I'm a huge Ernest Borgnine fan. I was thinking that Borgnine, who died last week at age 95, was probably so old that most movie fans today wouldn't know who he was.
So I did a little test case with the summer intern in the cubicle next to mine.
“You ever heard of Ernest Borgnine?” I asked Neal Gebhard, who is 22.
“Oh, yeah,” he said instantly with a little smile. “SpongeBob SquarePants.”
I was flabbergasted. On the TV cartoon show from 1999 to this year, Borgnine voiced a character called Mermaid Man, whom Neal described as “a senile version of Aquaman.” (Aquaman, older readers, is a superhero from the comic books who can talk to fish.)
Well, that's the thing about Borgnine. He had an amazing career spanning 60-plus years, even though he didn't even think about acting until he was nearly 30.
He's probably best known for playing heavies in the movies, like Sgt. Fatso Judson in “From Here to Eternity” or Coley Trumble in “Bad Day at Black Rock.”
But he won the best-actor Oscar in 1956 playing totally against that type in the tiny-budget arthouse picture “Marty.”
It's the story of a middle-aged bachelor who has all but given up on love, describing himself as “fat and ugly.” But at a dance, he meets a girl who has also given up on herself, and they awkwardly connect. (A great script by Paddy Chayefsky, by the way, also won an Oscar and boosted the movie to the best-picture trophy.)
The role in which I first noticed Borgnine, when I was a tweener in the 1960s, was anything but a heavy: the title character in “McHale's Navy,” a broad TV sitcom in which he played a sort of con-man captain of a PT boat, opposite Tim Conway and Joe Flynn. He got an Emmy nomination for that.
He beat rats to death with a chair in “Willard.” He was a nasty cabbie in the post-apocalyptic “Escape From New York.” He went wild in “The Wild Bunch.”
He was a great character actor with incredible range and versatility in the parts he played, and that gave him staying power. Not many actors can keep working steadily into their 90s.
He was a doorman on the TV series “The Single Guy” when he turned 80. His last of more than 100 movies, “The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez,” has yet to play at a theater near you but opened at a film festival in April.
His name pops up in unusual places when you study his credits: A male nurse in an insane asylum in the Broadway production of “Harvey,” starring Jimmy Stewart, in 1949. A small part as a general in “The Dirty Dozen” in 1967. A guest shot on “7th Heaven” in 2002.
More people might remember him for playing the retired cop in “The Poseidon Adventure,” defending his marriage to a seasick hooker while bumping chests with an itinerant preacher played by Gene Hackman.
One of my favorite Borgnine roles was Tom, another New York City cabdriver, in a small but affecting drama, “The Catered Affair.” He plays a working stiff who likes to swill a beer or two at the end of the day, married to a disillusioned Bette Davis. When their daughter (Debbie Reynolds) decides to get married, his wife wants to put on the dog in ways they can't afford. It's Borgnine who finally reminds her who they really are.
He seemed like such a down-to-earth guy, with no airs or ego.
Yet he was married to Broadway diva Ethel Merman for only 37 days, and the tabloids had a field day.
In her autobiography, Merman devoted a chapter to her marriage to Borgnine: a single blank page.
That was Borgnine's third marriage. His fourth, to cosmetics businesswoman Tova Traesnaes, lasted nearly 40 years — “more than all my other marriages combined,” he jovially noted in an interview late in life.
He was born Ermes Effron Borgnino, son of two Italian immigrants, on Jan. 24, 1917, in Hamden, Conn. When he got out of high school in 1935, he didn't know what he wanted to do, so he joined the Navy. That lasted until the end of World War II in 1945, when his mother suggested his forceful personality would make him a good actor.
How right she was.
Borgnine's fellow nominees for the Academy Award in 1956 were James Cagney for “Love Me or Leave Me,” James Dean for “East of Eden,” Frank Sinatra for “The Man With the Golden Arm” and Spencer Tracy for “Bad Day at Black Rock.”
Five truly great performances, but all of the other nominees perhaps have more Hollywood glamour attached to them than Borgnine.
He buried them all.