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Durable Borgnine’s motto: ‘You gotta go to work’

  • Borgnine won an Oscar for best actor for his role in “Marty,” on March 21, 1956.

  • Borgnine in a scene from the 1955 film "Marty" in which he portrays a lonely butcher approaching middle-age who is incessantly hounded by his Italian mother, Esther Minciotti (R) to get married. REUTERS/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc/Handout

LOS ANGELES: He was a tubby tough guy with a pug of a mug, as unlikely a big-screen star or a romantic lead as could be imagined.

Yet Ernest Borgnine won an Academy Award in one of the great lonely hearts roles in “Marty,” a highlight in a workhorse career that spanned nearly seven decades and more than 200 film and television parts.

Borgnine, who died late Sunday at 95, worked to the end. One of his final roles was a bit part as a CIA records-keeper in 2011’s action comedy “Red” – fittingly for his age, a story of retired spies who show that it’s never too late to remain in the game when they’re pulled back into action.

“I keep telling myself, ‘Damn it, you gotta go to work,’” Borgnine said in a 2007 interview. “But there aren’t many people who want to put Borgnine to work these days. They keep asking, ‘Is he still alive?’”

Yet people put him to work – and kept him working – from his late-blooming start as an actor after a 10-year navy career through his recurring voice part in “SpongeBob SquarePants,” becoming the oldest actor ever nominated for a Golden Globe and received the lifetime-achievement award last year from the Screen Actors Guild.

Borgnine died of renal failure at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center with his wife and children at his side, said spokesman Harry Flynn.

With his beefy build and a huge orb of a head that looked hard enough to shatter granite, he naturally was cast as heavies early on, notably as Sgt. Fatso Judson, the brute who beat Frank Sinatra’s character to death in the 1953 Pearl Harbor saga “From Here to Eternity.”

More bad guy roles followed, but Borgnine showed his true pussycat colors as lovesick Marty Piletti, a Bronx butcher who, against all odds and his own expectations, finds romance with a wallflower in “Marty,” adapted from Paddy Chayefsky’s television play. Borgnine won the best-actor Oscar, and the film picked up three other awards, including best picture.

It turned out to be Borgnine’s only Oscar nomination, yet it was a star-making part that broke him out of the villain mold. He went on to roles in such films as “The Dirty Dozen,” “The Wild Bunch,” “The Flight of the Phoenix,” “The Poseidon Adventure” and “Escape from New York.”

After “Marty,” the veteran sailor’s most memorable character appropriately came with the title role of the 1960s TV comedy “McHale’s Navy” and its big-screen spinoff.

Mischievous con man McHale, commander of a World War II PT boat manned by misfits and malcontents, was far closer in spirit than shy Marty or savage Fatso to the real Borgnine, who had a cackling laugh and a reputation as a prankster.

“I don’t care whether a role is 10 minutes long or two hours,” he said in 1973. “And I don’t care whether my name is up there on top, either. Matter of fact, I’d rather have someone else get top billing; then if the picture bombs, he gets the blame, not me.”

Ermes Efron Borgnino was born in Hamden, Conn., on Jan. 24, 1917, son of Italian immigrant parents. The family lived in Milan when the boy was 2 to 7, then returned to Connecticut, where he attended school in New Haven.

During an interview at the time, Borgnine complained that he wanted to continue acting but roles were tough to find at his age.

“I just want to do more work,” he said. “Every time I step in front of a camera I feel young again. I really do. It keeps your mind active and it keeps you going.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 10, 2012, on page 16.

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