Ernest Borgnine: Farewell to Marty and McHale

Remembering the actor who filled a 60-year movie career playing sadists, slapstick sailors and one unforgettable lug named Marty

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Mario Anzuoni / Reuters / Corbis

Actor Ernest Borgnine attends the annual Academy Awards Italian nominees party in Hollywoo, March 2, 2006.

He was like the big, boisterous uncle at the family dinner party: a lumpen raconteur who would geyser opinions, reach down the long table for a second helping, impress the kids and annoy prim Aunt Ethel with his booming personality. Millions of these characters exist in America, but there was only one Ernest Borgnine. The actor, who earned an Oscar in 1956 as the lonely butcher in Marty and starred in four seasons of the military sitcom McHale’s Navy, died yesterday at 95, at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in West Hollywood, after an improbably long and robust career in movies.

The son of Italian immigrants — a brakeman father and a mother who claimed royal ancestry — Borgnine served 10 years in the Navy and was in his 30s before his mom suggested he try acting. Hollywood took a look at that meaty face and heavy form and cast him as a prime bully. In From Here to Eternity, the top-Oscar-winning picture of 1953, he was the image of military sadism, Sgt. Fatso Judson, who beat Frank Sinatra to death. Two years later, in Bad Day at Black Rock, he’s in a desert-town diner picking a fight with one-armed lawman Spencer Tracy. When he pours a glop of ketchup in Tracy’s coffee, and says. “I hope that ain’t too much,” Tracy replies, “Not only are you wrong, you’re wrong at the top of your voice,” before humiliating Borgnine with a throat claw and a couple of karate chops.

(SEE: The all-TIME 100 Movies list)

“Wrong at the top of your voice”: that was Borgnine in so many villain roles over a 60-year career. So what did Burt Lancaster and his producing team see in him that would be suitable for the sad-sack Bronx bachelor in Marty, the Paddy Chayefsky TV drama that they were turning into a movie? Somebody was clairvoyant, because when Rod Steiger, another top-decibel actor who had played Marty on the Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse (and who had just been nominated for an Oscar in On the Waterfront), turned down the film version of the Chayefsky playlet, Borgnine was cast and crept inside the quiet dignity of a miserable man. Paid $5,000 for the role, in a movie that cost just $343,000 to make, Borgnine repaid Lancaster’s faith in gold.

Marty Piletti spends his days chopping meat and his nights with his pal Angie (Joe Mantel) swapping the Bronx equivalent of Samuel Beckett banter: “Whadda you wanna do tonight?” “I dunno, Angie. Whadda you wanna do?” Saturdays he goes to a local dance, looks for a nice girl, comes home alone and empty. To his mother (Esther Minciotti), whose encouragement has become nagging to him, Marty explains the sorry facts: “Sooner or later there comes a point in a man’s life when he’s gotta face some facts. And one fact I gotta face is that whatever it is that women like, I ain’t got it. I chased enough girls in my life, I went to enough dances. I got hurt enough. I don’t wanna get hurt no more…. I’m gonna stay home tonight and watch the Hit Parade.”

When his mother keeps pressing her case, the quiet man explodes: “I’m ugly, I’m ugly, I’m ugly — ma, leave me alone!” Just as quickly, he subsides back into resignation. “All right,” he says, “so I’ll go to the Stardust Ballroom, I’ll put on a blue suit and I’ll go. And you know what I’m gonna get for my trouble? Heartache. A big night of heartache.”

(READ: TIME’s original 1955 review of Marty)

The scene’s wellspring is excellent writing from Chayefsky, but it flows through Borgnine’s precise and intuitive orchestration of emotion. He recognized that Marty has long accepted his failure — a disease he’s lived with so long he can diagnose it without getting upset — and that only when his mother pushes the point does he trip-hammer into rage. After his outburst, he sits down, pats his mother’s hand twice, as if to stay it’s all right, and eats his spaghetti. The hand-pat was a Borgnine touch. As he told Robert Osborne on a Turner Classic Movies interview in 2009, “It’s one of those gestures: I understand, mom, that’s how I feel.”

The first TV play to be expanded into a movie, Marty alerted Hollywood that novels and plays weren’t the only sources of compelling film stories. In the next few years, Oscars and Oscar nominations went to movies based on teleplays by Reginald Rose (12 Angry Men), Abby Mann (Judgment at Nuremberg), William Gibson (The Miracle Worker) and JP Miller (Days of Wine and Roses). Gore Vidal’s The Death of Billy the Kid became the Paul Newman film The Left Handed Gun, and Jerry Lewis made a movie of Vidal’s Visit to a Small Planet. Borgnine starred with Bette Davis in a film from another of Chayefsky’s small-screen scripts, The Catered Affair. Live TV drama helped Hollywood briefly find a place for intimate naturalism, for tales of little people with recognizable problems. It was the Sundance of the ’50s.

(READ: Corliss on the Golden Age of TV Drama)

Nominated for eight Academy Awards, Marty won four: for Picture, Screenplay, Direction — Delbert Mann, who had also directed the TV show — and Actor. In the star era, Borgnine was arguably the first non-star to win an Oscar for Best Actor. (The argument you could make is for José Ferrer five years earlier in Cyrano de Bergerac, but Ferrer had established himself as a Broadway eminence before Cyrano.) Borgnine won against some stiff competition: Tracy in Bad Day, Sinatra in The Man With the Golden Arm (a wonderfully naked, haunted performance), James Cagney in Love Me or Leave Me and James Dean (the first actor to earn a posthumous Oscar nomination) in Rebel Without a Cause. Today, a dispassionate observer might choose any of those four, or all of them, over Borgnine. But the spirit of the moment, and the gruff delicacy of his playing, swept him into Academy acclaim.

A Best Actor Oscar doesn’t guarantee a lifetime of prominent film roles; just ask F. Murray Abraham or Adrian Brody. And Borgnine might have slipped back into the character-actor clouds. The year after Marty, he auditioned for a small role in Sweet Smell of Success (also a Lancaster production), but to read the script he had to borrow a copy, he told Osborne, from the head waiter at the 21 Club. Except for a role as Anne Baxter’s lover in the 1960 Season of Passion, an Australia-set drama based on the play Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, Borgnine rarely played romantic leads. Hollywood counted on him for malevolence, not for another Marty. He had graduated from third thug on the left to first thug in the middle.

(READ: Corliss on Sweet Smell of Success, parts one and two)

To get noticed, go into television. Borgnine played Lieutenant Commander Quinton McHale in McHale’s Navy. Though an early episode (“PT 73 Where Are You?”) was written by Catch-22 novelist Joseph Heller, the show survives in memory as TV’s stodgiest service sitcom, and as a clue to the comfort Borgnine always found in the fraternity of rough souls. Over a 21-year span he appeared in six movies by man’s-man director Robert Aldrich, from Vera Cruz in 1954 to Hustle in 1975, and secured two of his strongest roles in Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen and (as a vicious detective hunting railroad hobo Lee Marvin) in Emperor of the North. He also partnered with renegade auteur Sam Peckinpah in The Wild Bunch, a film legendary for its villainy and violence, and Convoy.

Perhaps his finest late performance was in an 11-minute segment, directed by Sean Penn, of the anthology film September 11, also known as 11’09″01, that was made for the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Borgnine plays a lonely old man, living in a dark apartment in downtown Manhattan, who frets that the one plant on his window sill doesn’t get enough light. One morning he wakes to see sun streaming through his window, and he’s giddy with joy until he sees that the reason for the light is that the big buildings that blocked it — the twin towers — have fallen. It’s a role that reconnected Borgnine to his Marty roots, filling the screen with a big morning of heartache that the whole country could share.

(READ: Corliss on the September 11 film)

Blessed with vigorous health and an affable on-the-set reputation, Borgnine was the definition of a working actor. Cruise the cable movie listings and find him showing up in some gnarled Western (Johnny Guitar), musical bio-pic (The Best Things in Life Are Free), ’70s disaster epic (The Poseidon Adventure), dystopian action film (Escape from New York) or minor comedy (BASEketball with Trey Parker and Matt Stone). He starred in Italian Westerns like A Bullet for Sandoval and played J. Edgar Hoover — sympathetically — in the no-budget 1998 Hoover. He could be coaxed into any TV property with “square” in its title: he was the first Center Square celebrity on the game show Hollywood Squares, and contributed the voice of Mermaid Man to SpongeBob SquarePants.

According to the Internet Movie Database, Borgnine appeared in some movie or TV show in each of the 62 years from his 1951 debut as Hu Chang, the owner of a gambling club in the Columbia B-minus adventure China Corsair, to his death. His final film, The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez, casts him as a grouch in a retirement home who wins the love of the Latino staff because he once met a legendary Mexican singer. In his last role, as in his enduring career, luck was a lady to him.

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But ladies were not often lucky for him. He wed five times, including a notorious 32-day marriage in 1964 to Broadway legend Ethel Merman. Johnny Carson, mentioning the split in his monologue, said the two stars were getting a divorce “on grounds of irreconcilable faces.” Merman held a grudge against her ex for years: in her autobiography, the chapter titled “My Marriage to Ernest Borgnine” is blank. But in 1973 he found lasting companionship, marrying Tova Traesnaes, who was with him for 39 years and stood by him as he died.

The upside of looking like Borgnine when you’re 35 is that you’re recognizably the same guy when you’re 95. (A few years ago on Fox News he revealed the secret of his longevity: “I masturbate a lot.”) The July issue of Graydon Carter’s Vanity Fair has a photo of more than 100 luminaries assembled for the centenary of Paramount Pictures. And there, seated among Mickey Rooney, Kirk Douglas, Jerry Lewis, Eva Marie Saint (who won an Oscar for On the Waterfront, the year before Marty), Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, Harrison Ford, Steven Spielberg, Robert Evans, Tom Cruise, George Clooney and Dakota Fanning — and looking as fit as any of them — is Ernie Borgnine, still smiling, still pleased with his good fortune.

(READ: Graydon Carter on Ernest Borgnine in a 1982 issue of  TIME)

His guiding philosophy, he often said, was that of a guy selling chestnuts on a winter street: “I don’t want to set the world on fire. I just wanna keep my nuts warm.” That Borgnine achieved. For 60 years he kept movies hot and audiences happy.