For some he will be remembered as one of the great character actors, one of the ultimate who lit up the screen in almost every film he appeared in. For everyone connected with Ernest Borgnine, from those who appeared in his films to his legion of fans, the news that the elder statesman of Hollywood and television has died at the age of 95 will be a tearful reminder of the fleeting nature of life.
Ernest Borgnine was born in Hamden, Connecticut to Italian immigrants Anna (nee Boselli) and Camillo Borgino on January 24th 1917. During the course of his long life, he would go onto become one of the most recognisable actors of his generation, starring in such films as Ice Station Zebra, The Poseidon Adventure, Escape From New York and The Dirty Dozen. He married five times, once to fellow actor Ethel Merman.
He served in the American Navy during both The Great Depression and also after the attack on Pearl Harbour. He joined the service straight after graduating high school and during a time of great hardship in American history. He had discharged during 1941but re-enlisted straight away after the Japanese launched the attack on American ships.
After the end of the Second World War Ernest Borgnine made the move into television and films and over the course of his acting career had more than 200 credits to his name. After starring in the sitcom McHale’s Navy from 1962 to 1966 he went on to become the screen legend it seems he was always meant to be. He appeared in Sam Peckinpah’s revisionist Western The Wild Bunch and in the 1980’s he won a new army of fans playing opposite Jan-Michael Vincent in the high octane programme Airwolf. However it was as the engaging and homely title character in Marty that made sure he went home with the Oscar for best actor in 1955.
Over the years he perfected the tough guy image but off screen he went out of his way to be kind the people who had placed so much trust in his work. In 1996, at the age of 79 he toured the U.S. on a bus to meet his fans and see the country. The trip ended up as a documentary in 1997, Ernest Borgnine on the Bus. He also served one year as the Chairman of the National Salute to Hospitalised Veterans, visiting patients in many Department of Veterans Affairs medical centres.
One of his final acting jobs endeared him to a third generation of fans as he provided his voice talent to the animated series SpongeBob SquarePants as the elderly superhero Mermaid Man. It was a role he had great affection for.
Three generations of fans over 60 years is a huge epitaph to leave but really only Ernest Borgnine could manage such a feat.
Ernest Borgnine; Born January 24th 1917, Hamden, Connecticut. Died July 8th 2012, Los Angeles, California.
Ian D. Hall