Monday, July 9, 2012

Ernest Borgnie - "Ernie"

When I began this blog, back in 2009, I was in the habit of sending copies of my posts to the subjects by e-mail. With Ernest Borgnine I was unable to do that. He had no e-mail! It wasn’t a generational thing; he was just light years ahead of me, and only really communicated by twitter. I have always held that I am incapable of any type of communication; verbal, or written; which restricts me to a finite number of characters, or words. So, I just Googled his real estate holdings in Los Angeles and mailed it to the first address that came up. After that, I completely forgot about it.

Two years later; well maybe only 18 months; an envelope arrived in the mail; yes, the U.S. Mail; and in it was the signed copy of the review of his autobiography which I had sent, minus the cover letter. To say that I was thrilled is an understatement.  It hangs, framed, on my wall.

Long before “McHale’s Navy”, Ernest Borgnine was serious actor, even winning the Academy Award for Best Actor in the film “Marty”. In that film he plays a lonely butcher who lives at home with his mother and spends his evenings with his other unwed friends; drinking, going to dance clubs; always looking to “score”. It’s an empty life, and Marty longs for more, even as he thinks himself too ugly to find true love.

But, even before that came his portrayal of “Fatso”, the sadistic Sargent in charge of the brig in Pearl Harbor, just on the brink of World War Two. The irony of that role is that in real life Mr. Borgnine had just returned from duty at Pearl Harbor when it was attacked. He spent the rest of the war patrolling the rivers of New York City on a yacht. It was there that he absorbed the ability to play the two greatest roles of his long career. The city gave him a chance to really observe people, and record all that he was seeing. He would use those observations in the years after the war to great advantage as an actor.
He was brilliant alongside Bette Davis and Debbie Reynolds in “The Catered Affair”, in which Mr. Borgnine plays a cab driver saving to buy his own cab; and just as he arrives at his goal, his daughter is planning a “catered” wedding; which will, of course, keep him from realizing his goal.

In “Bad Day at Black Rock” he plays a sadistic killer who works for William Holden, a rancher who has killed an innocent Japanese farmer for his land; even as the dead man’s son was fighting for America in the Pacific. His intensity in that role, alongside Spencer Tracy and Lee Marvin is palpable.

I watched all of those movies on TV as a kid, always mesmerized by the strength of his performance. I didn’t even have to like the movie – just watching him act was enough for me. Later he was re-created as the seemingly errant Lt. McHale in “McHale’s Navy”, opposite the bumbling character of Captain Bighamton, played by Joe Flynn.

In his later years, he did voice overs for both “The Simpsons”, as well as “SpongeBob SquarePants.” Talk about versatility! His ability to adapt kept him vital for over 60 years in show business, weathering each technological change with the tenacity of the sailor he was so long ago. “Fair winds and following seas” to you “Ernie.” Through the medium of film, you will always be with us.
To read a review of his truly entertaining autobiography, go here;

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