To mark what would have Ernest Borgnine’s 96th birthday on January 24th, 2013, here are 10 trivia facts about the popular Oscar-winner which originally appeared as our Mystery Movie Star Quiz on the Movies Unlimited Facebook page. There are hundreds of pieces of behind-the-scenes information about this great actor. Please feel free to comment and add more trivia we might have missed.
1. I’ve been acting on the stage, in motion pictures and on television for most of my life.
Born Ermes Effron Borgnino in the southern Connecticut town of Hamden on January 24, 1917, Ernest Borgnine was urged by his mother to try acting as a career after his discharge from the Navy at the end of World War II (more about that below). Studying in Hartford’s Randall School of Drama led him to a job with the Barter Theatre company in Virginia, and a 30-year-old Ernest made his stage debut there in 1947. A variety of roles followed, leading to Borgnine’s big break on Broadway as a male nurse in the comedy Harvey in 1949. Two years later, the actor would head west and sign with Columbia Pictures…the start of a movie and television career that lasted over 60 years, until his 2012 death at the age of 95.
2. In fact, I twice played the same character in movies and on TV.
A lot of baby boomers may best know Ernest as the title star of the 1962-66 ABC sitcom McHale’s Navy. The WWII-based laffer (which, interestingly, began life as a drama on the anthology series Alcoa Premiere) proved to be so popular, particularly with young audience members, that Borgnine–along with series co-stars Tim Conway, Joe Flynn, Carl Ballantine, Gavin MacLeod, and company–made the jump to the big screen in Universal’s 1964 feature McHale’s Navy. A commitment to the desert drama The Flight of the Phoenix kept Borgnine from returning in the follow-up film McHale’s Navy Joins the Air Force the next year, but he did provide a cameo in the 1997 Tom Arnold remake of McHale’s Navy that proved to be one of that film’s few bright spots.
Ernest also did double character duty the other way around when, after co-starring as General Worden in the 1967 WWII action classic The Dirty Dozen, he reprised the role in a trio of made-for-TV sequels: The Dirty Dozen: The Next Mission (1985), The Dirty Dozen: The Deadly Mission (1987), and The Dirty Dozen: The Fatal Mission (1988).
3. I’ve played two legendary sports figures in movies.
While it’s true he enjoyed amateur athletics, including boxing, growing up, Borgnine’s sports roles in front of the camera have been of the non-participating type. The actor scored a touchdown as NFL coaching icon Vince Lombardi in the made-for-TV biodrama Legend in Granite (1973). Four years later he was in Muhammad Ali’s corner as famed boxing trainer Angelo Dundee, as the fighter brought his own life story to the screen in the aptly-titled The Greatest.
4. I’ve been in outer space…in the movies.
Over his 60-plus-year show biz career Ernest has played everything from a Chinatown crime boss (in 1951′s China Corsair) to a goat-horned devil worshipper (in 1975′s The Devil’s Rain), but one of his most interesting roles came as a journalist on board the interstellar research ship Palomino in Disney’s 1979 sci-fi epic The Black Hole, which also starred Maximilian Schell, Anthony Perkins, Yvette Mimieux, and Roddy McDowall (who shared another dangerous voyage with Borgnine in 1972 with The Poseidon Adventure). This wasn’t Borgnine’s only trip into space, though: very early in his career the then New-York based actor appeared on the sci-fi TV series Captain Video and His Video Rangers from the long-forgotten Dumont network.
5. I did something in an early big-screen appearance that made audiences hate me.
It was clear from the start of his Hollywood career that Ernest Borgnine’s build and looks made him a natural for playing heavies and tough guys, and his first few years on the screen bore this out. Still, nothing could have prepared the actor for the hostility that met his performance in the Oscar-winning 1953 drama From Here to Eternity when Ernest, as the sadistic Sgt. “Fatso” Judson, harasses, taunts, and evenutally kills Frank Sinatra’s Private Maggio. He faced a similar dilemma in Stanley Kramer’s Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) as one of desert town boss Robert Ryan’s henchmen who tries to make life miserable for one-handed stranger Spencer Tracy, but a change-of-pace casting later that year would soon have audiences seeing Borgnine in a new light.
6. My real-life experiences proved useful in one of my most famous roles.
Shortly after he graduated from high school in 1935, Borgnine enlisted in the U.S. Navy. His stint ended in 1941, but Ernest climbed back on board when the country entered World War II. His four-year tour of duty included time in both the Atlantic and Pacific and he would eventually rise to the rank of Gunner’s Mate, 1st Class and serve on the destroyer USS Lamberton. The actor’s 10 years riding the waves no doubt led his ease behind the controls of the PT-73 as Lt. Commander Quinton McHale on McHale’s Navy. In fact, the Navy in 2004 recognized Borgnine for his work for the service and for veterans, bestowing on him the honorary rank of Chief Petty Officer, an award of which even old Capt. Binghamton would have to approve.
7. I was a guest on the debut of a long-running TV game show.
Before Paul Lynde made it his “home away from home,” Ernest was the very first center-square celebrity when NBC’s hit game show The Hollywood Squares premiered in October of 1966. Borgnine’s fellow stars that opening week included Nick Adams, Morey Amsterdam, Wally Cox, Abby Dalton, Sally Field, Agnes Moorehead, Rose Marie, and Charley Weaver.
8. I’m an Academy Award nominee.
“Beginner’s luck” was one Ernie’s side in 1956 when his very first–and only, in fact–Oscar nomination landed him a Best Actor award for playing the title role the year before in the big-screen adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s TV drama Marty. Borgnine’s performance as the good-hearted, lovelorn Bronx butcher was a true change of pace from the villainous roles he was best known for, and helped propel him past such bigger names as James Cagney (Love Me or Leave Me), James Dean (East of Eden), Frank Sinatra (The Man with the Golden Arm), and Spencer Tracy (for Bad Day at Black Rock, alongside Borgnine).
9. I was one-half of a notoriously short-lived show biz marriage.
Even by Hollywood standards, the 1964 union of Borgnine and singer/actress Ethel Merman was notable for its length…or lack thereof. The couple wed on June 27 and were kaput a mere 32 days later. It was the last of Merman’s four marriages (who would devote one–blank–page to it in her 1978 autobiography Merman) and the third of five for Ernest (the last of which, to spouse Tova, was his most successful, clocking in at over 39 years).
10. Kids know me as the voice of a cartoon character on a popular TV show.
With a career that’s taken him everywhere from the gladiator games of Ancient Rome (Demetrius and the Gladiators) to a ruined “21st-century” Manhattan (Escape from New York), even Ernest Borgnine probably never saw himself playing a senile undersea superhero. But as kids and anyone who watches Nickelodeon’s SpongeBob SquarePants can tell you, Borgnine supplied the voice of creaky crimefighter Mermaid Man, who–alongside his equally decrepit “kid sidekick” Barnacle Boy (voiced by Ernest’s old McHale’s Navy co-star Tim Conway)–stands ready to leave the retirement home and help number-one fan SpongeBob battle the forces of “Eeeeeevillll!”
Now, see family man Ernie team with Bette Davis in this 1956 theatrical trailer for the Gore Vidal-penned drama The Catered Affair: