Ernest Borgnine: Stories And Antics From The Beloved Actor's Life
Ernest Borgnine was one of those supporting actors who seems to be in every old movie -- westerns like The Wild Bunch (1979), action movies like The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and Convoy (1978), and military movies like The Dirty Dozen (1967). Borgnine was a character actor, and off camera he was quite the character as well, one who married frequently and practiced self-care (ahem) seven days a week.
A Hamden Connecticut native, Ermes Effron Borgnino was born in 1917 to Italian immigrants. When his parents separated, his mother returned to Italy, bringing Ernest along with her. They stayed in Italy for a couple of years, but returned to America when his parents reconciled. By then, his father had changed their name to Borgnine.
He Really Was In The Navy (Just Not McHale's)
After Borgnine graduated from high school in 1935, he he worked on a vegetable truck and then enlisted in the Navy after seeing a poster that said “See the World, Join the Navy.” He was honorably discharged in 1941 and after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he reenlisted in 1942, patrolling the Atlantic coast in an antisubmarine warfare ship. By the time he left the Navy, he had obtained the grade of gunner’s mate first class. He received multiple military awards and in 2004, was awarded the honorary title of chief petty officer.
His Mother Suggested Acting
Once he left the Navy for good, he returned to his parents’ house in Connecticut and really wasn’t sure what he was going to do. He worked in a factory for a brief time and learned that was not the career for him. His mother said, "You always like getting in front of people and making a fool of yourself, why don't you give [acting] a try?" He hadn’t been interested in acting before but he took her advice and attended acting school at the Randall School of Drama in Hartford Connecticut. He eventually made his Broadway debut as a nurse in Harvey in 1949. After this, he was cast as a character actor. In 1953, he landed the role of Sergeant Judson in From Here to Eternity, a character who beats a prisoner in his charge.
Borgnine And Charles Bronson Had A Run-in With The Mexican Army
In the mid-'50s, Borgnine was in Mexico playing a small part in Vera Cruz, and experienced a tense moment of method acting when he wandered off set in costume. He wrote in his autobiography:
One day while we were shooting, Charlie Bronson and I ran out of cigarettes. We had time between takes, so we decided to go down to the local store and buy some Mexican cigarettes. They were a pretty harsh smoke, but that's how hard up we were.
We started out the gates and were going down the road on our horses when a truckload of soldiers went by, all armed. We said, "Hola, como esta usted?" -- "How are you?"
We waved back and suddenly we heard "Alto!" which means "stop." So we stopped and turned around. They all had their guns leveled at us. We said "What the hell is happening?"
It seemed that they were after some crazed politician who was trying to make a name for himself in Mexico, and wanted to declare a revolution. The way we were dressed, as bandits, they thought maybe we were part of his gang. We said, "No, no, artistas, artistas, we're artists. We're actors!" They came over to the townspeople and inquired about us. People onfirmed our story, that we were filming a picture nearby, so we were saved. Scared the hell out of me, though. Charlie, too, I'm sure, though he was too tough and taciturn to ever admit it.
He Almost Became A Godfather
In 1955, he played the role of a butcher in the low-budget, small-scale film Marty and won the Academy Award for best actor -- beating out Spencer Tracy (the favorite, for Bad Day At Black Rock), Frank Sinatra (The Man With The Golden Arm) and James Dean (nominated posthumously for East Of Eden). The surprise win validated Borgnine's acting talent, but Hollywood didn't suddenly see him as leading-man material. Borgnine rarely got top billing in his career, tending to play supporting roles or villains.
Borgnine was considered for the role of Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather -- it went to Marlon Brando, of course, but a Vito Borgnine is an interesting parallel-universe movie casting to consider.
He Was All Over The Small Screen
Borgnine also had a career in television starting in the days of live television. He appeared in countless television roles including Little House on the Prairie, a show he didn’t want to appear in because it was too nice. Perhaps his best known television role was as Quinton McHale in McHale’s Navy. The show began in 1962 as a serious one-hour episode called Seven Against the Sea. However, it was reworked into a comedy. In 1963, Borgnine received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series. The show ended in 1966. He also appeared in the final episode of ER, and his performance at the age of 92 earned him a Primetime Emmy nomination. He has joked that he is the answer to a trivia question: who was the first center square on Hollywood Squares.
He Has Been A Cartoon
He has also done work on cartoons, playing himself on The Simpsons and Mermaid Man on SpongeBob SquarePants and he did voice work on All Dogs Go to Heaven.
Old Age Didn't Stop Him
In 2007, at the age of 90, he received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor in a Mini-Series or Motion Picture made for Television for his role in the made for Hallmark movie A Grandpa for Christmas. He was the oldest nominee ever.
He Was Married Five Times
He was married five times, first to Rhoda Kemins from 1949 to 1958. His second marriage was to an actress, Katy Jurado. He married Ethel Merman in 1964, a marriage that lasted only 42 days. It was a 42 day stretch though, marked by insult slinging and both would say that the marriage was a mistake. In Merman’s autobiography, the chapter on their marriage was a single blank page. According to Borgnine, the marriage ended on the honeymoon when they were traveling to Asia and Australia and he was recognized but no one knew who she was. Apparently, while in bed, he trapped her under the covers and farted. His final marriage, to Tova Tresnaes who was 24 years younger than him in 1973 lasted until his death in 2012.
Borgnine Hit The Road To Meet America, In His Own Bus
Ernest Borgnine was said to be a jolly man of the people who always had time for his fans. He wasn't just kind to them when they recognized him in public (and he was very recognizable) -- in 1996, pushing 80, Borgnine got behind the wheel of his own bus and set out to meet people in America. Just an regular old guy driving around and meeting people, a regular old Oscar-winning actor and Hollywood icon driving around and meeting people.
Borgnine's adventures with the public were documented in Ernest Borgnine On The Bus. The entire film is online -- sit back and watch if you've got some time on your hands:
All Kinds of Recognition
His list of awards is quite long, including all of the awards for his time in the Navy, an induction into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, honorary citizenship at his father’s birthplace in Ottiglio, Italy, and, in 1997 an honorary Doctorate from Lakeland College after he was their commencement speaker. His hometown of Hamden named a street after him as well.
Thirty Years As A Clown
Even though he occasionally played tough guys, he had a softer side and has been described as one of the nicest people around. And he was quite playful as well. In 1972, Johnny Carson asked him which roles he had not played and he responded “I’ve never been a clown.” The next day, the city of Milwaukee invited him to be a clown in their annual Great Circus Parade. From 1972-2002, he had the role of the Grand Clown.
His death in 2012 came at the age of 95. He attributed his longevity to regular masturbation -- no, really, he did. Here's the clip from Fox & Friends: