Remembering Ernest Borgnine

Ernest Borgnine, who had one of the longest careers of any Oscar winners, died Sunday at 95.

The big man whose film credits include “Marty,” for which he won his Academy Award, “Ice Station Zebra,” “The Wild Bunch” and “Bad Day at Black Rock,” also starred on TV in “McHale’s Navy” and continued to star, largely in Hallmark movies in his later years.

He was 90 when he was out in Los Angeles promoting one of them, “A Grandpa for Christmas.”

“I’m the oldest man in the house!” he declared.

But he was cited by his 11 year old costar as being the most exuberant person on the set.

“If you think old, you will get old, believe me,” he said.

So he kept working.

He’d do another holiday movie, “Love’s Christmas Journey” and was featured in a dozen others including the box office hit “Red.” He also lent his voice to more than a dozen episodes of “SpongeBob SquarePants” as Mermaid Man.

Borgnine almost reached the goal he stated back in 2007:  “I vowed that I’m going to live to 2013,” he said. “After that, I don’t give a damn.”

Born Ernes Effron Borgnino in Hamden in 1917, he moved to Italy as a boy with his mother before returning to Connnecticut at age 10 without much grasp of English.

After he graduated high school in 1935, he signed up for a decade-long stint in the Navy, serving four years in the Atlantic and another six in the Pacific.

“I came back after 10 years in the Navy, and one day, I was just hanging around the house, doing nothing,” Borgnine recalled. His mother gave him dirty looks. “She said, “are you going to get a job or what?” And so, OK, I went out, looking for work. And I saw all of these young, old men walking into these factories in New Haven, Connecticut. I said, ‘That’s not for me. I want to do something else. I don’t know what.’

“But one day I went home, and I said, ‘Mom, for two cents, I’ll go back in the service and do my other 10 years and get a pension. At least I’ll have something.’ And out of the clear blue sky she said, ‘Have you ever thought of becoming an actor? You always like to make a damn fool of yourself in front of people. Why don’t you give it a try?’

“And I looked up, and I saw that golden light, and I said, ‘Mom, that’s what I’m going to be.’ I didn’t know where to start, what to do, or anything else. And 10 years later, Grace Kelly handed me an award. Don’t ask me how.”

I had another brush with Borgnine two dozen years earlier. It was in Omaha and he was bringing to town a theatrical performance of a show he had developed, about a mob boss. I had reviewed the show, which was called “An Offer You Can’t Refuse,” not very positively. Or at least it was negative enough to make Borgnine storm down the street from the Orpheum Theatre to the Omaha World Herald offices to demand to see me.

Thanks to the security guard downstairs, he did not get upstairs to talk to me.

Which was good. I had seen him yell quite a lot at Tim Conway and Carl Ballantine in “McHale’s Navy” and didn’t want that all directed at me.

Besides, about 15 years before that I had seen Borgnine live on stage with Tim Conway and Joe Flynn at a local Detroit premiere for the movie version of “McHale’s Navy.” My mother won tickets or something. It was my first movie premiere.

And way back then, 46 years ago, Borgnine seemed like an old guy at 49.

What a good long career he had.

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