Actor Ernest Borgnine, whose bulldog appearance made him a natural for tough-guy roles in films like “The Wild Bunch” but won an Oscar for playing a sensitive loner in “Marty,” died on Sunday at the age of 95, his longtime publicist said.
Borgnine, who also starred as a maverick World War Two patrol-boat skipper in the popular 1960s television comedy “McHale’s Navy,” died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, where he had gone for a medical checkup on Tuesday, spokesman Harry Flynn said.
With his gruff voice and gap-toothed leer, Borgnine was on the verge of being typecast early in his career. That followed a string of convincing bad-guy roles in “Bad Day at Black Rock” in 1955, “Johnny Guitar” in 1954 and 1953’s “From Here to Eternity,” in which his sadistic Sergeant Fatso terrorized and eventually killed Frank Sinatra’s character.
But Borgnine broke the stereotype with a rare leading-man role in 1955’s “Marty,” playing a warm-hearted New York butcher who lamented, “One fact I gotta face is that, whatever it is that women like, I ain’t got it.”
Critic Bosley Crowther described Borgnine’s Oscar-winning performance as “a beautiful blend of the crude and strangely gentle and sensitive.”
Some critics hinted that Borgnine was a “Marty” in real life, but the actor, who was married five times, took exception by saying, “I’m no playboy, but I’m no dumb slob either.”
“Ernie is the nicest man I’ve ever worked with,” said Sidney Lanfield, who directed him in “McHale’s Navy.” “When he says, ‘Hello! How are you?’ or ‘Glad to see you!’ you can bet the line has not been rehearsed.”
Much of Borgnine’s other work was as a character actor in more than 60 movies. They included “The Vikings” (1958),” “The Flight of the Phoenix” (1965), “The Dirty Dozen” (1968), Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” (1969) and “The Poseidon Adventure” (1972).
He was born Ermes Effron Borgino in Hamden, Connecticut, and did not take up acting until after a 10-year hitch in the U.S. Navy.
“I just couldn’t see myself going into a factory where I saw these pasty-faced fellows walking in and walking out after stamping their cards,” Borgnine once said.
Using money he earned from the GI Bill, Borgnine studied at the Randall School of Dramatic Arts in Hartford and performed on stage for several years at a Virginia theater.
His first Hollywood job was a low-budget pirate picture, “China Corsair,” in 1951. After two more movies, he appeared on Broadway with Helen Hayes in “Mrs. McThing” in 1952.
In addition to his Academy Award as best actor, Borgnine’s work in “Marty” led to more sympathetic roles in such films as “Jubal” (1956), “The Best Things in Life Are Free” (1956) and “The Badlanders” (1958).
He returned to the sea on the big screen as a naval officer in “Torpedo Run” (1958) and, after a string of less successful movies, “McHale’s Navy” (1964), based on his TV series co-starring Tim Conway.
In 1988 he portrayed a mafia chief in the movie “Spike of Bensonhurst” and co-starred in the television action series “Airwolf” in the mid-1980s.
Borgnine’s 1964 marriage to singer-actress Ethel Merman barely lasted a month. He said it broke up because fans paid more attention to him than her during their honeymoon.
The longest of Borgnine’s five marriages was his last — to Tova Traesnaes, whom he married in 1973. Despite his rough looks, Borgnine appeared in ads touting the face-rejuvenating powers of beauty products from a company she started.