Monday, 9 July 2012

Ernest Borgnine – RIP:

Hollywood lost one of its most talented and prolific actors when Ernest Borgnine died of renal failure, on July 8, 2012, with his family at his bed side, in California.
Not only did I enjoy many of his movies, I also empathize with his strong work ethic, share his opinion on the concept of retirement, and whole heartedly agree with him when he said:

“I think you have to keep going. Otherwise, you know these fellas that say: ‘Boy I can't wait to retire. Boy, I'm going to be 65 years old, and I'm retiring and I'm quitting and that's it.’ Well, two weeks later they're saying to themselves, ‘What the hell am I gonna do?’ And first thing you know they find themselves in a wheelchair, or in a rocking chair going back and forth, back and forth, and that's the end of it. And suddenly you're dead.”

Borgnine’s statement on retirement sums up my own feelings on it: I have no desire or intention of ever retiring. Why should I? When I work at things I love to do, it doesn’t feel like work, so why would I want to stop? Inactivity-induced boredom is a big problem for me. The idea of eventually doing nothing but sit around, counting the hours in so-called retirement mode sounds to me like something close to torture. So, like Ernest Borgnine, I’ll just keep on going for as long as I can.
Born of Italian parents who migrated to America, Borgnine initially had no desire to go into acting. Instead, he enjoyed sports in his youth and joined the navy after graduating at 18. He served for 10 years and left in 1945. Unfulfilled with working dead-end factory and warehouse jobs, he went into drama school. He enjoyed a succession of roles and was awarded the Best Actor Oscar in 1955 for his portrayal of a kind-hearted butcher, in the title role of Marty.
His height and formidable stature, combined with his gruff voice and stern looks made him perfect for tough-guy roles.

He had a natural ability, dry wit and was gifted with a cruel, sardonic grin that added to his authoritive ‘don’t dare mess with me’ image.

Among seven of my favorites are The Devil's Rain (1975), a now dated but still fun horror movie about a satanic cult that starts and ends with a gloopy, gory meltdown fest. Watch carefully to spot John Travolta in an early ‘blink and you miss him’ role.

He had a small but memorable supporting role in The Dirty Dozen (1967), one of the greatest war movies ever made, alongside an ensemble cast headed by Lee Marvin.
Borgnine also played in all three sequels.

He would star again with Lee Marvin, this time in a lead role, in the depression-era movie, Emperor of the North (aka Emperor of the North Pole) (1973), as a railroad worker who ruthlessly bludgeoned, with a large hammer he hung on his work belt, any hobos he caught attempting to ride his train for free.
Lee Marvin co-starred as a hobo who turned riding his particularly train into a challenge and battle of the wills.

Next, I saw him in another supporting role, in Hustle (1975), a gritty and sleazy cop thriller starring Burt Reynolds, Catherine Deneuve and Ben Johnson – his previous co-star from The Wild Bunch (1969).

In Escape from New York (1981), he played an eccentric prisoner, called Cabbie, starring with another great, ensemble cast, led by Kurt Russell, in an exciting action sci-fi, as Cabbie joins a race against time to rescue the President from New York City, which has been walled-off and is the one maximum security prison for the entire country.

Convoy (1978) had cult-hit status when it was released for video tape rental during the early 1980s.
It’s a hugely enjoyable action comedy in which Borgnine played a mean sheriff, ‘Dirty Lyle’ Wallace, who battles against a Convoy of truckers attempting to escape across the border into Mexico after a fist-fight in a diner. The movie gave Borgnine a role to get his teeth into and one he clearly relished.

Last night, I took time out to rewatch The Wild Bunch (1969), a classic western I was fortunate to see in the cinema again a few years ago as a one-off special screening.
Director Sam Peckinpah, who’d later work with Borgnine again on Convoy, made one of the bloodiest, existential, realist westerns in movie history.

The climax with the titular ‘Wild Bunch’ (pictured from left to right: Ben Johnson, Warren Oates, William Holden and Ernest Borgnine) walking to and confronting the entire Mexican army, going out in a true blaze of glory, remains powerful to watch. There were many other memorable roles in his career, spanning over sixty years, on stage, TV and cinema, although not all of his movies were great, and some got him nominated for the ‘Razzie’ award, but he took it all in good humor.
Married five times, he also marched every year for three decades as the ‘Grand Clown’ in Milwaukee's annual Great Circus Parade, and enjoyed touring the US and meeting fans. He remained a prolific and talented actor, outspoken and an active Republican.
We have lost the actor, but his talent will remain forever in the roles he played, to be enjoyed and admired by future generations to come.

I defy anyone not to join in with Ernest Borgnine’s infectious, hysterical laughter during the end credits of Convoy.

In memory of Ernest Borgnine (January 24, 1917 – July 8, 2012).


  1. Sadly, Mr. Borgnine died while I was in the middle of reading 'From Here to Eternity.' I was looking forward to the thought that I would be enjoying his character (as much as one can enjoy Fatso Judson - he's a horrible person) in the lifetime of one of the few remaining living actors from the film. Now I'll be a little sadder when I see it.

  2. I will miss Ernest! My husband and I just talked about how old he must be getting when we watched him in "RED" with Bruce Willis. Another good movie.

    This was an excellent post, well researched and thought out. :-)