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Ernest Borgnine 8/14
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Ernest Borgnine Profile

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His outsized, almost cartoonish features - the cleft chin, Machiavellian eyebrows and gap-toothed Cheshire cat grin - made Ernest Borgnine an instantly recognizable face throughout his fifty-plus year career in show business.

The son of immigrant railway worker Charles Borgnino and wife Anna, Ermes Effron Borgnino was born on January 24, 1917, in Hamden, Connecticut. Straight out of high school, Borgnine enlisted in the Navy and saw action in World War II as a gunner's mate. Back home by 1945, the 28-year-old weighed various career options. "You always wanted to make a damn fool of yourself," his mother told him and suggested acting.

Not content to pursue an undergraduate degree at Yale University, Borgnine enrolled in the Randall School of Drama in nearby Hartford. He then headed south to Virginia, where he built sets, hung lights and sewed costumes for the Barter Theatre, which staged plays in exchange for food and goods provided by their audiences.

In 1949, Borgnine was asked by producer Brock Pemberton to join the Broadway cast of Harvey. He was able to call on experience as a factory worker for his film debut as a labor leader in The Whistle at Eaton Falls (1951). The role was atypical of the parts that lay ahead of him as a contract player for Columbia. In China Corsair (1951), he wore painful eye lifts to play a Chinese shopkeeper.

Following henchman bits in The Mob (1951) and The Stranger Wore a Gun (1953), Borgnine was barracks bully "Fatso" Judson in Fred Zinnemann's From Here to Eternity (1953), earning a lifetime of infamy by dealing a death blow to star Frank Sinatra. He played an assortment of villains in Delmer Daves' Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954), Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar (1954), Robert Aldrich's Vera Cruz (1954) and John Sturges' Bad Day at Black Rock (1955).

Rod Steiger's refusal to sign a long-term contract cost him the chance to translate his television success to the big screen in Marty (1955). Recommended by Robert Aldrich, Borgnine got the title role of the lovelorn Bronx butcher - a performance critic Bosley Crowther lauded as "a beautiful blend of the crude and the strangely gentle." At the 1956 Academy Awards® ceremony, Borgnine beat out Frank Sinatra for the "Best Actor" Oscar®.

After less than five years in Hollywood, Borgnine had won its highest honor. He continued to alternate roles of menace with those evincing sensitivity and mirth. In Violent Saturday (1955) he was a pacifist farmer, in The Best Things in Life Are Free (1956) a Tin Pan Alley lyricist and in The Catered Affair (1956) a Bronx cabbie whose headstrong wife (Bette Davis) wants to treat their daughter to a lavish wedding they cannot afford.

Borgnine was a rare tragic hero in the gritty Pay or Die (1960), as a New York City cop martyred by a Mafia bullet. After his parents' divorce in 1919, Borgnine and his mother had relocated to Milan for several years. Through the 60s, Borgnine returned to Italy to make a number of films, including Vittorio De Sica's The Last Judgment (1961) and Richard Fleischer's Barabbas (1961).

Beginning in 1962, Borgnine enjoyed a four year run as maritime scrounger Quinton McHale in ABC's sitcom McHale's Navy. His film appearances through the decade were often in action pictures, most notably as a plane crash survivor in The Flight of the Phoenix (1965), a Soviet spy in Ice Station Zebra (1968) and as one of Sam Peckinpah's doomed The Wild Bunch (1969).

Even as he approached the national retirement age, Borgnine showed no signs of slowing down. He played an unlikely hero in The Poseidon Adventure (1972), a horned demon in The Devil's Rain (1975) and a spectral airline captain smelling of Bay Rum in the made-for-TV The Ghost of Flight 401 (1978). His congenial post-apocalyptic cabbie didn't quite Escape from New York (1981) while his Hittite farmer battled a pop-up incubus in Deadly Blessing (1981).

Into his 90s, Ernest Borgnine was still adding credits to his resume, appearing in a number of feature films and even providing voiceover work for the animated The Simpsons and SpongeBob SquarePants. He outlived many of the heroes who laid him low onscreen while his tenure as a Hollywood pug ugly endured beyond the reign of many a chiseled leading man.

by Richard Harland Smith

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