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.