Wednesday 21 March 2018

Ernest Borgnine

Actor who often starred as villains was frequently as unwise in his selection of scripts as in his choice of wives

ERNEST Borgnine, the actor, who died last Sunday aged 95, was one of Hollywood's most popular villains.

Once described as having "an executioner's grin", he specialised in playing sadistic bullies and is best remembered for performances such as the brutal sergeant Fatso Judson in From Here to Eternity (1953) and as an ageing outlaw in Sam Peckinpah's bloodthirsty epic The Wild Bunch (1969).

Off screen, Borgnine was a mild-mannered man who married five times, but his liaisons were notoriously unsuccessful -- none more so than his 39-day marriage to Ethel Merman.

After his fourth, in 1965, Borgnine was accused by his estranged wife Donna Rancourt of plotting to murder her and of hiring two "hit men" to carry out the plan.

In his later career, Borgnine appeared in a series of substandard 'disaster movies' (invariably playing similar roles). These included The Neptune Factor (submariners trapped after deep-sea earthquake), Fire (villagers trapped by forest fire) and When Time Ran Out (villagers trapped after volcanic eruption).

Ermes Effron Borgnine was born on January 24, 1917, at Hamden, Connecticut, the son of Italian immigrants originally called Borgnino. His mother was an impoverished Italian countess, the daughter of a one-time financial adviser to King Victor Emmanuel.

After leaving school in New Haven, Connecticut, he joined the US navy for a six-year term, but in the event served for 10. He re-enlisted in 1941 and spent the rest of the Second World War as a chief gunner's mate, serving on battleships in the South Pacific.

Borgnine recalled developing a strong interest in air conditioning during the war and started a correspondence course in air-conditioning maintenance.

"It was so hot on those ships, all you could think about was cool," he remembered. "You used to have to stand on planks because the iron on the decks got red hot."

In 1945, he was demobilised and returned to New Haven. "I lost interest in air conditioning as winter drew on," he remembered, "and I felt too old at 28 to study."

Uninspired by the prospect of work at the local factory, Borgnine described himself "mooning around and scratching my neck and pacing up and down". His mother suggested he take up acting as a legitimate way of "making a fool of himself".

Borgnine duly won a place at a drama school 40 miles from New Haven and spent the next year commuting for six hours a day.

"I had to get up at 7am to get to school," he recalled, "and then I didn't get home until two the following morning."

After a year, he joined a travelling repertory company which toured the US. After making his Broadway debut in a six-week run of Harvey, Borgnine returned to the touring company.

"It was the right move," he maintained. "We were invited to Denmark and were the first American company to perform Hamlet at Elsinore."

In the early Fifties, Borgnine moved to Hollywood where, after several minor film roles, he gave an excellent performance as the sadistic Fatso Judson in From Here to Eternity. He followed this with another memorable appearance as the snake-like villain in Bad Day at Black Rock (1954), taunting the one-armed Spencer Tracy.

His sensitive portrayal of a loveless butcher in Marty (1955) brought him film-star status. Written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Delbert Mann, the film won Oscars for best actor (Borgnine), best director (Mann) and best screenplay (Chayefsky).

Borgnine recalled that he was appearing in a Western when Delbert Mann auditioned him (against type) for the part. "He came on set and heard me read," Borgnine remembered. "He told me later that he was really moved because I cried when I read it. He liked the idea of this big tough guy crying."

Borgnine followed his first major success with two more leading roles. He was perhaps ill-advised in his choice of scripts, making little impact in The Best Things in Life are Free (1956) and Wedding Breakfast (1958).

Later the same year, he appeared (opposite Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis) as the rotund warrior Ragnar in The Vikings.

Borgnine divorced Rhoda Kemins in 1958 and married his second wife, the actress Katy Jurado, in 1960. Friends described this marriage as "volatile at best" and remembered the Borgnines' first-anniversary party as "a fiasco". The party ended abruptly after Jurado accused Borgnine of having an affair.

In 1961, Borgnine was cast in the unlikely role of Gina Lollobrigida's father in Go Naked into the World. He followed this with Barabbas (1962), starring Anthony Quinn. Katy Jurado also appeared in the film, and Borgnine later claimed that his marriage had not been helped by watching Quinn and Jurado together on screen.

In 1963, he met Ethel Merman, to whom he became "instantly attracted". He separated from his wife and proposed to Merman only four weeks after their first meeting.

In 1964, he and Jurado divorced and he married Merman later that year in an elaborate wedding ceremony attended by 500 guests. Prior to their marriage, Ethel Merman claimed that she had "never felt so protected, this is forever, for keeps". Borgnine rejected suggestions that the age difference (Merman was 10 years his senior) would affect their relationship.

After a honeymoon in Japan, the couple returned to the US, where they then separated after only a month of marriage. Merman divorced Borgnine, claiming that she had suffered "extreme mental cruelty".

In her memoirs, Merman covered the marriage by leaving two pages blank. Within a year, Borgnine was married to Donna Rancourt (37).

Throughout the Sixties, Ernest Borgnine seemed undiscriminating in his choice of roles, accepting good and bad scripts with equanimity. He appeared in the distinctly average McHale's Navy (1964, based on a television series); as an army general, Sam Worden; in Robert Aldrich's Dirty Dozen (1967), filmed partly in Hertfordshire, England; Seduction in the South (1968), an Italian-made Western; and Ice Station Zebra (1969). It was then that he starred in Peckinpah's excellent The Wild Bunch.

During the early Seventies, Borgnine appeared almost exclusively in Westerns, starring in The Adventurers (1970), set in a South American republic, and Hannie Caulder (1971), in which he was very much in type as a murderer and rapist.

After a reunion with Bette Davis (as a pair of ageing bank robbers disguised as hippies) in the forgettable Bunny O'Hare in 1972, Borgnine accepted a role in The Poseidon Adventure, one of the long series of "disaster movies" in which he appeared during the Seventies and Eighties.

Borgnine and an all-star cast (including Gene Hackman, Red Buttons, Roddy McDowell and Shelley Winters) spent two hours fighting their way through the sinking wreckage of an ocean liner.

He followed this with another underwater disaster film, The Neptune Factor (1973). Despite two changes of name -- to Underwater Odyssey and The Neptune Disaster -- the film failed at the box office and was accused by critics of duplicating the plot of Marooned.

When not appearing in disaster movies, Borgnine continued to play what he described as "tough guy" roles. In 1975, he starred in the bizarre Sunday in the Country as an insane, Bible-quoting hillbilly who captures and tortures a group of bank robbers.

Later that year, he and Carol O'Connor starred as a pair of vigilante policemen in Law and Disorder. In Hustle (1976), Borgnine was promoted to police chief and he attained centurion status in Zeffirelli's Jesus Of Nazareth (1977).

In 1977, Borgnine returned to familiar territory with an appearance in the turgid Fire. Critics complained that the film relied almost entirely on library footage of forest fires and failed to create suspense.

After a brief interlude as the sheriff in Convoy -- Sam Peckinpah's celebration of truck drivers and their vehicles -- Borgnine returned to disaster films with an appearance in Black Hole (1979), about a spaceship sucked towards oblivion by a black hole.

Throughout the Eighties, Ernest Borgnine maintained his interest in action films. He appeared as the violent leader of a strange religious cult in Deadly Blessing (1981) and followed it later the same year with High Risk. He went on to star in a series of 'teen exploitation pictures' -- films such as Hollywood Hookers, Graduates of Malibu High (both 1982) and Young Warriors (1983) .

After a brief interlude in comedies, Borgnine returned to action films with a series of starring roles in The Dirty Dozen: The Next Mission (1985); Codename: Wildgeese (1986); The Dirty Dozen: Deadly Mission; and The Dirty Dozen: Fatal Mission (both 1987).

His work rate was prodigious. In 1989, at the age of 72, he appeared in six different films, with titles including Tides of War, Laser Mission and Real Men Don't Eat Gummy Bears. In 1990 he starred in the television film Appearances and in 1991 was in Moving Target. Towards the end of the decade he became the voice of Mermaid Man in the children's animation SpongeBob SquarePants.

Age did not slow him down. But it affected his career, as many in the business assumed he was dead.

In an interview in 2007, he said: "There aren't that many people who want to put Borgnine to work these days. They keep asking, 'Is he still alive?'"

Borgnine was an active Freemason and held the 33rd degree of the Scottish Rite of Masonry, as well as the Grand Cross, the highest honour for service to the Scottish Rite.

He was 88 when he gave up driving the bus in which he enjoyed touring the United States, stopping to talk with locals along the way.

With his first wife, Rhoda Kemins, Borgnine had a daughter. With Donna Rancourt, he had a son and two daughters.

In 1973, he married Tova Traesnaes, a marriage which endured.

She survives him with his four children.

Ernest Borgnine, born January 24, 1917, died July 8, 2012.

Sunday Independent

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