ERNEST BORGNINE. at left, in the villainous role that first attracted attention for him--as evil "Fatso" Judson in the 1953 Oscar-winning Best Picture "From Here To Eternity," and, at right, as a good-hearted butcher in his 1955 Best Actor Oscar-winning performance in "Marty."
The gentle man behind the
sadistic screen image
By RON MILLER
When I first met actor Ernest Borgnine, who died last week at age 95, it was in San Francisco in 1973. At the time, I didn't know which Ernie I was going to find. Would it be the nasty, sadistic heavy who murdered Frank Sinatra in "From Here To Eternity" and tormented one-armed Spencer Tracy in "Bad Day at Black Rock"? Or would it be the gentle, lovelorn butcher Marty Piletti from "Marty" or maybe even the fun-loving, genial Lt. Cmdr. Quinton McHale from TV's "McHale's Navy"?
My most recent image of Borgnine was from the new movie he was trying to promote by doing an interview with me--Robert Aldrich's "Emperor of the North," in which he played his all-time most vicious character, a Depression-era railroad conductor who vowed to kill any tramp who tried to hitch a free ride on his train.
ERNEST BORGNINE in what may have been his meanest role in "Emperor of the North"; at
right, his happeist role in "McHale's Navy."
Well, it didn't take a minute for me to realize that nasty screen Ernie was pure acting. The real man who showed up for the interview greeted me with a grin a mile wide. He wanted to know if I'd seen the new movie and what I thought of it. It was pretty clear he thought it was a real hoot.
"I think I even scared Lee Marvin," he joked. Marvin, of course, played his rival in the movie--the "king of the hobos" who dared to challenge the conductor by riding free on his heavily-protected train.
I reminded Borgnine that he and Lee Marvin had been on parallel courses in their Hollywood careers, both taking up acting on the G.I. bill after World War II service and starting out as "heavies" on screen before finally moving up to leading roles and Academy Awards in the Best Actor category--Borgnine in 1955 for "Marty" and Marvin in 1965 for "Cat Ballou."
Borgnine torments a
(Spencer Tracy) in
"Bad Day at Black Rock."
Borgnine was grateful that he'd been given the opportunity to show his sensitive side as a human being in movies like "Marty" and TV shows like "McHale's Navy." He had earlier accepted the fact that his looks--he was a heavy-set guy with unpretty features--might qualify him best for villainous roles, but he longed to show his real personality on screen, too. Borgnine was a truly happy-go-lucky guy and his face was a beacon of joviality whenever he let go with that ferocious big smile of his. I liked him instantly and I felt like I'd known him for years after just a few minutes of chuckling with him over some of his meaner stunts on screen.
For instance, he loved the sequence in John Sturges' "Bad Day at Black Rock" where he torments one-armed Spencer Tracy in a desert cafe, pouring a whole bottle of catsup in Tracy's chili and needling him until Tracy, an expert in karate, beats the crap out of Borgnine with just one hand.
"And don't let 'em forget I killed Sinatra," Borgnine reminded me wh;en we talked about "From Here To Eternity."
I had the distinct feeling Borgnine was happy to be back on screen as a bad guy in "Emperor of the North" after finally establishing himself as a highly successful comic actor in "McHale's Navy," a TV series so popular that they made two feature films featuring Borgnine and the TV cast.
I think he felt the bad guys were more colorful characters and required more acting on his part. After all, he was a sweet, comical kind of guy in real life and was really kind of just being himself in "McHale's Navy."
Looking back at Borgnine's remarkable career as a character actor--he was still working regularly. mostly in TV movies, up until his death--I think he reached a genuine moment of truth when he was cast as the leading actor in "Marty," which was a low-budget remake of the TV drama first telecast in 1953 on "Goodyear TV Playhouse" with Rod Steiger in the title role.
Actor Burt Lancaster and his producer partner, Harold Hecht, made "Marty" as a feature film, expecting it to be a tax writeoff for their more expensive productions starrng Lancaster. It cost only a little over $300,000. Lancaster had worked with Borgnine the year before in the big budget western "Vera Cruz," in which Ernie played one of the bad guys, and thought it might be possible to bring out the good-naured side of this rough-looking man in a role like "Marty."
Ernest Borgnine, left, with
Jack Elam as two of the three
really bad guys in 1954's
"Vera Cruz" (The third bad guy was Charles Bronson)- The film was
made the year before Borgnine
earned an Oscar in "Marty."
In retrospect, I think Borgnine's performance is one of the best in Oscar history. Author Paddy Chayefsky was the master of realistic "xlice of life" dialogue and director Delbert Mann, who had directed Steiger in the same role for TV, knew just how to work with Borgnine to bring up the core emotions that he had felt in his own life so he could apply them to the character he was playing.
Borgnine's best scene in the movie is with him alone on the telephone, trying to make a date with a girl he had met at a movie theater a few days earlier. It's clear she doens't remember him at first--not until he reminds her he was the "heavy-se"t one who was sitting behind her at the movies. We never hear her end of the conversation. We don't need to. Borgnine's face registered all the pain he was feeling as a homely guy trying to make time with a girl who wants nothing to do with him.
Many critics have reasoned that Marty and his pal Angie, played expertly by Joe Mantell, who was reprising his performance in the TV drama, are meant to represent homosexual men who haven't yet discovered their true sexual orientation. Once Marty falls in love with Clara (Betsy Blair), a plain-looking woman who also has had touch luck attracting a man, Marty's pals begin to urge him to drop her because she's "a dog." In reality, they resent the fact that he may drift out of their all-male world into a normal life with a woman.
Borgnine brings a tremendous amount of feeling to this part and it still resonates with his skill as an actor all these years later. If ever a perfomance deserved an Oscar, that's one for sure.
Once the initial reaction from critics began to register on Lancaster and Hecht, they realized director Mann had turned this cheap movie into a masterpiece. They spent $350,000 to promote the film--more than they spent making it--and it became a runaway "sleeper" hit, earning Oscar nominations for several cast members, Oscars for Borgnine, Mann and Chayefsky and the Best Picture Oscar for Hecht and Lancaster as its producers.
Borgnine's subsequent work was much more diverse after he had proved he was more than an overweight bad guy. He did another Chayefsky drama in "The Catered Affair" (1956) and played composer Lew Bronn in the musical "The Best Things in Life Are Free" (1956) ; an Army general in "The Dirty Dozen" (1967), real-life spyu Boris Morros in "Man on A String" (1960); earned an Emmy nomination playing the World War I sergeant in TV's remake of "All Quiet on the Western Front" (1979), and worked in several classic westerns, including "Jubal" (1956), "The Badlanders" (1948) and "The Wild Bunch" (1969). In recent years, he has played warm, sentimental characters in several Hallmark TV movies.
Four violent characters in Sam Peckinpah's epic western "The Wild Bunch"
were, from left, Ben Johnson, Warren Oates, William Holden and Borgnine.
Oates was the only one of the four who didn't earn an Oscar during his
career in movies.
His run in TV's "McHale's Navy" (1962-66) was highly successful and he returned to regular series work in the action hour "Airwolf" (1984-86).
To his credit, Borgnine never became egotistical and always seemed to consider himself a very lucky guy who stumbled into an acting career and kept betting the breaks so many guys never get. He was proud of his Academy Award for a whole lot of reasons, but mostly because he felt it meant his peers appreciated the hard work he had put in to earn it.
As for me, I'm so happy I got to spend some time with his talented man, enough time to learn that he was capable of projecting abject meanness, but probably didn't have a trace of it in his system.
©2012 by Ron Miller. This column first posted July 23, 2012.
You can comment on this column online via our TALKBACK page. Please address your e-mail message to either "The Editors" or Ron Miller at Syndpack@aol.com
HOME About Us Index To
Talkback Contact Us