Ernest Borgnine: 10 Things To Know About the Oscar Winner

Ernest Borgnine as Marty (1955)

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 PerkinsYvette 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.       

Ernest Borgnine with cast members of  the  ’60s TV sitcom McHale’s Navy

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:

YouTube Preview Image

  • Blair Kramer

    McHALE’S NAVY remains one of the best sitcoms ever broadcast on TV.  But if you watch the show it becomes quickly apparent that Borgnine was really the straight man for Joe Flynn and Tim Conway.  But he played his role perfectly.  Which means of course, that he is one heck of a great comedic actor.

    • Hugh

      Oh Come on. Best sitcoms ever? That is highly doubtful. It doesn’t even compare to Mr Ed.

      • Garth

        Well I would second what Kramer said. McHale’s Navy is a great show and I recently purchased the entire series from Shout! Factory on DVD as well as both McHale’s Navy movies on Blu-Ray from Madman and they’re as funny today as they were when I first saw them growing up years ago. It’s definitely one of the better sitcoms in the history of television.

        • Hogmanjem

          He was good in a Christmas movie called “A Grandpa for Christmas” too!!

  • Wayne P.

    Whether in supporting roles or in the lead as Marty (the Bronx Butcher–great line, btw:), Ernie B. was one heckuva actor and very deserving of this fine salutation.  I even saw him recently on an old Alfred Hitchcock show re-rerun…where many of the new talents and older stars got good practice!

  • Bryan Ruffin

    He has always been one of my all time favorite actors! I have seen him in some of the greatest war movies, westerns, you name it! He could do it! He was, and still is, one of the brightest stars in the movies. They can call his performances supporting if they want to, he was the one to steal the show on more than one occasion!

  • Ppasq

    Thank you so much for the great tribute to him. In any movie that he is in, he is truly great. I love the fact that he is still acting. I was really taken by his interview on TCM. I will buy his book.
      You can see that he devotes himself to acting and it looks so natural

  • Kitkatpress

    What would  ” The  Wild Bunch ” have been without him

  • June

    Marty was a great picture

  • Gordon S. Jackson

    I don’t know if I will ever watch “Marty”, especially having now just viewed the included trailer.  It isn’t that EB wouldn’t be good in the part, he probably was, but  I have seen the original television performance with Rod Steiger a couple of times and he just strikes me as being a more natural Marty.  

    I think I would describe “McHale’s Navy” more as a guilty pleasure (and I mean REAL pleasure) not a great sitcom.  EB is very good in it but the prematurely deceased Joe Flynn is the reason I often fall down laughing.  



    What? what?  what?

    • Fhildbasket

      Everyone on that show made it what it was. I never lost my fondness for it.
      Today on a website I saw a very expensive import Blu-Ray having both McHALES’ NAVY films. They have been long overdue on the domestic market, but I am still waiting. 

    • Acefelix14

      Any body should watch the original movie!!!!!  Before you make any decisions EB was great in the roll were you could feel his pain! CHECK IT OUT PLEASE!

  • Chuck

    Ernie was also played Willard’s overbearing boss in the movie of the same name.He is also a part time Chester County,PA resident!

  • John

    Ernie was a big circus fan. Whenever the Circus World Museum of Baraboo WI staged the Great Circus Parade in Milwaukee WI Ernie was always there. He would dress up in a full clown costume and ride the route in a golf cart with his wife Tova. This was one of the biggest loves of his life. John.

  • Blair Kramer

    Assuming that’s true, It’s a great deal more information than anyone really needs to know!

  • Fhildbasket

    Don’t forget Mr Borgnine’s debut – THE BEST THINGS IN LIFE ARE FREE. 
    Singing PUT ON YOUR OVERCOAT was not as embarassing as other “Golden Throat”
    celebrity offerings (did you hear that William Shatner, Johnny Depp and Sabastion Cabot ((RIP.)))
      While Ernest Borgnine’s famous western THE WILD BUNCH was released numerous times over on VHS, DVD and Blu-Ray, his second westen with William Holden, THE REVENGERS (72) has not found it’s way on home video. Hopefully it will surface.  

  • Publius

    Also, the actor did a superb preformance as the Roman Centurion in Zefferelli’s JESUS OF NAZARETH; he also was great as the angel, Jonathan in LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE.

  • tim ed kenneally

    i’m kinda mad at ernie. in his bio he makes no mention of the movie, “chuka” or the classic hand to hand fight with fave actor rod taylor. it was only his best fight scene except for maybe when spencer tracy kicked the living hell out of him in “bad day at black rock”

  • Hord

    Once again a bad guy in “Emperor of the North” vs Lee Marvin.

  • Parkerr71

    saw borgnine on tcm last year………..a favorite of mine in my fave western……THE WILD BUNCH. great in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY. loved his fight scene w/spencer tracy in BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK. he told the story of how tracy hit him and the restaurant storm door didnt properly “give way.” ripped it outta the door jam as ernie fell thru it!

  • Pacerdad

    One of the better character actors that the movies have ever had.  A great talent and a wonderful gentleman.  Being nice pays dividends!

  • SimbasGuard

    I know him best as Dominic Santini in the CBS T.V. Series Airwolf. 

  • Frederick

    Good thing for us he listened to his Mother.  Kind of strange too that I, know him best as Cmdr. McHale  along with Ensign Parker and my Son knows him as Mermaid Man along with Barnacle Boy…Wonder who my Grand kids will know them as?

  • CarterCE

    Two of my favorite Ernest Borgnine films were with the late Lee Marvin: “Bad Day at Black Rock” (1955) and “Emperor of the North” (1973). There is a fight scene in ‘…Black Rock’ between Ernest Borgnine’s and Spencer Tracy’s characters that must be seen. Borgnine portrays a big, tough bully and henchman (Coley trimble) to the film’s arch villain (Reno Smith) portrayed by Robert Ryan. Tracy portrays a military veteran (John J. Macreedy) who lost an arm in the war. The fight scene is priceless.

  • Doppleganger51

    you  did  not  include  his  role as Dominick  Santini  in  Air Wolf  or  the part  he played  in Jag  as a old vet  who  with a bunch of retired  servicemen  robbed a  drug  dealer   

  • Geraldgilman

    One of my favorite movies of all-time was “Pay Or Die”. It’s hardly ever shown on television. If Ernest Borgnine is in a movie, it’s worth seeing.

  • Tomgreatone

    He is the last of the greatones,God Bless him, many a great movies.

  • Classics

    Love, Love, Love  Ernest Borgnine!!   Caught the movie  Marty on tv late one night years ago, It has become one of my all time favorites!   Saw him on an interview, you can tell he is one of the nicest and sincere people ever.   There should be more people like him!! 

  • Jimmy

    I’m shocked no one mentioned one of his greatest roles in the  movie PAY OR DIE.
    It was abou the black hand in Little Italy New York in early 1900′s.

    • JSpincola

      Pay or die is one of my favorite movies. I even got up one night to tape it because my husband couldn’t find the VHS for it. I am 65 and I have loved him since I was in high school.

  • Mr. Sunshine

    I have always liked Ernest Borgnine too. Grew up watching McHale’s Navy but was blown away by his performance in Sam Peckinpah’s classic “The Wild Bunch”.  Enjoyed watching him and William Shatner try to outdo each other acting in the over the top but entertaining as hell “The Devil’s Rain”. “Poseidon Adventure” was great too. The first of the special effect- laden disaster films of the 1970′s. Lines around the block of people waiting to get into theaters showing the film. No one can forget the tidal wave raising toward the doomed ocean liner and the capsizing of the ship. I have never seen Ernest Borgnine in any production where it seemed as if he was actually ”acting”…..he’s great ability was be real. The greatest talent an actor can have.  Ernest Borgnine is a m aster of his craft. Thanks, pal!

  • Shawn

    I like Borgnine in the 1970 spaghetti western ‘A Bullet for Sandoval’. He plays the mean patriarch antagonist.

  • Haileinar

    A totally classy man and a great actor ! To the best of my knowledge Mr. Borgnine and his ” THE VIKINGS ” co-star Kirk Douglas are the Last of the Greats from Hollywood’s golden era . The above mentioned film is one of my many Borgnine faves ( Hail , Ragnar ! ) ; he was the ultimate viking . He still makes occasional guest appearances on shows , but another thing folks may not know about him is that he spends most of his time traveling the country in his RV , visiting Veteran Centers and VA Hospitals . They don’t make ‘em like that anymore . He’s a hell of a man ! God bless you , Ernie ; and thanks for all the great performances .

    • Mona Farmer

      I did not know that he visited Veteran’s Centers and VA Hospitals. It figures, he was always doing things for our Troops. Never boasting, just doing. My husband and I never missed McHale’s Navy. My husband has the greatest respect for that man and so do I, someone who goes out of their way to say thank you for your service when it was not the popular thing to do, that was who he was. See above comment. He bought my husband dinner one evening in Mass. He was devoted to those who served our country.

  • Paris

    Ernest Borgnine is a national treasure. His film and television credits are top shelf. The Dirty Dozen, Mchales Navy, AIRWOLF, Escape From New York, The Devils Rain, Emperor of The North , Willard…ETC.I had the pleasure of meeting him and you could not find a nicer guy. Thank you for all the film work and entertainment for the world.
    May you live another 91 years in good health….

  • Debcrimmins

    I loved Ernie in “The Catered Affair”.  That movie is a little known gem also starring Bette Davis and Debbie Reynolds.  His hardworking cab driver character was torn between buying his own hack or giving his daughter a big wedding was heartbreaking.  Maybe not as heartbreaking as “Marty” but right up there.

  • Skipper11

    yes you have only have some facts but you left out that he is a 33 degree scottish rite mason i have personally shook his hand

  • Dustydan

    He’s my favorite actor and I have 2 DVD’s of Marty incase it ever is impossible to get another.
    Marty is such a great movie, I wish they had made a second so we could see how they were when say in there 50′s or in retirement.

  • James

    Here’s a bit of trivia that most people don’t know about Ernie Borgnine. He played Ragnar the father
    of Kirk Douglas’s Inar in The Vikings and yet Douglas is a year older than Borgnine in real life .

  • TVChal

    Don’t forget that Ernest played Vince Lombardi in Legend in Granite
    a very rare, well sought-after 1973 TV movie.

  • William Fox

    GM1 Borgnine is an All-American citizen!  Thanks for your service to America.  Fortunately, Ernie chose acting for his life long vocation. I had the privilege to meet Mr. Borgnine at the Navy exchange
    in San Diego, CA  Long live….”Marty” !

  • Wayne P.

    Does anyone know the basis for the feud between Mickey Rooney and Ernie B?  Read that about the Mick on IMDB and almost fell off my chair as theyve both seemed like such class guys thru the years!

  • Larry Cox

    Borgnine was part of the all-time great movie quartet, when he was one of the really evil guys, along with Jack Elam and Strother Martin, who were targeted for death by Raquel Welch (in sarape and buckskin pants) in Hannie Caulder, after they all three very brutally raped her and killed her husband.

  • Manuel

    We should not forget his role in VERACRUZ probably his first with Gary Cooper, Burt Lancaster, Charles Bronson, Sarita Montiel, Jack Elam, and many others great actors.

  • idluv2settle

    Escape from New York

  • Ddadamo3

    Does anybody remember the time he was on Dick Clark’s spoof show where Tova conspired to tell Ernie that their house was infested by some bug they brought back from Mexico? The “exterminators” were sealing the house for quarantine. Ernie took it all in, asked Tova what she needed from the house and started putting on a environmental suit. No hysterics; just the calm view that a house is just a building. Dick Clark finally stopped the whole thing.

    Pretty funny, just not the way it was planned.

  • Mona Farmer

    During the Vietnam War, my husband and a fellow soldier were in a nice restaurant in Mass. Prepared to blow their whole paycheck on a nice steak before leaving for Vietnam. Ernest was in the restaurant and saw them, dressed in their uniforms, came over with the waiter and said that whatever they wanted was one him. He talked to them for awhile and paid for the best meal they ever had. To this day, my husband talks about it and how it was a real treasured memory for him. For a time when our Troops took such abuse this always helped cut the pain of rejection from so many other people. He had a big heart when it came to our Troops.