Ernest Borgnine (1917-2012)

Ernest Borgnine
Ernest Borgnine
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Ernest Borgnine was an highly successful actor who made over 100 movies in a career lasting over 50 years, and who also forged a parallel and equally successful television career.

With his thick-set build and looks of a heavyweight fighter, he was often cast in a secondary role in Ernest Borgnine movies as the gangster or Western heavy, but in the few films where he played the lead he displayed great acting skill and authority. In 1955 he won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of the lonely Italian butcher Marty Piletti in 'Marty'.

As well as his movie career he appeared on television from the outset of the new medium and he became well known as the character Quinton McHale in the 1962-66 series 'McHale's Navy'. He also co-starred in the mid-1980s adventure series 'Airwolf' and more recently he applied his talents to voiceovers in animated films.

Borgnine earned an Emmy nomination at the age of 92 for his work on the series 'ER' and in 2009 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rhode Island International Film Festival.


He was born Ermes Effron Borgnino on January 24, 1917 in Hamden, Connecticut. His parents were immigrants from Italy and Borgnine spoke the language as a child and was all his life a fluent Italian speaker. His parents separated when he was two and he and his mother spent 5 years living in Italy. When his parents eventually reconciled the family returned to Hamden. In 1926 his sister Evelyn was born and by then the family name had been anglicised from Borgnino to Borgnine.

He showed sporting promise and was a good boxer as a youth, but showed no inclination for acting. He graduated from New Haven's James Hillhouse High School in 1935 and worked for a while selling vegetables off the back of a truck. A U.S. Navy recruiting poster enticed him to enlist and he stayed in the Navy for 10 years with a short break in 1941 when he was discharged but almost immediately re-enlisted when the US entered the war.

He finally left the Navy in 1945 with the rank of Gunner's Mate 1st Class. For a short time he became a drifter, doing menial jobs in factories, but soon, on the advice of his mother, he decided to try acing as a career and with the GI Bill giving him the means to receive dramatic training, he studied for six months at the Randall School of Dramatic Art in Hartford.

After graduating in the spring of 1946 he joined the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Virginia where he stayed for four years, learning his new trade, undertaking stagehand jobs around the theater, and after his first appearance on stage in 1947 in 'State of the Union', gaining invaluable experience playing a huge variety of roles.

His major step forward came in 1949 with his Broadway debut as a male nurse in 'Harvey'. It was the start of a long series of supporting roles as a character actor and it gave him the confidence to make the decision to chance his arm in a movie career. In 1951 he moved to California to start his new life.

He began his professional career in the new medium of television in two episodes of 'Captain Video and His Video Rangers' before making his movie debut with small roles in 'China Corsair' and 'The Whistle at Eaton Falls', both in 1951. With these and successive performances he began to forge a reputation as a capable and versatile actor and his career took a smart upward turn in 1953 when he was cast as the sadistic Sergeant James "Fatso" Judson in 'From Here to Eternity'. Because of his heavyweight boxer appearance, he played many other supporting thug roles over the next few years, including and outlaw in 'Johnny Guitar' in 1954, the menacing henchman, Coley Trimble, thrown by Spencer Tracy's judo in 'Bad Day at Black Rock' in 1955, and the chieftain jumping into a pit of wolves in 'The Vikings' in 1958.

He was in danger of being typecast for life but saved himself in 1955 when displayed his considerable acting skills as the inarticulate, likeable Italian butcher, Marty Piletti in 'Marty', which earned him an Academy Award for Best Actor and a Cannes Festival award.

His film career continued successfully in strong supporting roles, as in 'The Flight of the Phoenix' in 1965, supporting James Stewart and as an officer in Robert Aldrich's 'The Dirty Dozen' in 1967. One of the roles for which he is remembered was that of Dutch, in the 1969 Sam Peckinpah Western classic, 'The Wild Bunch' and in the 1970's his successes continued with 'The Poseidon Adventure' in 1972, 'Emperor of the North Pole' in the following year and 'Law and Disorder' in 1974. He was also hugely enjoyable as the bullying boss eaten by rats in 'Willard' in 1971 and as a redneck demon in 'The Devil's Rain' in 1975.

After starting his television career in 1951 when the medium was young, he continued to make regular appearances. From 1962-66 he starred as LCDR Quinton McHale in the TV sitcom "McHale's Navy" as well as in a big screen incarnation, and he received an Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series in 1963. He continued to successfully alternate television and movie work for the rest of his career. He made several appearances on different episodes of 'Wagon Train', and on 'The Dean Martin Show', 'Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In' 'The Ford Television Theatre', 'Waterfront', 'Fireside Theatre', 'The O. Henry Playhouse', and many others. He also appeared in several high quality made-for-TV movies including 'Jesus of Nazareth' in 1977, 'Ghost on Flight 401' the following year and a remake of 'All Quiet on the Western Front' in 1979. From 1984-5 he made a return to series television starring opposite Jan Michael Vincent as Dominic Santini in the all-action series 'Airwolf' and he appeared on many occasions on the television game show 'Hollywood Squares'.

He also did voice-over work, notably as Mermaid Man on TV's cartoon 'SpongeBob SquarePants' and in animated films such as 'All Dogs Go to Heaven 2' in 1996 and 'Small Soldiers' in 1998.


Borgnine was married five times. His first marriage was in 1948 to Rhoda Kemins whom he met whilst sill in the Navy. They had one daughter and divorced in 1959. He was then married to the actress Katy Jurado from 1959 to 1963 and in 1964 he was married to the singer, Ethel Merman for just 32 days. According to Borgnine, she could not handle the fact that he was more famous than her. In 1965 he married Donna Rancourt with whom he had a son and a daughter and on his divorce in 1972 he married his fifth and last wife Tova Traesnaes who runs a successful cosmetics company.

In 2004, his original stint in the Navy and his lifelong support for the Navy worldwide, was recognised when he was awarded the honorary rank of Chief Petty Officer of the US Navy.

He was known to be an active member of the Masonic Order, holding the 33rd degree of the Scottish Rite of Masonry.

His autobiography, called simply "Ernie" was published in July 2008 and contains recollections and anecdotes of his personal and professional life.

In 2007, Ernest Borgnine became the first Best Actor Oscar winner to be still alive on his 90th birthday, but even as he aged, he still continued to work hard. There were no less than four Ernest Borgnine movies out in 2010, including his playing opposite Bruce Willis in 'Red'.

Ernest Borgnine died of renal failure on July 8, 2012, in Los Angeles. He was 95 years old.

Ernest Borgnine Academy Awards

One Win:
Best Actor ... Marty (1955)

No Unsuccessful Nominations:

Ernest Borgnine Filmography

China Corsair
Richer Than the Earth
Remember That Face
The Stranger Wore a Gun
From Here to Eternity
Johnny Guitar
Demetrius and the Gladiators
The Bounty Hunter
Vera Cruz
Bad Day At Black Rock
Run for Cover
Violent Saturday
The Last Command
The Square Jungle
Wedding Breakfast
The Best Things in Life Are Free
Three Brave Men
The Vikings
The Badlanders
Torpedo Run
Summer of the Seventeenth Doll
The Rabbit Trap
Confessions of a Counterspy
Pay or Die
Go Naked in the World
Il re di Poggioreale
Il giudizio universale
Seduction of the South
The Flight of the Phoenix
The Oscar
The Dirty Dozen
The Man Who Makes the Difference
The Legend of Lylah Clare
Ice Station Zebra
The Split
The Wild Bunch
The Adventurers
Desperate Men
Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came?
Rain for a Dusty Summer
Bunny O'Hare
Hannie Caulder
The World of Sport Fishing
The Return of the Movie Movie (uncredited)
Un uomo dalla pelle dura
The Revengers
The Poseidon Adventure
Emperor of the North Pole
The Neptune Factor
Film Portrait
Sunday in the Country
The Devil's Rain
The Greatest
The Prince and the Pauper
The Double McGuffin
The Black Hole
When Time Ran Out...
Poliziotto superpiù
Escape from New York
High Risk
Deadly Blessing
Young Warriors
Code Name: Wild Geese
Cane arrabbiato
Skeleton Coast
Qualcuno pagherà?
The Big Turnaround
Bersaglio sull'autostrada
Any Man's Death
Spike of Bensonhurst
Gummibärchen küßt man nicht
Laser Mission