Ernest Borgnine passed away Sunday at age 95. It’s worth noting, though, that as late as last year, he still earned his name above the title.
On that particular occasion – in Another Harvest Moon – the Oscar-winning actor, arguably the hardest-working nonagenarian in showbiz, was perfectly cast as Frank, a retirement home resident who’s mentally robust enough to realize his memory is failing, and is a great deal less than eager to live much longer after a debilitating stroke.
It’s the sort of role that too often brings out the shamelessly manipulative hambone in lesser thespians. But Borgnine, as I noted in my appreciative Variety review, offered a full-bodied and affectation-free performance, easily dominating the film while at the same time establishing a credible and compelling relationship with co-star Richard Schiff as Frank’s increasingly anxious grown son.
Such diversity was typical of Ernest Borgnine, an actor whose lengthy career spanned from the low-key kitchen-sink drama of Marty to the spectacularly violent Western mythos of The Wild Bunch, and from the growly authority of a military commander in The Dirty Dozen to the sprightly eccentricity of a CIA records keeper in Red.
Another Harvest Moon received only minimal theatrical exposure before its home video release, quite possibly because it was aimed so obviously at over-50 ticketbuyers. But never mind: Even as the movie played at WorldFest and elsewhere, Borgnine was busy attracting a new generation of fans by appealing to a much younger demographic. How? Well, let me put it like this: have you ever listened – really listened – to the voice of Mermaid Man on SpongeBob SquarePants?
Such diversity was typical of Ernest Borgnine, an actor whose lengthy career spanned from the low-key kitchen-sink drama of Marty (the 1955 classic for which he earned the Oscar as Best Actor) to the spectacularly violent Western mythos of The Wild Bunch (1969), and from the growly authority of a military commander in The Dirty Dozen (1967) to the sprightly eccentricity of a CIA records keeper in Red (2010).
He often appeared as an epitome of badassery, most notably as the brutish sergeant who made life miserable (and short) for Frank Sinatra’s hapless character in From Here to Eternity (1953) and the amoral businessman who pays for his wicked ways by serving as a blue-plate special for hordes of hungry rats in Willard (1971).
McHale and hearty
But for TV viewers of a certain age – and those with ready access to cablecast reruns – Borgnine may be forever best known as the jovial Lt. Cmdr. Quinton McHale, seasoned skipper of the PT-73 and indulgent commander of a crew of goof-offs and gold bricks, in McHale’s Navy, the enduringly popular 1962-66 sitcom about the lighter side of World War II. (Can’t say I’ve watched an episode in many years, but by sheer coincidence, I bought a boxed set of DVDs a few weeks back at Half-Price Books, so…)
The funny thing, to paraphrase the final line of Spike Lee’s 25th Hour, that life came so close to never happening. Back in 1976, while he was promoting the undeservedly overlooked Shoot, Borgnine told me that, ironically, he very nearly passed on doing McHale’s Navy because, at the time, he was afraid that starring in a TV series might look like a step down for a movie actor. (Especially an Oscar-winning movie actor.)
One afternoon, however, he was rudely surprised – and, yes, more than a little embarrassed – when a paperboy who appeared at his door had no idea who he was, but could identify the lead player in every TV show Borgnine mentioned.
Shortly after that encounter, Borgnine said, he had a long and serious conversation with his agent.
Borgnine neatly balanced television and movie gigs for the remainder of his career, earning respect as a reliable pro who could, and often did, give more to a project than it ever gave him.
Critic Pauline Kael once marveled that she’d never, ever heard anyone else bellow “Aha!” the way Borgnine did as a cunning Russian agent in 1968’s Ice Station Zebra.
He could, and more often than not did, overplay colorfully when the situation called for scenery chewing. (Critic Pauline Kael once marveled that she’d never, ever heard anyone else bellow “Aha!” the way Borgnine did as a cunning Russian agent in 1968’s Ice Station Zebra). But if you want to see just how effectively and affectingly subtle he could be when working with the right director, take a look at the hauntingly potent dramatic short he did for director Sean Penn as part of the 2002 omnibus film September 11.
Borgnine plays an aged New York widower who still speaks to his long-deceased wife, and repeatedly wishes they could again enjoy sunshine in their cramped apartment. Ultimately, his wish comes true – at a terrible cost he seems not to notice.
In an interview for a revealing 2011 NPR profile of Borgnine, Penn admiringly noted that despite the older actor’s propensity for playing “bad guys and sad sacks,” Borgnine was neither. “He's that unusual creature we call a happy person,” Penn said, “and I think that does a lot for the health.”
Of course, Borgnine himself suggested there were, ahem, other reasons for his longevity. But there can be no debate over the secret of his lengthy professional success: Throughout decades of solid professionalism, unforgettable moments of indelible impact.