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Published: Wednesday July 11, 2012 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Thursday May 30, 2013 MYT 12:09:38 AM

Ernest Borgnine - Gruff but well-loved

His bulldog looks and rough demeanour were not hot with women, but Borgnine won an Oscar playing a gentle leading man.

US actor Ernest Borgnine, whose barrel-chested, bulldog looks made him a natural for tough-guy roles in films like From Here To Eternity, won an Oscar for playing a sensitive loner in Marty.

The real-life US Navy veteran who became a household name during the 1960s by starring as the maverick commander of a WWII patrol boat in the popular television comedy McHale’s Navy, died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles last Sunday, at the age of 95.

Borgnine had been the oldest living recipient of an Academy Award for best actor. His last screen credit was the lead role of an ageing nursing home patient in a film set for release later this year, The Man Who Shook The Hand Of Vicente Fernandez. The performance earned him a best actor award at the Newport Beach Film Festival, where it debuted in April, long-time spokesman Harry Flynn said.

With his burly profile, gruff voice and gap-toothed leer, Borgnine was on the verge of being typecast as the bad guy early in his career, following a string of convincing performances as the heavy in such films as Johnny Guitar in 1954 and Bad Day At Black Rock in 1955.

His most memorable turn as a menacing tough guy was his breakout role in the 1953 Oscar-winning From Here To Eternity, as the sadistic Sergeant “Fatso” Judson, who terrorises and eventually kills Frank Sinatra’s character, Private Angelo Maggio.

Nice guy

Borgnine broke free from the bad-guy rut and won his own Oscar with a rare leading-man role in 1955’s Marty, playing a warm-hearted New York butcher who lamented, “One fact I gotta face is that, whatever it is that women like, I ain’t got it.”

Critic Bosley Crowther described his performance in that film version of a television play by Paddy Chayevsky as “a beautiful blend of the crude and strangely gentle and sensitive.”

Borgnine’s work in Marty led to more sympathetic roles in Jubal (1956) and The Best Things In Life Are Free (1956).

Some critics hinted that Borgnine was a “Marty” in real life, but the actor, who was married five times, took exception by saying, “I’m no playboy, but I’m no dumb slob either.”

Marty also won Oscars for best picture, best director and adapted screenplay.

“Ernie is the nicest man I’ve ever worked with,” said Sidney Lanfield, who directed him on the TV sitcom McHale’s Navy. “When he says, ‘Hello! How are you?’ or ‘Glad to see you!’ you can bet the line has not been rehearsed.”

The TV show, in which he starred as the skipper of a misfit PT boat crew skirting Navy regulations while chasing Japanese submarines, ran on ABC from the fall of 1962 until August 1966 and reinvigorated Borgnine’s career. Funnyman Tim Conway co-starred as McHale’s ensign.

Borgnine starred again as Lieutenant Commander Quinton McHale in a 1964 big-screen adaptation of the TV show, and returned to supporting character work in such movies such as The Flight Of The Phoenix (1965), The Dirty Dozen (1968), Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) and The Poseidon Adventure (1972).

He appeared in dozens of films in all.

Navy service

He was born Ermes Effron Borgino in Hamden, Connecticut, and did not take up acting until after a 10-year hitch in the US Navy, including a stint during WWII as a gunner’s mate on a destroyer in the Pacific.

“I just couldn’t see myself going into a factory where I saw these pasty-faced fellows walking in and walking out after stamping their cards,” Borgnine once said.

Using money he earned from the G.I. Bill (which provided benefits for returning World War II veterans), he studied at the Randall School of Dramatic Arts in Hartford and performed on stage for several years at a Virginia theatre.

His first Hollywood job was a low-budget picture, China Corsair, in 1951, starring in ethnic makeup as the Chinese proprietor of a gambling club.

He made his Broadway debut in the 1949 Mary Chase comedy Harvey, and after a trio of early-50s films, appeared on Broadway again in 1952 in another Chase production, Mrs McThing, this time opposite Helen Hayes.

Hayes ended up being a godmother to the eldest of Borgnine’s three children, daughter Nancee, by his first wife.

Borgnine returned to series television as co-star of the mid-1980s action series, Airwolf. And in 1988 he portrayed a mafia chief in the big-screen film, Spike Of Bensonhurst.

Working well into his 90s, he earned an Emmy nomination for his 2009 guest appearance on the final two episodes of the television hospital drama ER, playing the husband of a dying elderly woman. The following year, he notched a cameo role as a CIA records keeper in the spy thriller Red.

He performed voice work for animated productions late in his life, including SpongeBob SquarePants and All Dogs Go To Heaven.       

Borgnine’s 1964 marriage to singer-actress Ethel Merman barely lasted a month. He said it broke up because fans paid more attention to him than her during their honeymoon.

The longest of his five marriages was his last – to Tova Traesnaes, whom he married in 1973. Despite his rough looks, Borgnine appeared in ads touting the face-rejuvenating powers of beauty products from a company she started. – Reuters

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle

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