Chris Hicks: You can't teach screen presence, and Ernest Borgnine had it

Published: Thursday, July 12 2012 6:13 p.m. MDT

A COUPLE OF years ago, the action-comedy "Red" rolled into town with an unusual gimmick: The main characters are spies and counterspies played by big stars, as you might expect, but they're also members of the AARP generation — Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman and John Malkovich. Richard Dreyfuss is on hand as well.

And a couple of scenes are set in Langley, Va., in a secret underground bunker of CIA headquarters where a feisty and funny old-timer holds court, reminiscing about the old days. Ernest Borgnine had that role, and it was a real treat to see him in an A-list picture, as vibrant and commanding as ever, with an energy that was so palpable it was hard to believe the guy was 93!

Borgnine, who died last weekend at age 95, was a "character actor," meaning he played a wide variety of supporting-role "types" in dozens of movies and could always be counted on to deliver a solid performance.

But with a best-actor Oscar under his belt and an Emmy nomination for his title role in the 1960s sitcom "McHale's Navy," Borgnine was also a recognizable star, earning a level of fame that most character players never achieve.

According to the Internet Movie Database, Borgnine appeared in more than 200 movies and TV shows, and from his earliest stage efforts in the late 1940s to a soon-to-be-released independent film, he never stopped working, defying the stereotype of older actors being unable to find work.

Over the past couple of decades, his roles were primarily in made-for-TV or independent productions, in which he often played benign paternal figures, winningly flashing his disarming gap-toothed grin, as with last year's "Love's Christmas Journey" and other recent Hallmark channel cable movies.

And he was equally adept at comedy, as demonstrated by the popularity of the '60s World War II sitcom "McHale's Navy," which is still in reruns, and its 1964 theatrical movie spinoff. (He also had a cameo in the 1997 "McHale's Navy" spoof starring Tom Arnold.)

Borgnine's Oscar-winning role as "Marty," a lonely, gentle Bronx butcher looking for love, came in 1955, very early in his big-screen career, demonstrating a wide acting range and an ability to make the audience identify with him as an overweight, ordinary-looking everyman.

But he made his career in the 1950s and '60s as more menacing figures, none more brutal than his breakthrough role as Sgt. "Fatso" Judson in "From Here to Eternity" (1953), in which he beat a smart-mouthed soldier, played by Frank Sinatra, to a bloody pulp. Sinatra won the Oscar as best supporting actor for the role and it revitalized his then-flagging career. But Borgnine was equally unforgettable in the film.

He parlayed that hard-nosed persona into a string of tough-guy supporting roles in popular major-studio pictures, including "Johnny Guitar" (1954), "Vera Cruz" (1954), "Bad Day at Black Rock" (1955), "Jubal" (1956), "The Vikings" (1958), "Barabbas" (1961), "Flight of the Phoenix" (1965), "The Dirty Dozen" (1967), "Ice Station Zebra" (1968), "The Wild Bunch" (1969), "Willard" (1971), "The Poseidon Adventure" (1972)," "Emperor of the North" (1973), "The Black Hole" (1979), "Escape From New York" (1981) and many more.

Lately, Borgnine had also been doing voices for animated programs, including a regular role as Mermaid Man for the "SpongeBob SquarePants" television series. His sidekick in the show was voiced by his old "McHale's Navy" co-star Tim Conway. Borgnine also co-starred in two other series, "Airwolf" (1983), in which he played a helicopter pilot, and "The Single Guy," as the affable doorman of a Manhattan hotel.

But perhaps his most famous recent role was as a grieving man whose wife has just died in the final episode of the popular hospital series "ER." For his performance, Borgnine earned his third Emmy nomination, his first in 29 years. (His first Emmy nomination came for "McHale's Navy" in 1963 and the second was in 1980 for "All Quiet on the Western Front," a Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movie.)

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