By Dean Schabner
Ernest Borgnine, who began his career playing the heavy but won an Oscar for the gentle comedy “Marty” and may be best known for his starring role as the lovable, often aggravated skipper in the TV series “McHale’s Navy,” has died. He was 95.
His longtime spokesman, Harry Flynn, told The Associated Press that Borgnine died of renal failure at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, with his wife and children at his side.
“It’s a very sad day. The industry has lost someone great, the caliber of which we will never see again. A true icon,” his manager Lynda Bensky said. “But more importantly the world has lost a sage and loving man who taught us all how to grow ‘young’. His infectious smile and chuckle made the world a happier place.”
Borgnine’s smile was indeed infectious, spread from ear to ear across his large round face, but his early roles capitalized on his powerful frame, playing gladiators, thugs and toughs, such as in “From Here to Eternity,” when he may have earned the hatred of Old Blue Eyes’ legion of fans, beating Frank Sinatra’s character to death in the World War II epic.
But it was in “Marty,” the 1955 story of a lonely butcher who lives with his mother and looks for love with his hapless friend, that Borgnine proved that he was more than a character actor.
“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.”
Borgnine went through four wives, including singer Ethel Merman — a marriage that lasted less than six weeks in 1964 — before he wed Norwegian-born Tova Traesnaes in 1973, and that one took.
In 2007, when the couple had been married 34 years, Borgnine told The Associated Press: “That’s longer than the total of my four other marriages.”
“McHale’s Navy,” in which Borgnine played Lt. Commander Quinton McHale, ran from 1962 to 1966, and spawned a movie.
“I didn’t have to reach very far for McHale because, I’ll tell you, I spent 10 years in the Navy,” he said. “Now, I had seen some rough and tumble officers and I also saw some officers that didn’t want to get their little panties wet, you know, and I played the rough and tumble kind.”
The show may have been a success with TV viewers, but the Navy wasn’t amused, at least not at first.
“We had a technical expert that came down the very first day, you know, and he was standing there and at the end of the first day he said, ‘Ernie, what are we making here?’ I said, ‘McHale’s Navy.’ He said, ‘Yeah, but this isn’t the Navy.’ I said, ‘It’s McHale’s Navy.’ And he said, ‘Don’t call me, I’ll call you,’ and he left.”
But Borgnine said that when it became clear how popular the show was, he got an invitation to Washington from the Navy’s top brass.
“I was invited down to Washington one day and was invited by the secretary of Navy to
come to his office, where he congratulated me personally for having so many men join up into the Navy simply because they had seen ‘McHale’s Navy,’ and hoped that there was a McHale’s Navy somewhere that they could join,” he said.
The move to TV didn’t end Borgnine’s film career. He went on to play tough-guy roles in such movies as “The Dirty Dozen,” “Ice Station Zebra,” “The Poseidon Adventure,” and perhaps his greatest performance after “Marty,” in Sam Peckinpah’s end-of-the-west classic,
“The Wild Bunch.”
Starring alongside a cast that included William Holden, Robert Ryan, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson and Edmund O’Brien, Borgnine drew on both his comedic talents and his tough-guy pedigree in Peckinpah’s violent yet elegiac and tender portrayal of a group of aging outlaws pursuing one last big score, knowing that their way of life is ending.
Borgnine continued acting, mostly in supporting roles, on TV and in movies nearly until his death. Youngsters who might not know his face would still know his distinctive voice from his role as Mermaid Man on “SpongeBob SquarePants.” He was also the oldest actor ever nominated for a Golden Globe and received the lifetime-achievement award from the Screen Actors Guild in 2011.
“I keep telling myself, ‘Damn it, you gotta go to work,”‘ Borgnine said in a 2007 interview with The Associated Press. “But there aren’t many people who want to put Borgnine to work these days. They keep asking, ‘Is he still alive?”