It’s arguably the greatest Western ever made, an unexpected and immensely influential work that opens where other films of the genre tend to end off—a shootout in a dust-blown town under the noonday sun. When Pike Bishop (played by William Holden) and his gang of ageing outlaws are ambushed by bounty hunters under the command of Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), what follows is a scene that not only instantly sketches a dozen characters, but also sets the tone for the crackling dialogue to come.
Take this interchange, where Ernest Borgnine, playing Bishop’s memorable sidekick Dutch Engstrom, isn’t buying his boss’ vague equivocations about the enemy:
Pike Bishop: What would you do in his place? He gave his word.
Dutch Engstrom: He gave his word to a railroad.
Pike Bishop: It’s his word.
Dutch Engstrom: That ain’t what counts! It’s who you give it to!
Sam Peckinpah, in choosing the cast for his 1969 masterpiece The Wild Bunch, couldn’t have done much better for the part of Engstrom than Borgnine—what was needed was a man with a loyal presence, an actor who, through his on-screen persona (solid, dependable, likeable), could carry and underline the moral centre-point of the plot.
Of course, it wasn’t always clear that Borgnine had such goods. As his obituary in the Los Angeles Times of 9 July had it, when he burst onto the scene as the sadistic Sergeant “Fatso” Judson in From Here to Eternity (1953), it seemed to Hollywood as though he was born to play the heavy. But just two years later he surprised everyone, proving to be an actor with way more versatility than your average typecast villain.
In 1955’s Marty, a film for which he won an Academy Award, Borgnine played a middle-aged love-starved mommy’s boy, a shy New York butcher who dreams only of getting married. It’s a beautifully simple plot, a meeting of a lonely boy and a lonely girl in a style and treatment reminiscent of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (the “common man” theme, in fact, runs through both, and Marty could have worked just as well as a play).
The drama in the film comes when Marty has to take the girl home to meet his overweening mother, and then has to bear her jealousy as well as the criticism of the boys from his Bronx neighbourhood. While Marty’s dilemma may be a small one in the scheme of things, his triumph is universal.
As the New York Times review of the film noted soon after its release: “Marty makes a warm and winning film, full of the sort of candid comment on plain, drab people that seldom reaches the screen. And Ernest Borgnine as the fellow and Betsy Blair as the girl—not to mention three or four others—give performances that burn into the mind.”
Which is not to say that Borgnine didn’t appear in his share of lame ducks over his 60-year career. A decade after Marty, he portrayed an oilrig foreman with psychological problems, and played one of the survivors of the downed cargo plane in The Flight of The Phoenix. A film that was slated as a festival of implausibility—the stranded men kill a camel yet fail to eat it, for instance, even after they’ve been subsisting on a diet of raw dates—this is a credit that the entire cast, including James Stewart, no doubt wished they could have deleted from their portfolios.
Robert Aldrich, director of The Flight of The Phoenix, would in 1967 cast Borgnine as the general in the classic war flick The Dirty Dozen, a movie that’s perhaps most closely identified with the actor. The fifth-highest grossing film of 1967, with box office takings of slightly over $18 million, The Dirty Dozen currently holds a 95% rating on the online review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, and has generated a slew of sequels and adaptations.
But while the pervasive link between Borgnine and Major General Worden is a little unfair, given that his most accomplished work was to be found elsewhere, he did have a lot to do with the enduring “armed services” association—from 1962 to 1966 he played the title role in the ABC sitcom McHale’s Navy, a role that he owned and made famous, thanks in no small part to his 10 years as a real-life navy man.
Born Ermes Effron Borgnino in the United States in 1917, Borgnine’s Italian immigrant parents separated when he was a toddler, and his mother took him to live in Italy, returning to the US after a few short years. He graduated from high school in 1935, and worked as a truck driver before enlisting in the navy as an apprentice seaman. Discharged two months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, he quickly re-enlisted and spent the war as a gunner’s mate on a destroyer.
After the war, unsure of what to do with his life, he got into acting on the advice of his mother—after all, she told him, according to the Los Angeles Times, “You’re always making a fool of yourself in front of people.”
Borgnine was married five times. “His third marriage was his most notorious,” noted the New York Times, “because of its brevity. He and the Broadway musical star Ethel Merman married in late June 1964 but split up early in August. Mr Borgnine later contended that Ms Merman left because she was upset that on an international honeymoon trip he was recognised and she wasn’t.”
Comedy, as implied, was always a powerful arrow in Borgnine’s quiver. In the TV sitcom The Single Guy, Borgnine was by all accounts the funniest thing about the show. Slightly older watchers of the failed mid-90s series may also remember the “actor with a perfect face for radio” appearing in ‘80s staples The Love Boat, Airwolf, Magnum PI and Murder, She Wrote.
What might not be so widely remembered, however, is that in 2009, at the age of 92, Borgnine earned an Emmy nomination for his performances in the final two episodes of the long-running NBC medical series ER.
Still, for this fan at least, of all the appearances that the unlikely star made—including his heartrending portrayal of the lonesome Marty—it was as Dutch Engstrom in Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch that Borgnine truly shone.
In 2007, questioned about whether he thought the violent yet timeless epic really had a moral core, he said: “I did [think it was a moral film]. Because to me, every picture should have some kind of a moral to it. I feel that when we used to watch old pictures, as we still do I’m sure, the bad guys always got it in the end and the good guys always won out. Today it’s a little different. Today it seems that the bad guys are getting the good end of it. There was always a moral in our story.”
On Sunday, 8 July 2012, another good guy got the bad end of it. Borgnine, who was 95, is survived by his fifth wife Tova; his children, Christofer, Nancee and Sharon Borgnine; his stepson, David Johnson; six grandchildren; and his sister, Evelyn Velardi. DM
Photo: Actor Ernest Borgnine attends the annual Academy Awards Italian nominees party in Hollywood March 2, 2006. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni
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