Ernest Borgnine, who died last Sunday at 95, was an everyman star, but not the kind Hollywood ever got used to. The studios’ idea of an Average Guy was someone like Jimmy Stewart, not a hulking middle-aged man with bushy eyebrows and gap-toothed grin. This was a heavy, right? The sadist who beats Frank Sinatra to death in “From Here to Eternity,” the small-town bully jiu-jitsued by one-armed Spencer Tracy in “Bad Day at Black Rock,” the untrustworthy officer in “The Dirty Dozen” (a case of miscasting — Borgnine was an enlisted man if anything). Had the actor come to fame before World War II, he would have been just another goon in the background.
Instead, he came up at a time when audiences had tired of pretty faces and wanted something rawer, lumpier, more real. Rod Steiger starred in the original 1953 teleplay “Marty,” but when it came time for the 1955 film version, director Delbert Mann cast about for a lead who really looked like he could have been a butcher from the Bronx. Borgnine played the role — an unpretty man finding love with an unpretty woman (Betsy Blair) — with a decency and tenderness that still disarms a modern viewer. More than any other movie of its era, “Marty” revealed glamour as a fraud (temporarily, it turned out) and comforted audiences with the enduring strength of the ordinary. Says Marty to his date, “See, dogs like us, we ain’t such dogs as we think we are.” In 1955, that felt like the fresh wind of truth.
Borgnine won a best actor Oscar, beating out Sinatra, Tracy, the late James Dean, and James Cagney. It was the high-water mark of postwar Hollywood naturalism, abetted by the gritty, searching dramas erupting on the nation’s TV sets. The newly minted star made the most of his breakthrough before it dissipated. In 1956 alone, he was a cab driver (again from the Bronx) with a striving Bette Davis for a wife in “The Catered Affair,” co-starred in a musical, “The Best Things in Life Are Free” — Borgnine sings! — and played a straight dramatic role as a government employee suspected of communism in the little-seen “Three Brave Men.”
After that, he slid slowly into westerns, war films, and period actioners. They were top-drawer projects, usually, with good parts, if not lead roles, for Borgnine: “The Vikings” (1958), “Ice Station Zebra” (1968), “The Wild Bunch” (1969). What saved his career was his early-’60s turn to television, where glamour was never an issue. Early TV stars — the ones we invited into our homes — had to look like us, so there was the actor as PT boat skipper Quinton McHale in “McHale’s Navy” (1962 to 1966), benignly leading a crew of misfits and malcontents in one long wartime luau.
That is how it worked in Hollywood and still does: an Academy Award for reminding the movie industry that real people exist, and then a shuffle off to TV, where real people actually seem to live. The dowdy character actress Shirley Booth experienced the same with her Oscar for “Come Back, Little Sheba” (1952) followed by a long run playing a maid on TV’s “Hazel.” So did Andy Griffith, who died a few days before Borgnine: movie fame with “A Face in the Crowd” (1957), but lasting impact as the sheriff of Mayberry. They were stars, certainly, but not the gods we like to dream about. Demigods, really, built for smaller stories and smaller screens.
Borgnine, God love him, never went away. By the 1970s, he was being eaten by rats in “Willard” (1971) and having his face melted off by “The Devil’s Rain” (1975). But when you saw him in “The Poseidon Adventure” (1972), you were glad there was a loudmouth New York cop on that upside-down cruise ship, if only to torment Gene Hackman. Borgnine was like that crass, good-hearted uncle you run into at family reunions, the one with the giant earlobes and embarrassing stories about your parents. His five wives were nowhere near a Hollywood record but legendary anyway, especially his 30-day marriage to Broadway belter Ethel Merman, a brief union of battleships.
And still he soldiered on, a stubborn supporting presence on TV (”Airwolf” in the ’80s, “The Single Guy” in the ’90s, the oldest ever Golden Globe nominee, at 90, for the 2007 Hallmark special “A Grandpa for Christmas”). That hoarse, hearty voice popped up in the mouth of Mermaid Man on “SpongeBob SquarePants.” And Borgnine’s appearances in action movies like “Red” (2010) and dopey comedies like “Strange Wilderness” (2008) were cause for joy: The man simply had no interest in quitting. His final film, a low-budget western called “The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez,” was released this year. See? He wasn’t such a dog as we thought he was.
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