Ernest Borgnine Biography

Ernest Borgnine (January 24, 1917 – July 8, 2012) was an American film and television actor whose career spanned more than six decades. He was an unconventional lead in many films of the 1950s, winning an Oscar in 1955 for Marty. On television, he played Quinton McHale in the 1962–1966 series McHale's Navy and co-starred in the mid-1980s action series Airwolf, in addition to a wide variety of other roles. Borgnine earned an Emmy Award nomination at age 92 for his work on the series ER. He was also known for being the original voice of Mermaid Man on SpongeBob SquarePants from 1999 to 2012.

Early life

Borgnine was born Ermes Effron Borgnino in 1917 in Hamden, Connecticut. He was the son of Anna (née Boselli), who immigrated to the United States from Carpi (Modena, Italy), and Camillo Borgnino, who immigrated to the United States from Ottiglio (Alessandria, Italy).

Borgnine's parents separated when he was two-years old, and he and his mother lived in Italy for about four-and-a-half years. By 1923, his parents had reconciled, and the family name was changed from Borgnino to Borgnine. The family settled in North Haven, Connecticut, where he attended public schools. Borgnine took to sports while growing up, but showed no interest in acting.

Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair in Marty
Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair in Marty

Naval service

Borgnine joined the United States Navy in 1935, after graduation from James Hillhouse High School in New Haven, Connecticut. He was discharged in 1941, but re-enlisted after Pearl Harbor and served until 1945, accumulating a total of ten years in the Navy and reaching the rank of gunner's mate 1st class in the process. He served aboard the destroyer USS Lamberton. His military decorations included the Navy Good Conduct Medal, American Defense Service Medal with Fleet Clasp, American Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, and the World War II Victory Medal.

Borgnine received the honorary rank of chief petty officer in October 2004, from Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Terry D. Scott for Borgnine's support of the Navy and naval families worldwide.

Acting career

After the war was over, Borgnine returned to his parents' home with no job and no direction. In a British Film Institute interview about his life and career, Borgnine said:

After World War II we wanted no more part in war. I didn't even want to be a Boy Scout. I went home and said that I was through with the Navy and so now, what do we do? So I went home to mother, and after a few weeks of patting on the back and, "You did good," and everything else, one day she said, "Well?" like mothers do. Which meant, "Alright, you gonna get a job or what?"

As he was unwilling to settle for a dead-end factory job, his mother encouraged him to pursue a more glamorous profession and suggested that his personality would be well suited for the stage. He surprised his mother by taking the suggestion to heart, although his father was far from enthusiastic. In 2011, Borgnine remembered,

She said, "You always like getting in front of people and making a fool of yourself, why don't you give it a try?" I was sitting at the kitchen table and I saw this light. No kidding. It sounds crazy. And 10 years later, I had Grace Kelly handing me an Academy Award.

Stage

After graduation, Borgnine auditioned and was accepted to the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Virginia, so-called for its audiences bartering their produce for admission during the Great Depression. In 1947, he landed his first stage role in State of the Union. Although it was a short role, he won over the audience. His next role was as the Gentleman Caller in Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie. In 1949, he had his Broadway debut in the role of a nurse in the play Harvey. More roles on stage led him to being a decades-long character actor.

Films

In 1951, Borgnine moved to Los Angeles, California, where he eventually received his big break in From Here to Eternity (1953), playing the sadistic Sergeant "Fatso" Judson, who beats a stockade prisoner in his charge, Angelo Maggio (played by Frank Sinatra). Borgnine built a reputation as a dependable character actor and played villains in early films, including movies like Johnny Guitar, Vera Cruz and Bad Day at Black Rock. But in 1955, the actor starred as a warmhearted butcher in Marty, the film version of the television play of the same name, which gained him an Academy Award for Best Actor over Frank Sinatra, James Dean (who had died by the time of the ceremony), and former Best Actor winners Spencer Tracy and James Cagney.

Ernest Borgnine as Staff Sergeant James R. 'Fatso' Judson in From Here to Eternity
Ernest Borgnine as Staff Sergeant James R. 'Fatso' Judson in From Here to Eternity

Borgnine's film career flourished through the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, including roles in The Flight of the Phoenix (1965), The Dirty Dozen (1967), Ice Station Zebra (1968), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Emperor of the North (1973), Convoy (1978), The Black Hole (1979) and Escape from New York (1981).

One of his most famous roles was that of Dutch, a member of The Wild Bunch in the 1969 Western classic from director Sam Peckinpah. Of his role in The Wild Bunch, he later said,

"I did [think it was a moral film]. Because to me, every picture should have some kind of a moral to it. I feel that when we used to watch old pictures, as we still do I'm sure, the bad guys always got it in the end and the good guys always won out. Today it's a little different. Today it seems that the bad guys are getting the good end of it. There was always a moral in our story."

Ernest Borgnine as Dutch Engstrom in The Wild Bunch
Ernest Borgnine as Dutch Engstrom in The Wild Bunch

Television

Borgnine made his TV debut as a character actor in Captain Video and His Video Rangers, beginning in 1951. These two episodes led to countless other television roles that Borgnine would gain in Goodyear Television Playhouse, The Ford Television Theatre, Fireside Theatre, Frontier Justice, Laramie, Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre, Run for Your Life, Little House on the Prairie (a two-part episode entitled "The Lord is My Shepherd"), The Love Boat, Magnum, P.I., Highway to Heaven, Murder, She Wrote, Walker, Texas Ranger, Home Improvement, Touched by an Angel, and the final episodes of ER, the first episode of Wagon Train, and many others.

In 2009, at the age of 92, Borgnine earned an Emmy nomination for his performances in the final two episodes of ER.

McHale's Navy

In 1962, Borgnine joined the ranks of other sitcom stars such as John Forsythe, Andy Griffith, Danny Thomas, Alan Young, Robert Young, Fred MacMurray and Buddy Ebsen. That same year he signed a contract with Universal Studios for the lead role as the gruff but lovable skipper Lieutenant Commander Quinton McHale in what began as a serious one-hour 1962 episode called "Seven Against the Sea" for Alcoa Premiere, and later reworked to a comedy called McHale's Navy, a World War II sitcom. The insubordinate crew of PT-73 helped the show become an overnight success during its first season, landing in the Top 30 in 1963.

Just like the McHale character, Borgnine was a longtime navy man in real life. He thrived on the adulation from fans for their favorite navy man, and in 1963 received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series. At the end of the fourth season, in 1966 low ratings and repetitive story lines brought McHale's Navy to an end. Comedian Tim Conway said about the sitcom: "You know, we were all guys, it was about the war, and about men, so, there weren't many women working on the show, so we can spit, talk, swear, and everything – smoke? Gosh. So, it was male oriented." Conway once referred to Borgnine making new friends off of the Universal set, "It was the beginning of the trams, going through Universal. Ernie was probably one of the few people at Universal, who would stop the trams and say, 'Hello, how are you?' He would talk to everybody at the tram." While the show McHale's Navy was going strong, Tim had also said of Borgnine's short-lived marriage to Ethel Merman, "Ernie is volatile. I mean, there's no question about that; and Ethel was a very strong lady. So, you put two bombs in a room, something is going to explode, and I guess it probably did." The last thing he said about the McHale's Navy cancellation was, "We had gone from the South Pacific to Italy, and then, once in a while, we got to New York or something. The storylines were beginning to duplicate themselves. So, they actually said, 'Maybe, they had its run!'". Conway kept in touch with Borgnine, for more than 40 years, while living not too far from one another. In 1999, the duo reunited to guest-voice in several episodes of the popular 2000s animated comedy, SpongeBob SquarePants. Katy Jurado's death in 2002 drew Borgnine and Conway much closer, as Tim had heard so much of the actress's death. He said he heard his resisting friend once referred to one of his ex-wives, "Beautiful, but a tiger."

Ernest Borgnine as Lieutenant Commander Quinton McHale in McHale's Navy
Ernest Borgnine as Lieutenant Commander Quinton McHale in McHale's Navy

Airwolf

Borgnine returned to a new contract with Universal Studios in 1983, for a co-starring role opposite Jan-Michael Vincent, on Airwolf. After he was approached by producer Donald P. Bellisario, who had been impressed by Borgnine's guest role as a wrestler in a 1982 episode of Magnum, P.I., he immediately agreed. He played Dominic Santini, a helicopter pilot, in the series which became an immediate hit. Borgnine's strong performances belied his exhaustion due to the grueling production schedule, and the challenges of working with his younger, troubled series lead. The show was cancelled by CBS in 1986.

The Single Guy

He auditioned a third time for a co-starring role opposite Jonathan Silverman in The Single Guy as doorman Manny Cordoba, which lasted two seasons. According to Silverman, Borgnine would come to work with more energy and passion than all other stars combined. He was the first person to arrive on the set every day and the last to leave.

Merlin's Shop of Mystical Wonders

In 1996, Borgnine starred in the televised fantasy/thriller film Merlin's Shop of Mystical Wonders (partially adapted from the 1984 horror film The Devil's Gift). As narrator and storyteller, Borgnine recounts a string of related supernatural tales, his modern-day fables notably centering around an enchanted and malicious cymbal-banging monkey toy stolen from the wizard Merlin. The film was later featured in the parodical television series Mystery Science Theater 3000, and has since gained a prominent cult following.

Other activities

Also in 1996, Borgnine toured the United States on a bus to meet his fans and see the country. The trip was the subject of a 1997 documentary, Ernest Borgnine on the Bus. He also served one year as the Chairman of the National Salute to Hospitalized Veterans, visiting patients in many Department of Veterans Affairs medical centers.

Work after 1999

Starting in 1999, Borgnine provided his voice talent to the animated sitcom >SpongeBob SquarePants as the elderly superhero Mermaid Man (where he was paired up with his McHale's Navy co-star Tim Conway as the voice of Mermaid Man's sidekick Barnacle Boy). He expressed affection for this role, in no small part for its popularity among children. After his death, on July 11, 2012 Nickelodeon re-aired all of the episodes in which Mermaid Man appeared in memoriam. Borgnine also appeared as himself in The Simpsons episode "Boy-Scoutz 'n the Hood", in addition to a number of television commercials. In 2000, he was the executive producer of Hoover, in which he was the only credited actor.

In 2007, Borgnine starred in the Hallmark original film, A Grandpa for Christmas. He played a man, who after his estranged daughter is injured in a car accident, discovers that he has a granddaughter that he never knew about. She is taken into his care, and they soon become great friends. Borgnine received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor in a Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for Television for his performance. At 90, he was the oldest Golden Globe nominee ever.

Borgnine's autobiography Ernie was published by Citadel Press in July 2008. Ernie is a loose, conversational recollection of highlights from his acting career and notable events from his personal life.

On April 2, 2009, Borgnine appeared in the last episode of the long-running medical series ER. His role was that of a husband whose long marriage ended with his wife's death. In his final scene, his character is in a hospital bed lying beside his just-deceased wife. His performance garnered an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series, his third nomination and his first in 29 years (since being nominated for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series or a Special in 1980 for All Quiet on the Western Front).

In 2009, at age 92, he starred as Frank, the main character of Another Harvest Moon, directed by Greg Swartz and also starring Piper Laurie and Anne Meara. On October 2, 2010, Borgnine appeared as himself in a sketch on Saturday Night Live. On October 15, 2010, he appeared in Red, which was filmed earlier that year. In late 2011, Borgnine completed what would be his last film, playing Rex Page in The Man Who Shook The Hand of Vicente Fernandez.

Personal life

Borgnine married five times. His first wife was Rhoda Kemins (1949–1958), whom he met while serving in the Navy. They had one daughter, Nancee (born May 28, 1952). Then he married actress Katy Jurado (1959–1963). Borgnine's marriage to singer Ethel Merman (1964) lasted 38 days. Their divorce was finalized on May 25, 1965.

He then married Donna Rancourt (1965–1972), with whom he had a son, Cristopher (born August 9, 1969) and two daughters, Sharon (born August 5, 1965) and Diana (born December 29, 1970). His fifth and last marriage was to Tova Traesnaes, which lasted from February 24, 1973 until his death.

He has a sister, Evelyn Velardi (born 1926). His mother, Anna Borgnine, died in 1949, of tuberculosis, just days before his first wedding.

Borgnine died of renal failure approximately 1:30 p.m. on July 8, 2012, at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, California with his family at his side.He was 95 years old. Attenders at his funeral included several members of the United States Navy SEALS, as well as Tim Conway, Scott Eastwood, Leonard Nimoy, Dylan McDermott, Gary Sinise, Joan Rivers, Joe Mantegna, Marlee Matlin, LeVar Burton, Rob Lowe, James Corden, Jenny McCarthy, Flea, Bruce Campbell, and Roger Ebert. His remains were later cremated.

Ernest Borgnine and Tova Traesnaes
Ernest Borgnine and Tova Traesnaes

Honors

Borgnine's hometown of Hamden, Connecticut, where he enjoyed a large and vocal following named a street in his honor. For 30 years (1972–2002), Borgnine marched in Milwaukee's annual Great Circus Parade as the "Grand Clown."

In 1997, Borgnine was the commencement speaker at Lakeland College, and received an honorary doctorate in humane letters in recognition of his distinguished acting career.

In 1998, the Palm Springs, California, Walk of Stars dedicated a Golden Palm Star to him.

Film awards and nominations

Borgnine won the 1955 Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Marty Piletti in the film Marty. At the time of his death, he was the oldest living recipient of the Best Actor Oscar.

For his contribution to the motion picture industry, Ernest Borgnine received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6324 Hollywood Blvd. In 1996, he was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

He was honored with the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award at the 17th Screen Actors Guild Awards, held January 30, 2011.

Year Award Category Title Result
1955 Academy Award Best Actor Marty Won
BAFTA Award Best Foreign Actor Won
Golden Globe Award Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama Won
NBR Award Best Actor Won
NYFCC Award Best Actor Won
1962 Emmy Award Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actor in a Series (Lead) McHale's Navy Nominated
1979 Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series or a Special All Quiet on the Western Front Nominated
1999 Daytime Emmy Award Outstanding Performer in an Animated Program All Dogs Go to Heaven: The Series Nominated
2007 Golden Globe Award Best Performance by an Actor in a Mini-Series or a Motion Picture Made for Television A Grandpa for Christmas Nominated
2009 Emmy Award Outstanding Guest Actor – Drama ER Nominated
2009 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rhode Island International Film Festival Won
2011 Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild Won

Awards from fraternal groups

In 2000, Borgnine received his 50-year pin as a Freemason in Abingdon Lodge No. 48, Abingdon, Virginia. He joined the Scottish Rite Valley of Los Angeles (in the Southern Jurisdiction of the U.S.A) in 1964, received the KCCH in 1979, was coroneted a 33° Inspector General Honorary in 1983, and received the Grand Cross of the Court of Honour in 1991. He was also a member of the Loyal Order of Moose at that organization's Lodge in Junction City, Oregon. He volunteered to be Stories of Service National spokesman, urging his fellow World War II vets to come forward and share their stories.