Remember Me: Ernest Borgnine

When the drama Marty won the Academy Award for the Best Picture of 1955, it was a win of many wins, and not just because the movie walked off with three other Oscars.

It signaled that the balance of creative power in Hollywood was shifting; that the monopoly of the major studios was fading, and that a new breed of independent companies – often formed with or by the stars who had, at one time, been held in bondage to the majors under long-term contracts – were serious player in the industry (Marty had been produced by Hecht-Lancaster which had been formed by Burt Lancaster and producer Harold Hecht).

It was a victory for a new kind of anti-Hollywood storytelling; unglamorous tales about unglamorous people, real people.  Postwar Italian neo-realism had demonstrated the power of the drama of everyday people just trying to get through a day, and Marty and other films like it (The Catered Affair [1956], Edge of the City [1957], etc.) took that torch up here in America.

It was also a win for a new kind of leading man, because Marty didn’t star some lantern-jawed, brilliantined matinee idol, but dumpy, broad-faced Ernest Borgnine.

At the time of Marty, Borgnine had already been kicking around for quite a few years, and that only after getting a late start in acting.  He’d come out of ten years in the Navy in 1945 when his mother pushed him toward acting.  He made his Broadway debut with a small part in 1949’s Harvey, then relocated to Los Angeles and landed his first movie roles in 1951.

His career took off in 1953 with From Here to Eternity and his role as sadistic stockade sergeant “Fatso” Judson who beats weedy little Frank Sinatra to death.  Eternity kicked off a host of roles as heavies for which Borgnine – with his bulk, gap-toothed alligator smile, and wide eyes which seemed to dance at the prospect of inflicting pain – was a natural, such as the bully who gives a one-armed Spencer Tracy such a hard time in Bad Day at Black Rock (1955).

Eternity may have been a career booster, but Borgnine always felt he owed his career to director Robert Aldrich.  After Aldrich cast him in the boisterous Western adventure Vera Cruz (1954), Borgnine became one of the director’s go-to performers, appearing in five other features including The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) and action classic The Dirty Dozen (1967).

But Aldrich’s biggest contribution to Borgnine’s career was in recommending him to director Delbert Mann for Marty.  Mann didn’t want him; Borgnine played thugs and bone-breakers, but the titular character of Marty was a lonely, thirty-something Brooklyn butcher still living with his mother.  Aldrich lobbied, Mann gave in, and the movie walked off with Oscars for Best Picture, Borgnine as Best Actor, Mann for Best Director, and Paddy Chayefsky for the screenplay based on his 1953 live TV drama.

Borgnine would never again catch a role as rich as Marty Piletti, but then most actors go their entire careers without ever getting one.  And Borgnine nailed it:  his awkward first date with Betsy Drake, his wincing discomfort as his friends castigate him for going out with “a dog,” his painful self-awareness of his utter ordinariness.  Marty and Borgnine’s performance still stand as one of the most moving paeans to the average everyday guy to ever make it to the big screen, and his defiant rebuttal to one of his denigrating friends is their anthem:

“She’s a dog.  And I’m a fat, ugly man.  Well, all I know is I had a good time last night.  I’m gonna have a good time tonight.  If we have enough good times together, I’m gonna get down on my knees.  I’m gonna beg that girl to marry me.  If we make a party on New Year’s, I got a date for that party.  You don’t like her?  That’s too bad!”

The movie’s impression on popular culture of the time can be measured in how its bits and pieces echoed in the culture-sphere for years.  Twelve years later, it still resonated enough to be lampooned in a scene from Disney’s 1967 The Jungle Book as a pair of vultures gave their spin on one of the most memorable bits of dialogue from Marty:  “…so what we gonna do?”  “I dunno.  What you wanna do?”

Marty may have been Borgnine’s artistic acme, but he still had a long, productive career ahead of him.  He was not only ripe for character parts, but he had that unteachable, unlearnable, undefinable gift all long-lasting actors have:  people enjoyed watching him.  Whether he played a heavy or a hero, bigger than life or slice of life, people enjoyed him.

Marty established his artistic bonafides, but the early 1960s slapsticky sitcom McHale’s Navy did more for his popularity than a decade’s worth of solid work and an Oscar had.  For the remainder of his incredibly long (61 years) career, Borgnine moved easily between the big screen and small, amassing an astounding range of roles, sometimes in classics (Sam Peckinpah’s revisionist Western The Wild Bunch [1969]), sometimes in mainstream hits (disaster flick The Poseidon Adventure [1972]), sometimes in the most forgettable of celluloid junk (horror clunker The Devil’s Rain [1975]).

Good or bad, he didn’t care.  All that mattered was the work.  He would often say acting was his greatest passion:  “I don’t care whether a part is ten minutes long or two hours, and I don’t care whether my name is up there on top, either.”

As he grew older, his ongoing presence seemed to be one treasured by young directors:  John Carpenter cast him as the garrulous Cabbie in Escape from New York (1981); Joe Dante used his voice in Small Soldiers (1998); and still going strong in his 90s, Borgnine found himself in the geriatric-skewed actioner Red (2010).

And, in a delightful inside joke for parents of SpongeBob SquarePants fans, Borgnine was re-teamed with his McHale’s Navy co-star and friend, Tim Conway, in the recurring parts of semi-senile superhero Mermaid Man and his more able sidekick, Barnacle Boy.

“I think you have to keep going,” Borgnine once said when asked about possibly retiring.  And he did:  through over 100 feature films, three TV series, countless guest appearances and voice roles, working almost up until the last with a part in The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez which completed filming this year.

In a way, perhaps the greatest disservice Ernest Borgnine did to those of us who grew up watching him was to last so long.  His constancy made him seem a permanent fixture of the film universe, and now it seems as if one of the stars in that universe has, at long last, winked out and left the sky just that little bit darker.

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By Bill Mesce

Bill Mesce, Jr. is a produced screenwriter and playwright, and a published author of fiction and nonfiction, including Overkill: The Rise and Fall of Thriller Cinema. He spent 27 years with pay-TV giant Home Box Office, and now teaches at several universities in his native New Jersey.

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