Hammond On Ernest Borgnine: Oscar-Winning Actor Who Broke Hollywood Mold

In his final film, The Man Who Shook The Hand Of Vincente Fernandez, Ernest Borgnine played a guy described as “Rex Page” – an old man bitter about never becoming famous and having lived a life without any meaning. Well, Borgnine was really acting in that one because, despite all the odds, he became a Hollywood star in the era of the pretty boy actor. And his life obviously had a lot of meaning, especially to the fans mourning his passing today at the robust age of 95. Judging by so many of the roles he played, somehow I thought the guy was indestructible. He was truly a rock in his rolling stone of a profession.

If ever there was an unconventional leading man it was Borgnine, although I never thought of him really as a leading man. He was, first and foremost, a character actor. As believable as the tough guy of his breakthrough role  of Sgt. ‘Fatso’ Judson in 1953’s Best Picture Oscar winner From Here To Eternity  as he was in his own Oscar-winning starring role of Marty Piletti,  the lonely butcher in Marty just two years later. That was the film he would be most strongly associated with  the rest of his life. He also won the British Academy Award, National Board of Review and  New York Film Critics awards for the role. Despite competition  from his own Bad Day At Black Rock co-star Spencer Tracy, his Eternity co-star Frank Sinatra, James Cagney, and a posthumous nod for James Dean, Borgnine was the unlikely shoo-in for the Oscar in 1955. Academy Awards show host Jerry Lewis even bet Borgnine $1.98 he would win – and Ernie, as everyone called him, paid Lewis with 198 pennies he had stuffed into one of his daughter’s red socks just as he passed the show host on his way up the stairs of the Pantages Theatre to accept his Oscar.

Related: R.I.P. Ernest Borgnine

Marty was a movie that was actually adapted from television’s Playhouse 90 (starring Rod Steiger) and it won hearts around the world. To this day Marty remains the only winner of the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival to go on and repeat that feat by winning Best Picture at the Academy Awards. And for Borgnine who until his death earlier today was our longest living Best Actor winner, that statuette meant a lot. He kept it on his mantlepiece 56 years and always made a point of saying how proud he was to win it. Sometimes the Oscar Gods smile down on an actor and a certain role. That was definitely the case here. For Borgnine it was his one and only Oscar nomination but he hit it out of the park on the first try.

Oscar success so early in his acting career (his first film was 1951’s  The Whistle At Eaton Falls) didn’t lead to a srting of high profile leads. I don’t think Hollywood knew quite what to do with him and his unconventional looks. But clearly he was able to escape being stereotyped and that led to a varied non-stop 61-year career in front of the camera in all kinds of parts. In 1956 for instance, he starred opposite Bette Davis in the gentle family drama The Catered Affair, and even did a musical that year, The Best Things In Life Are Free. But still, in the run-up to his signature TV starring role in McHale’s Navy (1962-66), the post-Marty films that stand out were in the tough guy category: notably in 1958 with both the underrated western The Badlanders and the smash hit The Vikings in which he took a supporting role to stars Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis. In fact there’s a photo of Borgnine and Douglas having a laugh together at the star-studded shoot for Paramount’s 100th Anniversary class photo earlier this year. Both of these remarkably vibrant and active 95-year-olds represent the last of a Hollywood breed.

And if many thought his career switch less than a decade after winning the Oscar  to a TV sitcom like McHale’s Navy would torpedo his film career, they were mercifully wrong. Borgnine turned up in some of his most successful and interesting film roles during and after that TV success. Mega-hits like The Dirty Dozen (1967), The Wild Bunch (1969), and The Poseidon Adventure (1972) were all notable performances in ensembles of fine actors, particularly the landmark Sam Peckinpah western Wild Bunch that challenged the movie ratings system and took film violence to new levels.

For me though the last really great, meaty role Borgnine had in a major feature was Robert Aldrich’s brutal-to-the-bone action drama, Emperor Of The North (1973) in which he played the sadistic railroad train conductor Shack, the heaviest of heavies and a vivid reminder nobody was as good as Borgnine when he was bad. With co-star Lee Marvin, Borgnine engaged in one of the great fights in movie history – and all on top of a moving train! The movie wasn’t a hit even though Aldrich had the good sense to reteam his Dirty Dozen pair, Marvin and Borgnine, only six years after that film hit paydirt. But it’s worth checking out, a film that seems to  improve with each viewing and one of many classics (if an unheralded one) featuring this great star.

It’s great that Borgnine could be so engaged and busy right  to the end, turning in poignant performances in a number of recent projects including the independent Another Harvest Moon  to surprise hit Red to an Emmy-nominated turn on the last episode of ER to the aforementioned The Man Who Shook The Hand Of Vincente Fernandez which brought him the Best Actor award at the Newport Beach Film Festival only three months ago.

Borgnine’s last major showbiz honor came about a year and a half ago when he won the Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award. His fellow actors finally realized after 93 years he was the real deal, the definition of a consistent working actor no matter how difficult that can be to accomplish. But like so many things he was very humble about it. Backstage he said, “You say to yourself, ‘Am I really worth it? Do I deserve something like this?’ It’s hard to explain. I’ve always enjoyed being an actor. I always had the feeling something would come along  that’s even better with the next picture.”

Ernest Borgnine never stopped looking for the next best thing,  and by doing that he gave us a lot of indelible movie memories.

    1. Thank you Gil, “Devil’s Rain” is a total guilty pleasure from my youth and was the first film that jumped to my mind today when I sadly heard of Mr. Borgnine’s passing. While I admire many of his fine performances in many a classic film, “Devil’s Rain” is my fondest Ernie Borgnine memory. I’ll be watching my DVD of it in the next couple of days with a cocktail and toasting Mr. B!

    2. You may or may not be joking (it’s hard to tell with a “camp classic”), but there IS an early scene where he and William Shatner meet that actually hints that the movie could be really something special; just the two of them playing off each other. (The movie soon changes tone drastically, but it’s a nice reminder of how good both could be given a chance)

  1. Very well done, Pete. Ernie was a man of integrity and one heck of an actor, may he rest in peace.

  2. As always Pete, you find the right words and place them so well, in describing such a wonderful man as ERNEST BORGNINE.

    I don’t think you can have such a HOLLYWOOD career as his anymore.

    Ernie had real staying power, outliving so many of the people who were part of his great performances on both the big and small screen. He leaves behind a great monument of entertainment!

  3. A very fine article assessing Borgnine’s career. As you say, he was a fine actor who had a wide range, with an ability to play both heroes and villains.

    I always greatly enjoy watching the early scene in “The Dirty Dozen” where Borgnine is amazed and amused when Lee Marvin gives a brutally honest assessment of what he thinks of the mission he has been ordered to carry out. Borgnine’s silent reactions are priceless.

  4. I’m glad that you mentioned Emperor of the North. It’s a great film and Borgnine is fantastic in it.

  5. A brilliant actor, wonderful guy and still more active in his 90s than most in their 70s. We love you. Thanks for so much entertainment and laughs.

  6. Thanks for the excellent tribute to one of the all-time great actors. He excelled at playing good guys, bad guys or just plain ol’ everyday guys down the block. He shone with that spark that jumped off the screen and that noone can teach.

  7. Mr. Hammond,
    Fine tribute to a class act.

    Growing up as a child of the 70’s, I always saw him as the ‘tough’ bad guy. I think the first film I saw of him playing something else was Franco Zeffirelli’s “Jesus of Nazareth”.

    It was only about 8 years ago that I finally saw “Marty” and what a remarkable performance it was. He must’ve had a heart of gold, because I’m not sure how you pull that role off otherwise.

    RIP Ernest.

  8. Thanks Pete, you’re the best. My kids know Ernest Borgnine from his voice work as a regular on the wonderful cartoon Sponge Bob Square Pants. He was incredible on that show. He was always special in all his work because he had such a light inside him. His career never ended and every generation adored him. To lose him and Andy Griffith in the same week feels so strange. Thanks again for all the terrific reporting.

  9. Couldn’t agree with you more Mr. Hammond. Once a year; without fail, I watch THE WILD BUNCH. Discovered it in film school at UCLA…on the big screen. I truly, always learn something in directing, writing, editing and acting and cinemat., every time.

    Mr. Borgnine will always be an actor to me at the core…although, long a star.

    Obviously, his total truth was in MARTY. What he does with the role of DUTCH…in WILD BUNCH, was more powerful than what he did in ETERNITY or BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK.

    In WILD BUNCH…he truly exhumed some type of moroseness, maybe even sympathy — but never self pity — for always pulling out his gun and murdering. For money.
    Plain and simple.

    It was in his eyes…the way he sat down when he wasn’t even on main camera, but somewhere in the b.g.; fulling knowing their was more than enough power in not playing the lead or taking it away from the lead.

    The fact that he did more with his raw acting ability and power for us to feel for him and his problems and fkaws — than any “not pretty boy” looks of any other studio packaged star could or will ever do…is all in his work. That will stand the test of time.

    Rest in peace Mr. B.

    Guess it’s my time for the WILD BUNCH to roam again.

  10. A genuine screen legend. Whenever he turned up in the cast of a movie later in his career, it was like seeing an old friend.

  11. ‘To this day Marty remains the only winner of the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival to go on and repeat that feat by winning Best Picture at the Academy Awards.’ – aside from ‘The Lost Weekend’ in 1946 and ‘The Artist’ last year.

  12. Funny and charismatic; a guy you would want on your side in a fight (or a PT boat battle); a heart of gold. That’s how I see the characters played by Ernest Borgnine (and the man himself. One of the greats.

  13. A nice tribute, Pete. I’m a big fan of Borgnine, a man who loved to work and truly had range. You’re right, he was great when he was bad (and was downright scary in “Emperor of the North”), but could also be sympathetic (“Marty,” of course and check out the original–and much better than the remake–“The Flight of the Phoenix” where Borgnine’s simple-minded character bounces from sweet to enraged to heartbroken in seconds, like a child.)

    And what enthusiasm he had for his work! TCM’s Robert Osborne did an interview with him (I think he was at least 90 at the time) and his humor, gentleness, happiness and love of his craft were clearly evident.

    I had the pleasure of meeting Ernie in New York once and shook that meaty paw of a hand. A sweet, lovable man who found his calling. Rest in peace, you big lug.

  14. I feel privileged to have seen him work. A great actor who’ll be missed, but not forgotten.

  15. RIP Ernie. Thank you for entertaining us over the years. You will be missed. My condolensces to your family and friends. God bless you. Keep smiling.

  16. And he was in fine spirits and proudly sitting on stage with over 100 other actors at the Paramount 100th Anniversary photo shoot. You can see it in this past month’s Vanity Fair. He looked as if he was going to go on forever and was in great spirits. RIP.

  17. Proof that you don’t need glamour to be a star, just talent and grit.

    Rest peacefully, Ernie. And thank you for being one of my Facebook friends.

  18. Great thoughts, as always, Pete. I always loved Ernie’s work. He’s such a perfect low key Fatso Judson in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY – playing piano one moment and engaging in a vicious knife fight with Montgomery Clift the next. I also thought he was great as Ragnar the proud Viking chief in THE VIKINGS, playing Kirk Douglas’ proud father (even though they were both the same age at the time). Speaking of knives, he’s also handy with one in another knife fight with Sterling Hayden in THE LAST COMMAND, playing Mike the Bull of the Bayou Country with Hayden playing Jim Bowie – they both go down at the Alamo, taking plenty of baddies with them. I think I read somewhere that Ernie was one of the first actors considered to play Don Corleone in The Godfather. It would have been a different movie, but Ernie would have been good. R.I.P Actor. You always gave 150%

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