Ernest Borgnine: His career spanned 'McHale's Navy' to Oscar winning 'Marty'

This week's tribute turns to Ernest Borgnine. Or, as he would be quick to say, Photo: Ernest Borgnine displays his Oscar (L) and Golden Globe (R), 2008 AP

WASHINGTON, July 28, 2012 — This is a continuation of last week’s story about the loss in July of three great actors and people within a two-week period: Andy Griffith, Ernest Borgnine, and Celeste Holm.

This week we turn to Ernest Borgnine. Or, as he would be quick to say, “Call me Ernie.”

Ernie made 110 motion pictures, giving a solid performance in every role. There was no such thing as an Ernest Borgnine role. You could never predict if he would be the “heavy” or the good guy.

His first film to garner recognition was the 1953 masterpiece, “From Here To Eternity.” He played to detestable perfection the sadistic bully, Sgt “Fatso” Judson, whose favorite target was Pvt. Angelo Maggio, portrayed by Frank Sinatra.

I remember seeing the televised Academy Awards show in 1954, when Mr. Sinatra collected an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor. And when his two children expressed anger at Mr. Borgnine for the way he treated their father in the film, Sinatra told them, “You be nice to that man. Because of him I got the Oscar.” 

Grace Kelly hands Borgnine the Oscar, 1956

In 1955, the two men of “Eternity” now butted heads in the race for the Best Actor Oscar. Borgnine was up for his role as the humble butcher in Patty Chayefsky’s “Marty,” in which he played opposite Betsy Blair who was at the time married to Sinatra’s good friend Gene Kelly. Sinatra was nominated for the powerful role of the druggie cardsharp, Frankie Machine, in Nelson Algren’s “Man With the Golden Arm.”

Both men wanted that little 8 1/2 pound statuette called Oscar. And both men had a huge sentimental following. 

This time the name heard following “And the winner is…” was “Ernest Borgnine for ‘Marty.’” He beat out not only Sinatra, but also, James Dean, who had died before the ceremonies, for “East of Eden”; Spencer Tracy, “Bad Day at Black Rock” (in which Ernie played a bad-guy supporting role); and James Cagney in his last nominated film, “Love Me or Leave Me.”

Of Ernest Borgnine’s five marriages, his third gained the most publicity. In 1964, Ernie and Broadway musical star Ethel Merman married in late June. “Ethel and Ernie,” what a nice homey ring it had. “Broadway Ethel and Hollywood Ernie,” what a sophisticated sound. I recall Ernie going on TV talk shows and telling about how he and Ethel met “across a crowded room” and found love at first sight. Unfortunately, somebody blinked, because their union ended after 62 days.

What turned the trick was their international honeymoon. People of other nations recognized movie star, Ernest Borgnine. They had never seen a Broadway show. So people shouted and sought the autograph of movie star Ernest Borgnine. They didn’t have any idea who the lady by his side was, other than that she was his wife. 

In addition, Ernie was not only recognizable, he was also very personable. His gap-toothed smile and welcoming arms were open to anybody. 

If you want to see Ernie’s informal charm with the average person, you should view a documentary film by my pal Jeff Krulik. Back in 1995, the Washington filmmaker learned that Ernest Borgnine traveled around the country in a customized 40-foot  bus called the SunBum. Jeff felt impelled to contact the Hollywood star. His request could have been dismissed, spurned or ignored. But not by Ernest Borgnine.   

So in July of 1995, Ernie, his son Chris, Jeff, and a photographer began a tour, which resulted in the 50-minute documentary, “On the Bus With Ernest Borgnine.”

Ernie was a mere 78 at the time. You’ll feel like you’re riding along with these happy travelers as they stop and go along the way. 

Had this film been picked up by a cable TV channel, it well may have become the first Reality TV show. Can’t you just hear it? 

“Hello. This is Don Pardo welcoming you to ‘Travel With Krulik.’ This week Jeff travels with another celebrity on an excursion of their choice. Tonight our guest traveler will be …  Regis Philbin, as they tour through five towns in the Shenandoah Valley.”  

On Ernie’s week-long trip through the Midwest, he sings, tells stories, converses with people in eateries. One man tells him he remembers “Marty” and “Poseidon Adventure,” and Ernie says, “That was yesterday. This is now.” He adds, “This is what it’s all about. Enjoy life. You’ll last longer.” Ernest Borgnine “lasted” till 95 years of age. 

Jeff Krulik has kindly given me permission to make his film of this classic journey  available to my readers in two modes: (1) the 50-minute documentary itself, and (2) the full footage of the entire week in 47 brief videos.

As a result of their cross country trip together, Ernie and Jeff formed a warm relationship, and many people contacted Jeff, including myself, to express their sympathies upon the actor’s passing.

Ernest Borgnine was “one of a kind.” He will not be forgotten. With Krulik’s documentary, Ernest’s 100 movies and television tapes, his Oscar, and his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, he can’t be forgotten.

If there breathes a person who has not seen Ernest in “From Here To Eternity,” the Washington D.C. is making it easy for you to correct that. This classic will be showing at “Screen on the Green” on the National Mall, at 8 p.m. Monday, July 30. 

Vance Garnett’s writings have appeared in major newspapers and magazines. They have won the praise of such luminaries as Paul Harvey, William Safire, and Shirley Povich. Vance has shared his life experiences and knowledge of D.C. with the Washington Historical Society, the Kiwanis clubs of the Washington area, and on WAMU’s “Kojo Nnamdi Show.”

This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Vance Garnett

Vance Garnett is an eclectic observer of life, politics and sports. 

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