Ernest Borgnine, whose roles ranged from despicable thugs to a lovelorn butcher, has died at the age of 95. The actor died of renal failure at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, surrounded by family. He was a Navy vet who gained 100 pounds while in the service. That transformation into a burly, gruff looking guy led to a career of playing heavies and military officers. That included his breakout role as Fatso Judson, the sergeant that beats Frank Sinatra’s character to death in “From Here to Eternity.”
Though he made his mark playing large, imposing villains, Borgnine won the Best Actor Oscar in 1955 for “Marty.” The title character was a butcher who just short of shrank into the background. The shy, vulnerable fellow was the definition of playing against type for Borgnine. Hollywood Reporter critic Todd McCarthy said Borgnine paved the way for character actors to play the lead. Actors such as Art Carney, Gene Hackman and Forest Whitaker owe Borgnine a debt, McCarthy argues.
This particular character actor didn’t reap the rewards of that transition. He kept working, because unlike many steadily employed film actors of the time, he had no problem doing TV. He returned to his seagoing roots in the sitcom McHale’s Navy, commanding a PT boat full of screwups. The show was an obvious attempt to capitalize on the success of Phil Silvers’ Sgt. Bilko character, but Borgnine’s charisma helped it stick.
He continued as a go-to guy for military-themed entertainment in the 1980s Cold War TV drama Airwolf. He played Dominic Santini, the father figure to Jan Michael Vincent’s main character. From an acting standpoint, Borgnine probably served in every war of the 20th century.
In a turn that no one including the actor likely saw coming, he even got in some modeling work. His wife Tova made and sold her own line of beauty products, using him as the centerpiece of her ad campaign. It was a development comedians had plenty of fun with, but Borgnine got the last laugh. His marriage to Tova was his fifth, and as he often joked, lasted longer than his other four combined.
Most of his work in recent years was cartoon voiceovers. Fans of the popular SpongeBob Squarepants toon know him as the voice of Mermaid Man, a semi-retired and fully senile aquatic superhero. That shows his longevity as well as anything, I imagine. How many actors can say they got to work with both Bette Davis and Spongebob?