Cinema

The importance of Ernest

A mother’s advice to her son, who had just been discharged from the Navy after World War II and didn’t know what to do with himself, was, “You always like getting in front of people and making a fool of yourself. Why not give the stage a try.” And he did. The young man was Ernest Borgnine, who had none of the attributes needed for show business.

Borgnine, who had changed the original family name ‘Borgnino’ to ‘Borgnine’ was short, squat, broad-shouldered with a wide grin. His parents were Italian migrants who divorced, returned to Italy and remarried!

At the school, which he attended in Connecticut, Ernest made a mark in sports but kept away from theatre. He spent six years in the Navy, quit, but re-enlisted after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour. Thus began a life-long love affair with the Navy and the sea. When the war ended, he had several decorations for bravery.

At a Virginia theatre, he did small, ‘heavy’ roles including Tennessee Williams’ ‘The Glass Menagerie’. Critics were impressed and Broadway beckoned with roles from hit plays such as ‘Harvey’. Ready to try out anything new, Ernest gradually drifted towards Hollywood, although the stage remained his first love.

Beginning with small but important character roles, Ernest’s big break came with the blockbuster movie, ‘From Here To Eternity,’ where he was cast as the sadistic sergeant, ‘Fatso’ Judson, who beats to death the stockade prisoner, Maggio, played by Frank Sinatra. ‘Eternity’ was a major movie and boasted of a superb star cast, which included Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, Monty Clift, Sinatra and Donna Reed, the last two won the ‘Best Supporting actor’ awards. Borgnine was noticed and honourably mentioned by critics.

Now an established actor, Borgnine was often cast as the heavy, brooding character and played the villain in several important movies. And then in 1955, Borgnine was offered the role of the soft-hearted butcher in ‘Marty’, which had been a huge success on the stage.

Playwright Paddy Chafesky, who wrote ‘Marty’ as a TV play, and director Delbert Mann (who directed the stage version with Rod Steiger in the lead) saw something different from brutality and villainy in Borgnine and offered him the plum role. He blended into the role brilliantly. Borgnine’s Marty Pilletti, was a 34-year old gentle butcher who lived with his mother, not allowing his profession to interfere with his outlook on life. Besides the Best Actor Oscar, the role fetched him every other acting award. In just five years, he had made it to the top.

Despite his success, Borgnine remained as one of the most laid-back actors. During the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s to the ’90s, he continued with his tough, unglamorous roles but added something vital to the movies. ‘Vikings’, ‘Ice Station Zebra’, ‘Poseidon Adventure’ and ‘The Dirty Dozen’ were big hits and offered opportunities for the star to exhibit his talent. He was fond of his role in the Western, ‘The Wild Bunch,’ and explained his philosophy to a writer. “Every film must stress a moral. Villains must be defeated and the good guys must triumph. But in many of today’s movies, the bad guy is shown triumphant. This is not a good development.”

He also blossomed as a major TV star, focusing on shows where the sea and the Navy were featured. In ABC’s sitcom, ‘Mchale’s Navy,’ he was an irreverent conman converted into a PT-109 naval boat captain. TV work kept him busy till the end.

Borgnine married five times, the marriage with singer Ethel Merman, lasting just 38 days! But the public loved him. A street in Hamden, his home town, was named after him.

Borgnine, who died in Los Angeles at age 95, was outspoken on all issues. He wanted to bring out a newspaper which would expose all that was wrong in the U.S. Another pet peeve was politicians, he wanted to get rid of the entire lot. ‘We put politicians into the Congress and the Senate. For what? Who did they represent? Not the people, but only party and lobbyists”. Thank Heavens, he did not visit India!

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Printable version | Oct 26, 2020 12:55:29 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/cinema/the-importance-of-ernest/article3686274.ece

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