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Saturday 20 January 2018

Oscar-winner who took up acting to make a 'fool of himself'

Ernest Borgnine, the actor, who has died 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, mild-mannered Borgnine was given to bouts of domestic cleaning. "My mother made me do all the housework as a boy," he once recalled. "I still do it, even in hotels."

He 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 hiring two "hit men" to murder her.

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 in 1917 at Hamden, Connecticut, the son of Italian immigrants called Borgnino.

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

In 1945 he was demobilised. Uninspired by the prospect of work at the local factory, 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. After a year he joined a travelling repertory company which toured the US, before making his Broadway debut in a six-week run of Harvey.

In the early 1950s 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 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).

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

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. Prior to their marriage Ethel Merman, who was 10 years his senior, claimed that she had "never felt so protected, this is forever, for keeps".

After only a month of marriage, Merman divorced Borgnine, claiming she had suffered "extreme mental cruelty". In her memoirs, Merman covered the marriage by leaving two pages blank. Within a year, Borgnine married 37-year-old Donna Rancourt.

Throughout the 1960s 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 TV series); as an army general, Sam Worden, in Robert Aldrich's Dirty Dozen (1967). Two years later he starred in Peckinpah's excellent The Wild Bunch.

In 1972, Borgnine accepted a role in The Poseidon Adventure, one of the long series of "disaster movies" in which he appeared during the 1970s and 1980s. Borgnine and an all-star cast, including Gene Hackman and Shelley Winters) spent two hours fighting their way through the sinking wreckage of an ocean liner.

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.

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.

Towards the end of the 1990s 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. In 2007 he said: "There aren't many people who want to put Borgnine to work these days. They keep asking: 'Is he still alive?'"

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, who survives him with his four children. Traesnaes manufactured beauty products under the name of Tova and used her husband's rejuvenated face in her advertisements.

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

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