Ernest Borgnine, who won the best-actor Oscar for playing against type as a lovesick butcher in "Marty" in 1955, died Sunday July 8, 2012. He was 95. 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.
Borgnine, who endeared himself to a generation of Baby Boomers with the 1960s TV comedy "McHale's Navy," first attracted notice in the early 1950s in villain roles, notably as the vicious Fatso Judson, who beat Frank Sinatra to death in "From Here to Eternity." Then came "Marty," a low-budget film based on a Paddy Chayefsky television play that starred Rod Steiger. Borgnine played a 34-year-old who fears he is so unattractive he will never find romance. Then, at a dance, he meets a girl with the same fear. The realism of Chayefsky's prose and Delbert Mann's sensitive direction astonished audiences accustomed to happy Hollywood formulas. Borgnine won the Oscar and awards from the Cannes Film Festival, New York Critics and National Board of Review.
"The Oscar made me a star, and I'm grateful," Borgnine told an interviewer in 1966. "But I feel had I not won the Oscar I wouldn't have gotten into the messes I did in my personal life." Those messes included four failed marriages, including one in 1964 to singer Ethel Merman that lasted less than six weeks. But Borgnine's fifth marriage, in 1973 to Norwegian-born Tova Traesnaes, endured and brought with it an interesting business partnership. She manufactured and sold her own beauty products under the name of Tova and used her husband's rejuvenated face in her ads.
Although still not a marquee star until after "Marty," the roles of heavies started coming regularly after "From Here to Eternity." Among the films: "Bad Day at Black Rock," ''Johnny Guitar," ''Demetrius and the Gladiators," ''Vera Cruz." Producers also continued casting Borgnine in action films such as "Three Bad Men," ''The Vikings," ''Torpedo Run," ''Barabbas," ''The Dirty Dozen" and "The Wild Bunch."
Then he successfully made the transition to TV comedy. From 1962 to 1966, Borgnine — a Navy vet himself — starred in "McHale's Navy" as the commander of a World War II PT boat with a crew of misfits and malcontents. Obviously patterned after Phil Silvers' popular Sgt. Bilko, McHale was a con artist forever tricking his superior, Capt. Binghamton, played by the late Joe Flynn.
Borgnine's later films included "Ice Station Zebra," ''The Adventurers," ''Willard," ''The Poseidon Adventure," ''The Greatest" (as Muhammad Ali's manager), "Convoy," ''Ravagers," ''Escape from New York," ''Moving Target" and "Mistress."
Ermes Efron Borgnino was born in Hamden, Connecticut, on Jan. 24, 1917, the son of Italian immigrant parents. The family lived in Milan when the boy was 2 to 7, then returned to Connecticut, where he attended school in New Haven.
Borgnine joined the Navy in 1935 and served on a destroyer during World War II. He weighed 135 pounds when he enlisted. He left the Navy 10 years later, weighing exactly 100 pounds more.
His first marriage was to Rhoda Kenins, whom he met when she was a Navy pharmacist's mate and he was a patient. They had a daughter, but the marriage ended in divorce after his "Marty" stardom. Borgnine married Mexican actress Katy Jurado in 1959, and their marriage resulted in headlined squabbles from Hollywood to Rome before it ended in 1964. In 1963, he and Merman startled the show business world by announcing, after a month's acquaintance, that they would marry when his divorce from Jurado became final. The Broadway singing star and the movie tough guy seemed to have nothing in common, and their marriage ended in 38 days after a fierce battle. Next came one-time child actress Donna Rancourt, with whom Borgnine had a daughter, and finally his happy union with Tova.
Borgnine appeared in five Euro-westerns “A Bullet for Sandoval” and “Guns of the Revolution” (both 1969), “Hannie Caulder” (1970), “Manhunt” (1984) and “Blueberry” (aka “Renegade”) (2004).
"I just want to do more work," he said. "Every time I step in front of a camera I feel young again. I really do. It keeps your mind active and it keeps you going."