even as he entered his ninth decade. Cineastes may have dismissed Borgnine for his occasionally broad performances and roles in campy B-movies, but the actor was a favorite of film directors Delbert Mann, Robert Aldrich and Sam Peckinpah. He was a solid television presence in the 1960s on "McHale's Navy" (ABC, 1962-66), during the 1980s in "Airwolf" (CBS, 1984-86), and in the new millennium as a superhero voice on "SpongeBob SquarePants" (Nickelodeon, 1999- ). To fans of classic Hollywood, Borgnine was recognized as a versatile performer who was equally adept at playing all-too-human heroes as he was hissable villains.

Born Ermes Effron Borgnine on Jan. 24, 1917 in Hamden, CT, he was the only child of immigrant parents from Northern Italy. After his parents separated when he was two, he lived in Italy with her mother before returning to the United States at the age of five. After graduating high school in 1935, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy and was discharged in 1941. When the United States entered World War II, he re-enlisted and served until 1945. After returning to civilian life, Borgnine labored at various factory jobs, but he found little enjoyment in a blue-collar career. Sensing his disillusionment, Borgnine's mother suggested that his larger-than-life personality and imposing presence might be positive qualities for an actor. In agreement, he enrolled at the Randall School of Drama in Hartford, CT. After graduation, he joined the well-regarded Barter Theater in Abington, VA, and honed his craft while working odd jobs at the theater. Finally, a break came in 1949 when he landed a supporting role in a Broadway production of "Harvey" with Joe E. Ross.

Flush with success, he relocated to Los Angeles in 1951 and began landing supporting roles in films and on live television shows. His large frame, boxer's face (which frequently flashed his trademark gap-toothed smile) and husky tone made him a natural for heavies - so not surprisingly, he made his first impression on movie audiences as "Fatso" Judson, the vicious enlisted man who kills Frank Sinatra's Maggio in "From Here To Eternity" (1953). Borgnine's forceful turn in the Oscar-winning Best Picture led to other bad-guy roles in major films, including the Western "Johnny Guitar" (1954) and "Bad Day at Black Rock" (1955) - in which he portrayed one of the local heels who threaten Spencer Tracy.

In 1955, director Delbert Mann approached Borgnine to play the lead in a feature film version of Paddy Chayefsky's TV drama, "Marty." The original star, Rod Steiger, was unavailable, so Borgnine was tapped to play the title character - a lonely Bronx butcher who finds love with a shy schoolteacher (Betsy Blair). Borgnine's heart-rending performance earned him Academy Awards for Best Actor in the United States and Britain, as well as a Golden Globe. No longer relegated to villain status, the newly minted star enjoyed a wide variety of roles throughout the 1950s and 1960, including a cuckolded rancher in the Western "Jubal" (1956), the cabdriver husband of Bette Davis in "The Catered Affair" (1956), a Norse chieftain in "The Vikings" (1958) and a Mob-busting New York cop in "Pay Or Die" (1960).

In 1962, Borgnine starred in an episode of the anthology series, "Alcoa Premiere" (ABC, 1961-63) as the commander of a WWII Navy PT boat crew that had gone native while avoiding Japanese patrols in the South Seas. The episode later served as the launching pad for "McHale's Navy" (ABC, 1962-66), a broad service comedy that enjoyed healthy ratings during its network run. The hit show even spawned two theatrical features, "McHale's Navy" (1964) and "McHale's Navy Joins the Air Force" (1965) - though Borgnine did not participate in the latter, due to scheduling conflicts with his role in Robert Aldrich's superior adventure film, "The Flight of the Phoenix" (1965). Years later, Borgnine would re-team with his "McHale" co-star Tim Conway to provide the voices of aging superheroes Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy for the popular animated series, "SpongeBob SquarePants" (Nickelodeon, 1999- ).

After "McHale's" concluded its network run, Borgnine returned to a busy schedule of film appearances in Hollywood and abroad. Among his better projects were the WWII action flick "The Dirty Dozen" (1967), again for Robert Aldrich; 1968's "Ice Station Zebra," in which he played a duplicitous Russian for his "Bad Day at Black Rock" director John Sturges; and as the sympathetic Dutch Engstrom, second in command of "The Wild Bunch" (1969) for Sam Peckinpah. Borgnine also appeared in several Italian westerns and action films during this period and was the first "Center Square" on "The Hollywood Squares" (NBC, 1965-1982) when it premiered in 1965.

Borgnine became even busier in the Seventies, though the quality of his films seemed to vary from project to project. No matter, though - his performances were consistently believable. Borgnine was the morally questionable New York cop who survived "The Poseidon Adventure" (1973) and a brutal conductor locked in combat with a willful train-hopping hobo (Lee Marvin) in Robert Aldrich's violent "Emperor of the North Pole" (1973). He even played real-life boxing coach Angelo Dundee opposite Muhammad Ali (as himself) in "The Greatest" (1977). Borgnine also stole scenes as the sadistic boss who was devoured ("Tear him up!") by Bruce Davison's trained rats in "Willard" (1971) and re-teamed with Peckinpah for the truck-driving action pic, "Convoy" (1978).

In many cases, Borgnine was the best part of his films - he was the sole high point of the wretched Satanic thriller "The Devil's Rain" (1975), for which he endured a ridiculous make-up job which turned him into a ram-headed devil, and survived the box office debacle that was Walt Disney Pictures' live action sci-fi adventure, "The Black Hole" (1979). During this period, Borgnine even found time to pop up on television, most notably as a celebrity guest on "The Dean Martin Show" (NBC, 1965-1974), but also as a series regular on the short-lived sci-fi program, "Future Cop" (ABC, 1976-77) and as a worldly-wise soldier in Delbert Mann's moving adaptation of "All Quiet on the Western Front" (1979). Borgnine received an Emmy nomination for his performance in this production.

The Eighties provided less substantial roles for Borgnine, but the actor, who was entering his sixth decade, showed no signs of slowing down or losing interest in his craft. Episodic television provided a steady flow of work for him, and he enjoyed a renewed burst of popularity as the jocular co-pilot and sidekick to taciturn hero Jan-Michael Vincent in the action series, "Airwolf" (CBS, 1984-86). But there were interesting supporting roles for Borgnine throughout the decade, including the enthusiastic Cabbie in John Carpenter's "Escape from New York" (1981), the menacing leader of a rural religious community in Wes Craven's little-seen "Deadly Blessing" (1981), and as J. Edgar Hoover in the Jimmy Hoffa/Robert Kennedy drama, "Blood Feud" (1983). But for the most part, Borgnine passed the decade in obscure low-budget productions on both sides of the Atlantic. When pressed, he simply stated that he liked to work.

And he continued to work throughout the 1990s, albeit in largely unseen independent films or foreign productions. He did enjoy the occasional guest shot on an episodic television series, and had a few fun turns - most notably in a reunion with many of his surviving "Dirty Dozen" co-stars, who voiced a squadron of animated toy commandos in Joe Dante's "Small Soldiers." His expressive voice made him a natural go-to for cartoon voiceover work, and he could be heard in the "All Dogs Go to Heaven" sequels and series (ABC/Fox Family, 1996-99), among many others. Borgnine also made a brief return to sitcoms with the tepid comedy "The Single Guy" (NBC, 1995-97), for which he earned a smattering of press that trumpeted his "comeback;" however, even a passing glance at his endless list of credits made it clear that Borgnine had never entirely gone away.

The relative slowdown of his career allowed Borgnine to indulge in a passion for driving around the country in a customized motor home, from which he would meet and talk with people in small towns. His wanderlust was the subject of a short documentary, "Ernest Borgnine On the Bus" (1997). Borgnine also frequently appeared in print and television ads for a cosmetics company owned by his fifth wife, Tova. Borgnine had been married a total of five times - prior to Tova included Mexican actress Katy Jurado and Broadway star Ethel Merman, whom he famously divorced in 1964 after just 32 days. His first marriage produced one child, while a fourth marriage to Donna Rancourt from 1965 to 1972 gave him two more children.

As the 1990s flowed into the 21st century, Borgnine was introduced to a new audience when he was cast in a recurring voice role as Mermaid Man, a television superhero admired by absorbent man-boy "SpongeBob SquarePants" (Nickelodeon, 1999- ) on the top-rated cable cartoon. He was back in front of the camera playing a chauffeur wooing a small-town grandmother (Eileen Brennan) in the direct-to-video release "The Last Great Ride" (1999), and his booming baritone was tapped again to narrate the documentary "An American Hobo" in 2002. Borgnine earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor in a Miniseries or TV Movie for his starring turn as a retired song-and-dance man in the TV movie, "A Grandpa for Christmas" (Hallmark, 2007), while reflecting on his own history in showbiz with the release of the 2008 memoir Ernie. He further added to his historic resume with a guest appearance in the series finale of NBC's Thursday night staple "ER" (NBC, 1994-2009), offering a performance as a grieving widower that was recognized with an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Guest Actor. Following a small role as Henry the Records Keeper in the action comedy "Red" (2010), starring Bruce Willis and Helen Mirren, Borgnine was honored with the 47th Annual Life Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild.

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