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Ernest Borgnine, R.I.P.

By Rich Heldenfels Published: July 9, 2012


I remember seeing "RED," with Bruce Willis, not long ago and it reaching the scene where Ernest Borgnine appeared. I had to grin. It wasn't just the pleasure that came with seeing Borgnine at all. It was also that, in a movie about older people who were still vital (including as killers), there was Borgnine who, in his 90s was older than the rest of the lot and quite capable of stealing a scene.

It was also a reimder that Borgnine knew how to keep a career going. Yes, he believed in keeping it going to such a degree that there's a lot of throwaway in his resume. But that also led to regular reminders that he was around, and available.

Like so many people my age, I discovered him via "McHale's Navy," the affable military farce which was regular viewing for me (although I watched it more for the antics of Tim Conway than for Borgnine himself). Then, later, I began to see his work as movie heavies, including in "From Here to Eternity," above. And a very scary villain he was. Look at his face when he tells Sinatra that he will see him eventually. (Look, too, at how natural he seems in the role, especially in comparison to the way too mannered performance by Burt Lancaster).

But even as he was a  great bad guy, he was even better as a lovable soul. He won his Oscar for "Marty" -- a watershed kitchen-sink drama which was a big sign that Hollywood was running up the white flag to television; it had begun as a TV play, with Rod Steiger in the role Borgnine played in the movies, and Borgnine substituted sweet melancholy for Steiger's more angry frustration. Borgnine could also get audiences to like him after that, although he was capable of more. Check him out in "The Dirty Dozen," where Borgnine -- a real-life military veteran -- telegraphs both the toughness of a fighting man and the cunning of someone who has deftly navigated military rules and reg; even when Lee Marvin is in the room, Borgnine's character is the smartest one.


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