Friday, July 13, 2012

I Dunno; Whadda You Wanna Do Tonight?

Ernest Borgnine (1917 - 2012)

The Legendary Drew and Josh Alan Friedman's Any Resemblance
To Persons Living Or Dead
, 1986 (Fantagraphics)

Ernest Borgnine, born Ermes Effron Borgnino, passed away earlier this week. In case no one noticed.

It would have been different if Borgnine believed himself to be a towering talent, his career frustrated by lesser mortals (god knows there are plenty of card-carrying SAG and AFTRA members today who think that's true for them) -- but Borgnine was more realistic than that, about himself and his career.

Borgnine with a copy of Josh Alan Friedman's 2011
Autobiographical "Black Cracker" (Borgnine)

It's not easy to play a heavy; ask the actors who've made a living doing it. But in the Best Picture Oscar-winner for 1953, From Here To Eternity, Borgnine made Master Sargent "Fatso" Judson, the brutal stockade NCO (he beats Frank Sinatra to death in the third reel) into a believable figure -- the sort of man you hope you never find yourself at the mercy of.

And he made you suspend your disbelief enough that when he loses that knife fight in a Honolulu alley to Montgomery Cliff, you watch the narrow, sadistic character Borgnine created roll over, and lie still, and find yourself thinking Good; that asshole had it coming.

Judson Brandishes His Knife: Borgnine's First Career Move
In Fred Zinneman's From Here To Eternity (1953);
George Reeves Of Teevee 'Superman' Fame In Background

He followed Eternity up by playing in the sword-and-sandals 1954 costume drama, "Demetrius and The Gladiators", but his portrayal of Judson led director John Sturgis to cast Borgnine as another supporting heavy in the 1955 Bad Day At Black Rock. His Coley Trimble is another sadistic bully, one of three men in a tiny desert town who murdered a local Japanese man after Pearl Harbor -- but unlike Fatso Judson, this character is deeply disturbed, barely held together by bad dreams and manic laughter.

Little More Hot Sauce For Your Coffee; Borgnine And
Spencer Tracy In Bad Day At Black Rock (1954)

In 1953, Playwright Paddy Chayefsky's television screenplay, Marty, was broadcast with a rising star, Rod Steiger (later of The Pawnbroker), in the title role as a blue-collar butcher and lonely bachelor in Yonkers, battling his own self-image and family ties to break through to happiness, and a stronger sense of himself. When casting was being done for a film version in 1955, Borgnine was chosen for the title role, and it led to his being awarded the Oscar for Best Actor in 1956.

Any actor will tell you that the Craft is also a Job, and if you're not making a paycheck it doesn't matter how talented you think you are. Borgnine worked steadily in film and television in the next fifty-six years following his only Oscar (when he died, he was the voice of Mermaid Man on Spongebob Square Pants), and it was steady work -- I remember him in Flight Of The Phoenix; The Poseidon Adventure; The Dirty Dozen; The Wild Bunch; Escape From New York, among others. As a character actor, he was a fixture.

And naturally, I remember him from McHale's Navy (1963 -1967) -- his real signature role, much as Andy Griffith (who died a few days before Borgnine) will always be known as the television sheriff of Mayberry.

My Cartoon Tribute To Borgnine (1995)

Borgnine did not have a wide range, but he was a decent actor. The proof was in his portrayals of Fatso Judson and Coley Trimble -- evil, but not completely two-dimensional characters whom we recognized -- and distinct opposites from Ernest Borgnine the man, who from all reports was kind, engaging and genuine.

Borgnine the actor persuaded us to accept the likes of Judson and Trimble. You wouldn't cast him as Thomas Moore in 'A Man For All Seasons'; you wouldn't find him in a play by Stoppard or Beckett or O'Neill, but he might have done justice to Willy Loman. He would have been a decent Coach Bob in Hotel New Hampshire, and Borgnine definitely could have played Don Ciccio, the Sicilian mafioso who kills the father of the young Don Corleone, in The Godfather, Part II.

He was a perfect choice to play Chayefsky's Marty because the character could have been Borgnine's next-door neighbor, back in the day. He knew Marty's neighborhood, because he had grown up in one almost identical to it, leaving it during WW2 as a seaman and returning to it after VJ Day. But for different life choices, Borgnine might have gone on to become a regular in that neighborhood much like Marty, and he probably knew it.

Where life did take him were places nearly everyone he grew up with in his old neighborhood had never gone and could never go; he knew he'd been lucky, and never pretended otherwise -- in the 1980's, he made a film, Borgnine On The Bus, about driving across America in a Winnebago; no matter how painful it may be to more sophisticated tastes to watch, it was Borgnine's celebration at being alive, and he gently mocked his own 'stardom' in the process.

It's easy to be cynical; believe me, I know -- but Ernie was a Mensch, and a class act.

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