Oscar-winner and Emmy-nominated movie and TV unconventional leading man and esrtwhile character actor Ernest Borgnine, who was known for playing villains and nice guys alike, died today. His longtime spokesman, Harry Flynn, told The Associated Press that Borgnine died of renal failure at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center with his wife and children at his side. He was 95. Borgnine made his mark as the vicious Fatso Judson who beat Frank Sinatra to death in From Here To Eternity. But he also won the Best Actor Oscar for playing against type as a lovesick butcher in Marty in 1955. But he is best known to the public as the title officer in the 1960s TV comedy McHale’s Navy. He was most recently seen in the recent movie Red. Modest despite being a household name, Borgnine registered shock when in 2011 the Screen Actors Guild called to bestow on him the 47th Annual Life Achievement Award for career achievement and humanitarian accomplishment. “Heck, I’m just a character actor for God sakes. I’m no big star,” he told Deadline at the time. “It was my mom who told me, ‘Ernie, if you make even one person happy with your smile or a funny thing you did every day, you’ll have accomplished a great deal.’ And that’s all I’ve ever tried to do.”
Borgnine served on the Screen Actors Guild Board of Directors from April to November 1962 and again from November 1974 to November 1977. SAG-AFTRA issued this statement: “For six decades, Ernie entertained us with an impressive body of work and, at the age of 95, he continued to have a remarkably busy life and career. We will genuinely miss his smile and generous, joyous spirit. Our deepest sympathies go out to Tova and the Borgnine family.”
A son of Italian immigrants and a World War II Navy veteran, Borgnine received his big showbiz break (after some minor local stage roles) relatively late, at age 33, when he was cast as the hospital attendant in a Broadway production of Harvey. That was followed by roles in some 200 films — the most impact: that villain’s villain in the World War II classic From Here to Eternity. He was cast repeatedly as the bad guy until he landed the part of the unconventional leading man in Marty. (When Borgnine received an award from the Publicist Guild 17 months ago, he told a great story about how Marty was never supposed to be anything but a tax write off.) His 1956 Academy Award was his first and only Oscar nomination and, to everyone’s surprise, including his own, Borgnine beat out an all-star roster of Hollywood legends including James Cagney, Frank Sinatra, Spencer Tracy, and posthumously James Dean. “Unfortunately, they don’t write movies like that anymore,” Borgnine told Deadline in 2011.
Borgnine was one of the first successful film actors to cross over to TV at a time when the new medium was seen as a flash-in-the-pan at best. “I remember a day when you were told in no uncertain terms that, by golly, you couldn’t mention television while you were making a picture. It’s not that they necessarily felt it was direct competition. They just didn’t believe in it.” He helped to bring the fledgling tube some legitimacy with his serious acting work on pioneering, quality shows like G.E. Theatre and The Philco Television Playhouse. Then, of course, he brought TV some well earned laughs with his breakout role on the 1962-1966 ensemble comedy McHale’s Navy and then co-starred two decades later in the action series Airwolf. In 2009, at the age of 92, Borgnine earned an Emmy nomination for his performances in the final two episodes of the longrunning NBC medical series ER. Most of all, Borgnine could celebrate something most actors can only dream about: a long and successful career.