Born: January 24, 1917; Died: July 8, 2012.
ERNEST Borgnine, who has died aged 95, was one of the best-loved – and most prolific – stars of his day.
A burly, self-deprecating man, he was a versatile actor who was most famous for playing tough guys but he won an Oscar for his extraordinarily touching performance as the eponymous gentle giant in Marty (1955).
His heyday may be in the past but even today's schoolchildren know his voice, which he lent to the Mermaid Man in the cartoon series SpongeBob SquarePants.
Born in Connecticut to Italian immigrants, Borgnine spent five years in Italy following the break-up of his parents' marriage when he was a toddler. He joined the navy in 1935, and served for a decade, after which he decided he needed a change of direction. As he later recalled: "I went home to mother, and after a few weeks of patting me on the back and saying, 'You did good,' and everything else, she said, 'Well?' like mothers do, which meant, 'Alright, you gonna get a job or what?'."
Indeed, the idea of pursuing an acting career came from Borgnine's mother who recognised his love of entertaining. At the age of 28 he joined a well-known drama group which staged productions in rural Virginia, in return for produce from local farmers. Over the course of five years, Borgnine not only learned about acting, he also tried his hand at lighting, set-building and even costume-making.
At around the same time as he made his Broadway debut in the hit comedy Harvey, he began to work in live television dramas and landed his first parts in films. It was his performance as sadistic sergeant Fatso Judson (who beats Frank Sinatra to a pulp), in the movie From Here to Eternity (1953), which made audiences sit up and pay attention – and typecast Borgnine as a heavy.
A raft of tough-guy parts followed. In Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954) he played the head of the brutal gladiator school, while in dark western Johnny Guitar (1954) he was a bad-tempered gunslinger, and in Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) he menaced Spencer Tracy.
However, it was Borgnine's portrayal of lovable but unloved Marty in the 1955 movie of that name that won him his Oscar. Playing a shy and gentle butcher who lives with his mother and is resigned to a life of loneliness because of his awkwardness around women and lack of good looks ("I'm just an ugly, ugly man!"), Borgnine was magnificent and, as a result, he was no longer restricted to tough guy roles.
He worked with Marty writer Paddy Chayefsky on the gritty social comedy A Catered Affair (1956), playing the hen-pecked Bronx cab driver husband of a drab-looking Bette Davis. Other notable 1950s works include the musical The Best Things in Life Are Free (also 1956), and The Vikings (1958).
His most famous work dates from the 1960s, when he played the wily general in The Dirty Dozen (1967) and one of The Wild Bunch (1969), and the 1970s, when his movies included the disaster epic The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and Robert Aldrich's offbeat Depression-era drama Emperor of the North (1973), in which Borgnine played a train conductor who vows to kill any hobos he finds on his train.
He worked a great deal on television, notably as the long-suffering skipper in the popular sitcom McHale's Navy in the mid-1960s as well as in individual episodes of everything from Little House on the Prairie to Murder She Wrote.
He didn't make any concessions to age as he grew older. Not only did he take to travelling across the US in his own bus to meet fans (which he continued into his late 80s) he also continued to take acting jobs up until 2011 (a movie entitled The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez was released earlier this year).
He played a string of voice parts, including Carface in some of the All Dogs Go to Heaven cartoons and was Mermaid Man in the hit show SpongeBob SquarePants until it ended last year. The most notable of his onscreen appearances in recent years were undoubtedly those he made in the final episodes of the long-running TV phenomenon ER.
Five times married (his most famous wife was Broadway legend Ethel Merman, to whom he was married for one month), Borgnine is survived by his wife of 34 years, Tova Traesnaes, and three children from two earlier marriages.
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