Ernest Borgnine, the dependable Academy Award-winning actor who made a career out of playing working stiffs and the heavy through a sturdy six decades of work in films, television and Broadway, has died. He was 95.
Borgnine, who won the best actor Oscar for his sensitive portrayal of the simple, love-starved butcher in the 1955 best picture winner Marty, died Sunday of renal failure at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, his longtime manager confirmed to The Hollywood Reporter. He was surrounded by family.
“It’s a very sad day,” Borgnine’s manager Lynda Bensky tells THR. “The industry has lost someone great, the caliber of which we will never see again. A true icon. But more importantly, the world has lost a sage and loving man who taught us all how to ‘grow young.’ His infectious smile and chuckle made the world a happier place.”
The Italian-American actor from Connecticut also is widely known for playing the carefree and conniving Lt. Cmdr. Quinton McHale on the hit ABC series McHale’s Navy that aired from 1962-66.
Borgnine also made indelible impressions for his performances as Fatso, a brutal stockade sergeant who beats Frank Sinatra to death in From Here to Eternity (1953); as Dutch, a member of The Wild Bunch in the classic 1969 Western from director Sam Peckinpah; as a passenger fighting for his life in the disaster classic The Poseidon Adventure (1972); and as the voice of Mermaid Man on SpongeBob SquarePants.
Borgnine became the oldest performer to be nominated for a Golden Globe when he was acknowledged for the 2007 television movie A Grandpa for Christmas. And in 2009, at age 92, he was nominated for an Emmy for his guest performance in the final season of ER.
In all, Borgnine was credited with more than 40 movie roles and more than 200 TV appearances, stretching from such early anthology series as Philco Playhouse and G.E. Theatre to a role as Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi in the 1973 telefilm Legend in Granite to his stint as a good-natured, pasta-loving doorman on the NBC 1995-97 sitcom The Single Guy. He also starred opposite Jan-Michael Vincent in 1984-86’s Airwolf, a CBS series created by Don Bellisario of NCIS fame.
Borgnine was honored with a lifetime achievement award from the Screen Actors Guild in 2010.
“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,” SAG-AFTRA co-president Ken Howard said. “We will genuinely miss his smile and generous, joyous spirit. Our deepest sympathies go out to Tova and the Borgnine family.”
Ernest Borgnine was born Ermes Effron Borgnine on Jan. 24, 1917, in Hamden, Conn., to Italian-immigrant parents. When he was 2, his mother took him to live in Milan, but they returned to the U.S., and he attended elementary and high school in New Haven, Conn.
Following his high school graduation, Borgnine enlisted in the Navy and served as an apprentice seaman. He served for 10 years, rising to the rank of chief petty officer/gunner’s mate. Following his service, he used the G.I. Bill to enroll in the Randall School of Dramatic Art in Hartford.
His first professional acting experience came at the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Va., where he painted scenery, drove a truck and appeared in a variety of roles. He made his way to New York, where he won his first role on Broadway in the 1940s in Harvey, playing a hospital attendant. He soon made another Broadway appearance as a gangster in Mrs. McThing, which starred Helen Hayes.
Borgnine was spotted by a Hollywood talent scout from Columbia Pictures, and he was soon cast in his first film, The Whistle at Eaton Falls (1951).
Marty began as a teleplay by Paddy Chayefsky that aired in May 1953 on The Goodyear Television Playhouse with Rod Steiger in the title role as the butcher living with his mother and Nancy Marchand playing Clara, another lonely soul who Marty meets at a dance.
The teleplay was adapted into a full-length feature film at United Artists in 1955, with Borgnine as the butcher and Betsy Blair as Clara. In addition to the Oscars for best film and Borgnine, the film earned Academy Awards for director Delbert Mann and Chayefsky and earned the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
“Sooner or later, there comes a point in a man’s life when he’s gotta face some facts,” Marty movingly tells his mother at one point in the film. “And one fact I gotta face is that, whatever it is that women like, I ain’t got it. I chased after enough girls in my life. I went to enough dances. I got hurt enough. I don’t wanna get hurt no more.”
Borgnine also was honored with a special citation at Cannes and given the best actor award from the New York Film Critics Circle.
Borgnine’s career took off two years earlier after his performance of the sadistic Sgt. “Fatso” Judson in From Here to Eternity, which invariably led to his casting as a heavy in a number of projects. Borgnine often used his naval experiences as fodder for his character portrayals, as he did as the opportunistic PT-boat commander in the World War II-set McHale’s Navy, which also starred Joe Flynn and Tim Conway.
Borgnine also made in his mark in such films as Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), 1956’s The Catered Affair (as a New York taxi driver opposite Bette Davis), Ice Station Zebra (1968), Bunny O’Hare (1971), The Dirty Dozen (1967), Crossed Swords (1977), Convoy (1978) and The Black Hole (1979). In 2000, he starred as J. Edgar Hoover in Hoover.
In 2010, Borgnine appeared alongside Helen Mirren and Morgan Freeman in the action film RED, and he has a role in upcoming release The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez.
Thanks to his popularity for his role in McHale’s Navy, Borgnine was made an Honorary Skipper of the Blue Angels, a Navy and Marine Corps organization. He was an avid circus fan and made numerous appearances as a clown at the annual Circus Parade in Milwaukee. In addition, Borgnine was a well-regarded stamp collector and a 33rd Degree Mason.
Survivors include his fifth wife, Tova, whom he married in 1972. She manufactured and sold her own beauty products under the name of Tova and used her husband’s rejuvenated face in her ads.
His third marriage was to singer-actress Ethel Merman, a union that 38 days. In 1963, Borgnine and Merman startled Hollywood by announcing, after a month’s acquaintance, that they would wed when his divorce from Mexican actress Katy Jurado became final.
Watch Borgnine’s emotional scene with his mother (Esther Minciotti) in Marty below.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.