Durable Borgnine's motto: 'You gotta go to work'

Associated Press Modified: July 9, 2012 at 3:47 am •  Published: July 9, 2012
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LOS ANGELES (AP) — He was a tubby tough guy with a pug of a mug, as unlikely a big-screen star or a romantic lead as could be imagined.

Yet Ernest Borgnine won a woman's love and an Academy Award in one of the great lonelyhearts roles in "Marty," a highlight in a workhorse career that spanned nearly seven decades and more than 200 film and television parts.

Borgnine, who died Sunday at 95, worked to the end. One of his final roles was a bit part as a CIA records-keeper in 2010's action comedy "Red" — fittingly for his age, a story of retired spies who show that it's never too late to remain in the game when they're pulled back into action.

"I keep telling myself, 'Damn it, you gotta go to work,'" Borgnine said in a 2007 interview with The Associated Press. "But there aren't many people who want to put Borgnine to work these days. They keep asking, 'Is he still alive?'"

And yet people put him to work — and kept him working — from his late-blooming start as an actor after a 10-year Navy career through modern times, when he had a recurring voice role on "SpongeBob SquarePants," became the oldest actor ever nominated for a Golden Globe and received the lifetime-achievement award last year from the Screen Actors Guild.

Borgnine died of renal failure at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center with his wife and children at his side, said spokesman Harry Flynn.

With his beefy build and a huge orb of a head that looked hard enough to shatter granite, Borgnine naturally was cast as heavies early on, notably as Sgt. Fatso Judson, the brute who beat Frank Sinatra's character to death in 1953's Pearl Harbor saga "From Here to Eternity."

More bad guy roles followed, but Borgnine showed his true pussycat colors as lovesick Marty Piletti, a Bronx butcher who, against all odds and his own expectations, finds romance with a wallflower in "Marty," adapted from Paddy Chayefsky's television play. Borgnine won the best-actor Oscar, and the film picked up three other awards, including best picture.

It turned out to be Borgnine's only Oscar nomination, yet it was a star-making part that broke him out of the villain mold. Borgnine went on to roles in such films as "The Dirty Dozen," ''The Wild Bunch," ''The Flight of the Phoenix," ''The Poseidon Adventure" and "Escape from New York," but after "Marty," the veteran sailor's most memorable character appropriately came with the title role of the 1960s TV comedy "McHale's Navy" and its big-screen spinoff.

Mischievous con man McHale, commander of a World War II PT boat manned by misfits and malcontents, was far closer in spirit than shy Marty or savage Fatso to the real Borgnine, who had a cackling laugh and a reputation as a prankster.

Despite his big-hearted nature, Borgnine was typecast as a thug from the start, playing bad guys in a series of Westerns including Randolph Scott's "The Stranger Wore a Gun," Joan Crawford and Sterling Hayden's "Johnny Guitar" and Gary Cooper's "Vera Cruz" and Victor Mature and Susan Hayward's historical saga "Demetrius and the Gladiators."

Borgnine was playing another nasty character opposite Spencer Tracy in "Bad Day at Black Rock" when he auditioned for "Marty." In a 2004 interview, Borgnine recalled that Chayefsky and "Marty" director Delbert Mann thought of him as an actor whose lone screen specialty was to "kill people."

The filmmakers had hoped to cast Rod Steiger, who played the lead in the TV version of "Marty," but he had just landed a part Borgnine himself coveted — the bad guy Jud Fry in "Oklahoma!" Mann and Chayefsky flew to the "Black Rock" location to audition Borgnine, who showed up wearing a "cowboy suit, cowboy hat, three-day growth of beard, cowboy boots," the actor recalled. He even began the audition in a Western drawl before shifting to Marty's Bronx accent.

Borgnine said he knew immediately he had won over Mann and Chayefsky, and "Marty" charmed audiences who saw for the first time that he could play the teddy bear as well as the beast.

No one knew Borgnine could act at all — himself included — until he came home from World War II after his 10-year Navy stint. He enlisted in 1935, was discharged in 1941, then re-enlisted when the war began, serving on a destroyer.

As he contemplated what to do after the war, Borgnine's mother suggested acting.

"She said, 'You always like getting in front of people and making a fool of yourself, why don't you give it a try?'" Borgnine recalled last year, shortly before receiving his SAG lifetime honor. "I was sitting at the kitchen table and I saw this light. No kidding. It sounds crazy. And 10 years later, I had Grace Kelly handing me an Academy Award."

Mann and Chayefsky also won Oscars, and modest, gentle "Marty" claimed the best-picture prize over big-budget contenders "The Rose Tattoo," ''Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing," ''Picnic" and "Mister Roberts."

"Marty" made his career, but the success also brought complications for Borgnine.

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