Monday, January 24, 2011

Happy Birthday Ernest (Borgnine)!

An Academy Award

"The Wild Bunch" with Bill Holden

"Emperor of the North" with Lee Marvin

McHale's Navy

This morning it is my great pleasure, and honer, to wish one of the nicest men I've ever met happy birthday, veteran actor and Academy Award winner, Ernest Borgnine.
He was born a long time ago, and would be about three years older than my own father if he had lived past 47. His name when he was born was Ermes Effron Borgnino, and he was Italian. That's not so hard to figure out. His dad, Camillo, emigrated to the United States from Ottiglio, Italy, and his mom, Anna, came here from Carpi, which is also in Italy making them both Italian, so naturally young Ermes was of Italian ancestry, but he was born here in Hamden, Connecticut, making him American.
His parents separated when he was 2 and Anna took him back to Italy for a while, but 3 years later they got back together, and the family name was changed from Borgnino to Borgnine. I don't know why.
Ernie (he likes to be called Ernie) would later famously play a Lieutenant Commander in the navy on television, but when he was 18 years old he joined the real navy. That was 1935. I joined the navy in 1978. I was 22. See how much we have in common!
He wasn't an officer though, and neither was I. No we worked for a living. Ernest was a Gunner's Mate, which means he took care of the ship's weapons, especially guns. I was a Boatswain's Mate, whose job it was to steer the ship. Hey, someone's got to do it.
Ernie stayed in the navy until 1941, but reenlisted after Pearl Harbor and the United States entered World War II. He served on the USS Lamberton (which happened to be just as old as Ernie was), a destroyer, whose job it was to go around and destroy things.
Not really. It's job was to escort larger, less maneuverable ships, so they wouldn't get destroyed. So it really should have been called a nondestroyer. He served for a total of ten years, until the war ended in 1945, and left the service with the rank of Petty Officer 1st Class (In 2004 the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy bestowed an honorary rank of Chief Petty Officer on Ernest, which was one step up from a 1st Class).
Ernie went home after the war and worked in factory jobs. I worked in factory jobs as well, but before I went into the navy. In fact I can tell you almost everything there is to know about making a freaking transformer. However that story is for another time.
But those jobs were a dead end, and Ernie wanted more for himself. His mother had always been very supportive of her son, and suggested that his strong personality lent itself toward a possible career in acting. He surprised her by taking her suggestion seriously and auditioned and was accepted at The Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Virginia (which used to accept produce as payment for admission during the Great Depression, hence the name). In 1947, he landed his first stage role in "State of the Union," in small part, but the audience loved him. In 1949 he began on Broadway in one of my very favorite plays, Mary Chase's "Harvey," playing the male nurse, the part Jesse White played in the film with James Stewart.
In 1951 he moved out here to Los Angeles, and by golly he's still here! He got the part of Hu Chang in that year's "China Corsair," an adventure film starring Jon Hall. He got his big break two years later though in 1953, in "From Here to Eternity," the spirited story of the hijinks of soldiers stationed in Hawaii just before the attack on Pearl Harbor, starring Burt Lancaster, Debra Kerr, Montgomery Clift, and Frank Sinatra (who won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor).
Ernest played a very bad guy, James R. "Fatso" Judson. This would earn him a reputation as a dependable "character actor," and he would play a lot of villains, which was totally against his real personality. Remember I said he was one of the nicest guys I've ever met, and he's proved that throughout the years in personal appearances and interviews. But Ernie is a great actor, a remarkable actor, and is able to play very bad people, psychotic, cruel people, so well that he scares me.
But in 1955 he was cast as a lonely, warm hearted, love starved butcher in the film adaptation of the television play written by Paddy Chayefsky, "Marty."
He got nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award for his performance. He was up against Frank Sinatra, Spencer Tracy, James Cagney, and James Dean.
Ernest won.
He would continue a successful career in films, some of my favorites being, as Ragnar in "The Vikings," a simple minded oil rig worker in "The Flight of the Phoenix," a general in "The Dirty Dozen," a soviet spy in "Ice Station Zebra" (a favorite of Howard Hughes), a western outlaw in "The Wild Bunch," a police detective on a capsized cruise ship in "The Poseidon Adventure," a crazed train conductor in "Emperor of the North," a cab driver in "Escape from New York," a janitor in "Gattaca," a team owner in "BASEketball," and most recently a CIA archivist in last year's "Red."
Ernie's been on a heck of a lot of television shows as well, starting back in 1951 in an appearance on "Captain Video and His Video Rangers." Eleven years later he would be given a part that he may be best known for, although I personally don't agree with that. The part was that of Lieutenant Commander Quinton McHale in "McHale's Navy," alongside Joe Flynn, and lifetime friend Tim Conway. The show depicted a cunning PT Boat Commander and his at times morally challenged crew, stationed in the Pacific during World War II. They would spend their time running scams behind the back of the Commanding Officer played by Flynn.
The show ran for 137 half hour episodes between 1962 and 1966. Here's a sample:
And it was during this time that a young boy in North Hollywood met Mr. Borgnine as he came out from promoting the opening of the Universal City branch of Bank of America, and who was dressed in his McHale's Navy uniform. The young boy asked him for his autograph, and offered his brand new bank book for the actor to write it in. "Sure," Mr. Borgnine said. And he did.
That boy was me.
That was the first autograph I'd ever gotten from anybody and it took a tremendous amount of courage on my part to ask for it. As a matter of fact I don't think I ever asked anybody else for an autograph ever.
Ernie is 94 today and still going strong. This Sunday he will be presented with the Screen Actor's Guild Life Achievement Award, at their annual awards show. Below is a link to a five part interview with Ernie conducted by Ken Howard, the current president of the Guild. In it they discuss the award, and pretty much everything I've written about above:
Congratulations Ernie! And all of us here at Joyce's Take wish you continued good health (Ernie's secret to long life and vitality... vigorous and frequent self manipulation) and fortune, and a very happy birthday.
Happy Birthday Ernie!

Addendum:  Ernest died of natural causes on July 8, 2012, at Ceders-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. His wife and children were at his side. He was 95 years old. Attenders at his funeral included several members of the United States Navy Seals, as well as Tim Conway, Scott Eastwood, Leonard Nimoy, Dylan McDermott, Gary Sinise, Joan Rivers, Joe Mantegna, Marlee Matlin, LeVar Burton, Rob Lowe,James Corden, Jenny McCarthy, Bruce Campbell, and Roger Ebert.

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