By Steve Gorman – LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – U.S. actor Ernest Borgnine, whose barrel-chested, bulldog looks made him a natural for tough-guy roles in films like “From Here to Eternity” but who won an Oscar for playing a sensitive loner in “Marty,” died on Sunday at age 95, his publicist said.
The real-life U.S. Navy veteran who became a household name during the 1960s by starring as the maverick commander of a World War Two patrol boat in the popular television comedy “McHale’s Navy,” died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, long-time spokesman Harry Flynn said.
Borgnine, who continued to work until very recently, had been the oldest living recipient of an Academy Award for best actor, Flynn said.
A statement from the actor’s family said he “had been in excellent health until a recent illness.” Flynn said Borgnine recovered from unspecified surgery he underwent a month ago but his condition deteriorated rapidly after he visited the hospital on Tuesday for a medical check-up.
His last screen credit was the lead role of an aging nursing home patient in a film set for release later this year, “The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez.” The performance earned Borgnine a best actor award at the Newport Beach Film Festival, where it debuted in April, Flynn said.
With his burly profile, gruff voice and gap-toothed leer, Borgnine was on the verge of being typecast as the bad guy early in his career, following a string of convincing performances as the heavy in such films as “Johnny Guitar” in 1954 and “Bad Day at Black Rock in 1955.”
Borgnine’s most memorable turn as a menacing tough guy was his breakout role in the 1953 Oscar-winning film “From Here to Eternity” as the sadistic Sergeant “Fatso” Judson, who terrorizes and eventually kills Frank Sinatra’s character, Private Angelo Maggio.
UGLY DUCKLING ROLE
But Borgnine broke free from the bad-guy rut and won his own Oscar with a rare leading-man role in 1955’s “Marty,” playing a warm-hearted New York butcher who lamented, “One fact I gotta face is that, whatever it is that women like, I ain’t got it.”
In addition to his Academy Award, Borgnine’s work in “Marty” led to more sympathetic roles in such films as “Jubal” (1956) and “The Best Things in Life Are Free” (1956).
Critic Bosley Crowther described Borgnine’s Oscar-winning performance in “Marty,” a film version of a television play by Paddy Chayevsky, as “a beautiful blend of the crude and strangely gentle and sensitive.”
Some critics hinted that Borgnine was a “Marty” in real life, but the actor, who was married five times, took exception by saying, “I’m no playboy, but I’m no dumb slob either.”
“Marty” also won Oscars for best picture, best director and adapted screenplay.
“Ernie is the nicest man I’ve ever worked with,” said Sidney Lanfield, who directed him on the TV sitcom “McHale’s Navy.” “When he says, ‘Hello! How are you?’ or ‘Glad to see you!’ you can bet the line has not been rehearsed.”
The television show, in which he starred as the skipper of a misfit PT boat crew skirting Navy regulations while chasing Japanese submarines, ran on ABC from the fall of 1962 until August 1966 and reinvigorated Borgnine’s career. Funnyman Tim Conway co-starred as McHale’s ensign.
He starred again as Lieutenant Commander Quinton McHale in a 1964 big-screen adaptation of the TV show, and returned to supporting character work in such movies such as “The Flight of the Phoenix” (1965), “The Dirty Dozen” (1968), Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” (1969) and “The Poseidon Adventure” (1972).
He appeared in dozens of films in all.
He was born Ermes Effron Borgino in Hamden, Connecticut, and did not take up acting until after a 10-year hitch in the U.S. Navy, including a stint during World War II as a gunner’s mate on a destroyer in the Pacific.
“I just couldn’t see myself going into a factory where I saw these pasty-faced fellows walking in and walking out after stamping their cards,” Borgnine once said.
Using money he earned from the G.I. Bill, Borgnine studied at the Randall School of Dramatic Arts in Hartford and performed on stage for several years at a Virginia theatre.
His first Hollywood job was a low-budget picture, “China Corsair,” in 1951, starring in ethnic makeup as the Chinese proprietor of a gambling club.
He made his Broadway debut in the 1949 Mary Chase comedy “Harvey,” and after a trio of early-’50s films appeared on Broadway again in 1952 in another Chase production, “Mrs. McThing,” this time opposite Helen Hayes.
Hayes ended up being a godmother to the eldest of Borgnine’s three children, daughter Nancee, by his first wife.
Borgnine returned to series television as co-star of the mid-1980s action film “Airwolf.” And in 1988 he portrayed a mafia chief in the big-screen film “Spike of Bensonhurst.”
Working well into his 90s, Borgnine earned an Emmy nomination for his 2009 guest appearance on the final two episodes of the television hospital drama “ER,” playing the husband of a dying elderly woman. The following year, he notched a cameo role as a CIA records keeper in the spy thriller “Red.”
He performed voice work for animated productions late in his life, including “SpongeBob SquarePants” and “All Dogs Go to Heaven.”
Borgnine’s 1964 marriage to singer-actress Ethel Merman barely lasted a month. He said it broke up because fans paid more attention to him than her during their honeymoon.
The longest of Borgnine’s five marriages was his last – to Tova Traesnaes, whom he married in 1973. Despite his rough looks, Borgnine appeared in ads touting the face-rejuvenating powers of beauty products from a company she started.
(Reporting by Steve Gorman.; Editing by Bill Trott and Christopher Wilson)