“Ernest Borgnine, the rough-hewn actor who seemed destined for tough-guy characters but won an Academy Award for embodying the gentlest of souls, a lonely Bronx butcher, in the 1955 film Marty, died Sunday in Los Angeles,” reports Anita Gates in the New York Times. Borgnine, who lived to be 95, “made his first memorable impression in films at the age of 37, appearing in From Here to Eternity (1953) as Fatso Judson, the sadistic stockade sergeant who beats Frank Sinatra’s character, Private Maggio, to death. But Paddy Chayefsky, who wrote Marty as a television play, and Delbert Mann, who directed it (Rod Steiger was the star of that version), saw something beyond brutality in Mr. Borgnine and offered him the title role when it was made into a feature film. The 1950s had emerged as the decade of the common man, with Willy Loman of Death of a Salesman on Broadway and the likes of the bus driver Ralph Kramden (The Honeymooners) and the factory worker Chester Riley (The Life of Riley) on television. Mr. Borgnine’s Marty Pilletti, a 34-year-old blue-collar bachelor who still lives with his mother, fit right in, showing the tender side of the average, unglamorous guy next door.”
“It turned out to be Borgnine’s only Oscar nomination,” notes the AP’s David Germain,
“yet it was a star-making part that broke him out of the villain mold. Borgnine went on to roles in such films as The Dirty Dozen, The Wild Bunch, The Flight of the Phoenix, The Poseidon Adventure and Escape from New York, but after Marty, the veteran sailor’s most memorable character appropriately came with the title role of the 1960s TV comedy McHale’s Navy and its big-screen spinoff. Mischievous con man McHale, commander of a World War II PT boat manned by misfits and malcontents, was far closer in spirit than shy Marty or savage Fatso to the real Borgnine, who had a cackling laugh and a reputation as a prankster.”
“The move to TV didn’t end Borgnine’s film career,” adds ABC’s Dean Schabner, who focuses on Borgnine’s performance in The Wild Bunch: “Starring alongside a cast that included William Holden, Robert Ryan, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson and Edmund O’Brien, Borgnine drew on both his comedic talents and his tough-guy pedigree in Peckinpah’s violent yet elegiac and tender portrayal of a group of aging outlaws pursuing one last big score, knowing that their way of life is ending.”
Updates: “Borgnine’s career was so enduring that his latest completed role was a starring one,” notes Nathaniel Rogers. “The Man Who Shook The Hand of Vicente Fernandez (2012) just recently debuted on the festival circuit.”
“After his casting against type in Marty, Borgnine was given far more varied roles, especially the four vastly contrasting films he made in 1956,” writes Ronald Bergan for the Guardian. “In Jubal, a western version of Othello, he was powerful and touching as a cattle-ranch owner who is convinced by villainous Rod Steiger that his wife has been unfaithful with hired hand Glenn Ford. In The Square Jungle, he was the gentle trainer of boxer Tony Curtis, showing his erudition by quoting the Bard at his protege: ‘Uneasy is the head that wears the crown.’ In The Catered Affair (later The Wedding Breakfast), which, like Marty, was derived from a Paddy Chayefsky teleplay, he was Bette Davis’s hot-headed Bronx cab-driver husband, and played songwriter Lew Brown in The Best Things in Life Are Free, his only musical, though thankfully he got to sing only a few notes.”
Richard Wilson’s Pay or Die (1960) “marks something of a anomaly in Ernest Borgnine’s long career as being one of the very few films where he was both the top billed star and a romantic lead,” writes Peter Nellhaus. “And as leading men go, only Gene Evans smooching Mary Welch in Sam Fuller’s Park Row may have been more unusual. For a lot of guys watching this film, there might have been a flicker of encouragement to see Zohra Lampert choose Borgnine over the more conventionally handsome Alan Austin.”
Sam Adams interviewed Borgnine for the AV Club in 2010.
Just last year, in Another Harvest Moon, Borgnine “still earned his name above the title,” notes Joe Leydon in his appreciation for Culture Map. Borgnine “was perfectly cast as Frank, a retirement home resident who’s mentally robust enough to realize his memory is failing, and is a great deal less than eager to live much longer after a debilitating stroke. It’s the sort of role that too often brings out the shamelessly manipulative hambone in lesser thespians. But Borgnine, as I noted in my appreciative Variety review, offered a full-bodied and affectation-free performance, easily dominating the film while at the same time establishing a credible and compelling relationship with co-star Richard Schiff as Frank’s increasingly anxious grown son.”
Updates, 7/9: “He was like the big, boisterous uncle at the family dinner party,” writes Time‘s Richard Corliss, “a lumpen raconteur who would geyser opinions, reach down the long table for a second helping, impress the kids and annoy prim Aunt Ethel with his booming personality. Millions of these characters exist in America, but there was only one Ernest Borgnine.” Corliss reminds us that, when he won his Oscar, “Borgnine won against some stiff competition: Tracy in [Bad Day at Black Rock], Sinatra in The Man With the Golden Arm (a wonderfully naked, haunted performance), James Cagney in Love Me or Leave Me and James Dean (the first actor to earn a posthumous Oscar nomination) in Rebel Without a Cause. Today, a dispassionate observer might choose any of those four, or all of them, over Borgnine. But the spirit of the moment, and the gruff delicacy of his playing, swept him into Academy acclaim.”
Borgnine played Marty “with a decency and tenderness that still disarms a modern viewer,” writes the Boston Globe‘s Ty Burr. “More than any other movie of its era, Marty revealed glamour as a fraud (temporarily, it turned out) and comforted audiences with the enduring strength of the ordinary. Says Marty to his date, ‘See, dogs like us, we ain’t such dogs as we think we are.’ In 1955, that felt like the fresh wind of truth.”
“You could probably write a whole book on Robert Aldrich’s use of Borgnine alone,” suggests Glenn Kenny.
In 2009, Borgnine spoke with Tim Ryan about his five favorite films.
Scott Weinberg revisits his favorite Borgnine performances at Movies.com.
The Leonard Lopate Show‘s posted an interview from 2008.
Update, 7/11: Greg Ferrara at Movie Morlocks: “He was only seven years younger than Luise Rainer (still going at 102), one year younger than Olivia de Havilland (still going at 96) and a good ten months older than Olivia’s sister, Joan Fontaine (still going at 94) and yet, I don’t think of him as a classic era film actor so much as a modern actor who alternated between classic and contemporary cinema. He could’ve started in the 30’s in his 20’s but he didn’t start until the early 50’s when in his 30’s. Somehow, this made all the difference and while Luise, Olivia and Joan remain locked in the classic era for me, Ernie seems modern, like an actor I saw in contemporary films in my teens. He seems that way because he was an actor I saw in contemporary films in my teens and now that he’s gone the world has lost one of the few actors that served as a kind of liaison between classic and contemporary cinema.”