Ernest Borgnine? I Thought You Were Dead!

Sunday, July 8th, 2012

Ernest Borgnine has died at the ripe old age of 95. Forty-something North Carolinian that I am, Andy Griffith’s death bothered me more, but it didn’t matter as much. Ernest Borgnine was a talented actor, who genuinely deserved his academy award for best actor in Marty, anchored a far more important film that was never going to win any Oscars in The Wild Bunch, and in the surrounding time appeared in some of the greatest schlock movies ever made.

Once upon a time, Hollywood gave us actors who played themselves: No matter the part, the actor shone through. Today such performers are relegated to character actor status (or as the second best television criticism site called them, “Hey it’s that guy!”), but once the screen was loaded with actors whose personalities shone through so hard they typecast themselves: John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, Alec Guinness, Sean Connery, Jack Lemmon, Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Mr. T., and the greatest of them all, Humphrey Bogart. These were BIG actors, who appeared in BIG movies, not method-acting mushmouths like Daniel Day Lewis and Liam Neeson, nor inhuman cyborg scientologists like Tom Cruise and Matt Damon.

Borgnine was one of them. Yes, in every movie, he played Ernest Borgnine, and in every movie, he played Ernest Borgnine to perfection.

What more could one ask from an actor named Ernest Borgnine?

To appreciate the Borgnine ethos, I suggest the following films:

The Wild Bunch: This is a perfect film. It wasn’t the techno-urbanization of America that damned near killed the western. It was this film, along with Sergio Leone and Mel Brooks. Despite Clint Eastwood’s worthy attempts to bring it back, the western is still ailing. That’s because The Wild Bunch, the story of a band of American outlaws on their way to one glorious last stand in Pershing-era Mexico, said about everything that the genre has to say, and did so at the end of the period. William Holden is the star, but the movie wouldn’t be what it is without Borgnine as his surprisingly serious partner.

Marty: Hollywood still makes plenty of movies about ordinary Joes, but these are dull, Pinteresque dramas filled with meaning and boredom. In this well-deserved Oscar-winning performance as an ordinary Joe with serious family and romantic troubles, Borgnine combines humor and sadness in a way bigger actors couldn’t.  Highly recommended.

Escape From New York: “Snake Plissken?!? I thought you were dead!”

And finally, Jeff Krulik’s wonderful documentary, Ernest Borgnine On The Bus, in which we learn that Ernest Borgnine was a whole lot like Ernest Borgnine, driving across America righting wrongs in the way that only Ernest Borgnine could:

— Patrick from Popehat

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28 Responses to “Ernest Borgnine? I Thought You Were Dead!”

  1. #1 |  FridayNext | 

    The inclusion of Mr. T in that list almost obliterates your authority and sincerity. Even in jest I wouldn’t put that name with those others. If you wanted to add a black name go with Woody Strode. Not as big a star, but a solid actor and still makes your point.

  2. #2 |  Patrick from Popehat | 

    Ernest Borgnine would have laughed at it.

  3. #3 |  C. S. P. Schofield | 

    I liked the bit part he had in RED. It wasn’t particularly important, but it looked like he had fun doing it. I would have paid money to sit in on a dinner-table where he and Morgan Freeman were discussing pretty much anything that interested both of them.

  4. #4 |  Pete | 

    That is sad news. I loved watching McHale’s Navy (sitcom) re-runs as a kid in the early 70’s.

  5. #5 |  Ariel | 

    Yeah, I had a real moment of cognitive shutdown over Mr. T. Leaving out Garfield, and Robinson, but what is much, much more unforgivable, leaving out Cagney? For god’s sake, Cagney matched Bogart, except for Lauren Bacall. Yet, Bogart was never “on top of the world” and never was he a Yankee Doodle Dandy. OK, maybe Bacall was the top.

    And Patrick, how sexist can you be just because Borgnine was male, you left out Swanson, Garbo, Garson, Lamarr (OK, mainly that early nude scene circa 1929, give or take, and one of the hottest actresses ever), Lombard, Hepburn, really must I gone on to show you your shame?

    Finally, I must pose, whatever happened to Randolph Scott?

  6. #6 |  Dave | 

    So if TWOP is the 2nd best TV site, what’s the best?

  7. #7 |  Chris Hallquist | 

    @Dave: I actually assumed he was talking about But I second your question.

  8. #8 |  Ariel | 

    Furthermore, in praise of you, Patrick, you do see the lack of depth of passion in Cruise and Damon. Garfield had more in a single thumb, while Wayne always went for hot, fiery Mexican women, and Grant had his pick.

    My wife considers Cruise as “neutered”, nether a male passion nor a female passion; something less than either. Yet, I and she still like “The Last Samurai” and the part he was born for “Collateral”.

    Does Scientology clear by removing passion?

  9. #9 |  Patrick from Popehat | 

    TV Tropes is the finest website on earth.

  10. #10 |  Yizmo Gizmo | 

    Ernest Borgnine, was an epic man.
    The letters of his name, rearranged, spell both Beginner Stoner
    Boners Entering.

  11. #11 |  Lefty | 

    We’ve still got Kevin Spacey, Anthony Hopkins and Jack Nicholson. All pretty charismatic guys.

    Cruise is nuts. How gullible do you have to be to believe in a religion involving space aliens founded by a science fiction author.

  12. #12 |  Ted S. | 

    As a movie blogger, I’d pick an almost entirely different set of movies from the ones Patrick selected, with the exception of Marty, of course.

    For a well-played thug, try either of his supporting performances in Bad Day at Black Rock or as Fatso Judson in From Here to Eternity. And for something completely different, try Violent Saturday, in which Borgnine plays… an Amish farmer! A gang of bank robbers tries to use his farm as a hide out, leading to the inevitable crisis of conscience of how a non-violent Amish person should deal with violent bank robbers trying to kill his family.

    And for something set at sea, you could always try The Poseidon Adventure, at least to ogle his screen wife Stella Stevens.

  13. #13 |  Mary | 

    I have never, ever run across someone who didn’t like Daniel Day Lewis!

  14. #14 |  (B)oscoH, Yogurt Eater | 

    I’m gonna say it. “Airwolf”

  15. #15 |  Dave | 

    TV Tropes is the finest website on earth.

    Well no real argument here, but it’s not really a TV criticism website…

    The thing with TV Tropes is how it can cause time to bend; all of a sudden 3 hours have disappeared.

  16. #16 |  Cappy | 

    Along with Kevin Spacey I would place Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp, Steve Buscemi, Harvey Keitel and Jeff Bridges.

  17. #17 |  scott in phoenix | 


    I’ll bet Earnest Borgnine liked, nay, probably loved “The Star Spangled Banner”.

    Like most of the “stars” of that time, I’d be willing to bet he was a patriot.

    You could have learned a lot from him.

  18. #18 |  cthulhu | 

    The other thing about Marty, of course, is that it was written by the great Paddy Chayefsky, always one of the most understated yet powerful screenwriters of his generation (or any generation). Second your review of The Wild Bunch; it really said all there was to say. We need good actors like Ernest Borgnine, whether character actors or leading men or women; the vitality of the art of cinema demands fearless acting (and Tom Cruise doesn’t cut it; I’ll never forgive him for not being good enough to be the spellbinding center that Kubrick’s last movie demanded).

  19. #19 |  el coronado | 

    The thing that always most impressed me about Borgnine was, strangely enough, his 32-day marriage to Ethel Merman. Merman was his 3rd wife of 5 – hey, the guy was a Hollywood Star; marrying a lot is what they DID back then – but he realized right quick it wasn’t gonna work. (rumor has it it’s because he overheard her talking to her mom about “what a lousy husband he was” right after the honeymoon, but YMMV.)

    So, even knowing he was gonna have to eat a lot of shit sandwiches and be the butt of a lot of jokes, he cut his losses *right then*. He _fired_ her ass. Tough decision; ballsy as hell; and absolutely correct. Doing it quick saved him months if not years of pain and God knows how much $$ and hassle.

    And then 10 years – and 1 more short-lived marriage – later he met *Her*, and stayed married to her for almost 40 years. Till Death did them part. Interesting guy: would have liked to have a drink or 2 with him. (Can’t say that about Cruise or Travolta.)

  20. #20 |  marco73 | 

    Loved him as the general in Dirty Dozen. Not a huge role, but he made a distinct impression.
    Wild Bunch. Now that is what film is all about!

    Fair sailing Mr. Borgnine.

  21. #21 |  Marty | 

    I always thought Borgnine and George Kennedy were pretty similar, with Borgnine being more nuanced. The Wild Bunch was my favorite and I loved the documentary. What a neat guy.

  22. #22 |  Obit watch: July 9, 2012. « Whipped Cream Difficulties | 

    […] to add: And, oddly enough, a nice tribute from Patrick at Popehat, guest blogging at Balko’s […]

  23. #23 |  Patrick from Popehat | 

    Scott in Phoenix, I don’t know whether Ernest Borgnine loved the Star Spangled Banner as much as you do, but I do know that Strom Thurmond, Joseph McCarthy, Richard Daley, and Spiro Agnew all did.

    I never learned anything from Ernest Borgnine about patriotism, but I learned a lot about you from your comment.

  24. #24 |  Orion | 

    Don’t forget the greatest Reagan era TV show of all time, Airwolf!

  25. #25 |  ClubMedSux | 

    24 comments and no mention of Borgnine’s classic appearance on The Simpsons?

    Homer: Son, there was something I was going to give you at the end of
    this trip, but since we may not survive, I want you to have it
    Bart: [gasps] A real Swiss Army knife! Cool!
    Homer: I stole it from that Borgnine guy.
    [Scene switch to a ferocious bear]
    Ernest: Don’t worry, kids! I’ll take care of him with my trusty…
    [searches for his knife]…er, er, um, er, uh, hmm.

  26. #26 |  Jim | 

    All those great roles, AND the voice of Mermaid Man on Spongebob Squarepants. Solid gold. RIP.

  27. #27 |  Lefty | 

    scott in phoenix,

    I suspect it’s possible to be a patriot and not like the SPB despite what Mr Borgnine believed or might have said on the matter.

  28. #28 |  Boyd Durkin | 

    I had a dream that I interviewed Borgnine and asked nothing but questions about Airwolf. I think it’s a metaphor for the upcoming Presidential debates.