Ernest Borgnine 1917-2012

Screen legend dies aged 95

Ernest Borgnine 1917-2012

by Owen Williams |
Published on

Ernest Borgnine, the Hollywood star whose career spanned an incredible seven decades, has died in Los Angeles aged 95.

Born in Connecticut in 1917 to Italian parents, Ermes Efron Bornino spent some of his childhood in Milan, before the family returned to the States in 1924. He enlisted in the US Navy in 1935 and served aboard destroyers during the Second World War. His experiences during his ten-year naval career would feed into one of his early successes: the role of Lieutenant Commander Quinton McHale in ABC's 1960s sitcom McHale's Navy. It had begun life in pilot-form as a drama, but Borgnine took its Phil Silvers-inspired switch to comedy in his stride.

After the navy, concluding that dead-end jobs weren't for him, Borgnine decided to give acting a try, making his Broadway debut in 1945. His first film role was in 1951 in China Corsair, and he quickly built a career playing tough guys and heavies, looming over Spencer Tracy in Bad Day At Black Rock, working for Burt Lancaster's cutthroats in Vera Cruz and attempting to carve up Frank Sinatra with a switchblade in From Here To Eternity. It was his atypically sensitive romantic lead as the lonely Bronx butcher in 1955's Marty that won him his Oscar, however. It also landed him a best actor gong at Cannes and the New York Film Critics' award.

Slightly more varied roles followed, but even in a quieter part like the Shakespeare-quoting Bernie Brown in The Square Jungle, he was still playing a boxing trainer. Always recognisably pugnacious then, his career continued through the likes of The Vikings, The Badlanders and Flight Of The Phoenix. Immediately after McHale's Navy he was snarling through The Dirty Dozen and Ice Station Zebra, and in 1969 he was giggling amid the carnage of Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (he would work with Peckinpah again, nine years later, in the less classic Convoy).

He worked constantly through the 1970s, and found new audiences in the 1980s, employed by John Carpenter and Wes Craven, bulking up the cast of Disney's sci-fi The Black Hole, and scoring a TV hit with three seasons of the helicopter action show Airwolf. Slowing down slightly in the '90s - somewhat preferring the golf course - he still turned up in Gattaca and BASEketball (in which he sang I'm Too Sexy), and for a cameo in the Tom Arnold McHale's Navy remake.

Most recently, we'd heard him in Spongbob Squarepants as Mermaid Man, and seen him in the 2009 season of ER, for which he was nominated for an Emmy. In 2010's Red he was reverently and appropriately cast as an old legend, and he was still working this year, completing filming on what turned out to be his final role in Elia Petridis' The Man Who Shook The Hand Of Vicente Fernandez.

He enjoyed a colourful private life: he was married five times, most infamously tying a knot with Ethel Merman that unravelled in a single month. He died yesterday at Cedars Sinai hospital, surrounded by his family.

"You have to keep going," he once said, "otherwise you're one of these guys that says 'Boy, I can't wait to retire,' and then two weeks later they're in a rocking chair saying 'What the hell am I gonna do now?!'"

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