Ernest Borgnine was a working actor. How could he be anything else? Chubby, gap-toothed – he wasn’t exactly “leading man” material. And when he did win an Oscar, it was for playing a homely, lonely, middle-aged man living with his mother in Marty (1955).
But so what? He was still a great movie star. From Here To Eternity. The Wild Bunch. And every time he appeared on TV in later years, it was a bonus; a gift to TV viewers who probably didn’t remember him from The Goodyear Television Playhouse of 1951.
I have a lot of television memories of Mr. Borgnine. Looking through his credits, I was amazed at just how many TV shows he appeared in. The guy never took a vacation. Hell, he even showed up on Saturday Night Live a couple years ago to promote his new movie Red. He’s like 93 and still doing live TV? Man, what a trooper.
I guess he’s best known as Quinton McHale on McHale’s Navy (1962-1966), a comedy series that was a success but will never be mistaken for great. It’s interesting to note that Borgnine actually signed a contract for a McHale’s Navy drama. It was only changed into a wacky comedy later. In one sense, that’s bad (it was not a particularly good comedy). But it did open up the comedy doors for Borgnine.
Here’s a McHale’s Navy blooper that is probably funnier than anything the show ever foisted on the public:
Being the best thing in a lame TV show is pretty much all you can hope for as a working actor. Love Boat. Walker – Texas Ranger. Airwolf. Touched By An Angel. Borgnine didn’t like to turn down a role in anything.
And, on occasion, the material lived up to the talent. I clearly remember first being introduced to the actor in a two-part Little House on The Prairie (1974) in which he played a mountain man/angel to a wayward Half Pint (Melissa Gilbert). Bad show. Good episode.
One of the best TV movies of the 1970s has to be All Quiet On The Western Front (1979) – in which Richard Thomas (The Waltons) plays a naïve World War One soldier who learns a lot from grizzled veteran Borgnine. He’s probably the oldest soldier ever to put on a uniform but Ernie made it work. You could always count on him to bring some life (and good humour) to even the most serious role:
In 1997, I remarked, “Holy cow! Ernest Borgnine is still alive!” The show was the sitcom The Single Guy, and Borgnine had a very funny, recurring role as the lovable doorman to unmarried Jonathan Silverman. Not a good show. Honestly, I would have preferred a sitcom about an 80-year-old doorman, but I’m not a network executive, so what do I know:
The Simpsons counts as one of his funnier TV moments. He played himself (sort of) taking a group of boy scouts on a doomed trip down a river:
Borgnine recently closed out the long series run of ER with a heartbreaking, Emmy-nominated role as a grieving husband sleeping next to his dead wife. But, honestly, if he’s remembered by today’s viewers at all, it’s as the voice of Mermaid Man, the aging superhero of SpongeBob SquarePants.
Also on board for that animated role was Tim Conway – his comedy partner from McHale’s Navy – playing his loyal sidekick Barnacle Boy. Hilarious, and a great way to come full circle career-wise. Here, Borgnine talks about the fickleness of fame and Mermaid Man:
I’ll miss Ernie Borgnine. His appearances on TV meant quality. Maybe not always the show itself, but the guy never failed to deliver. And that’s something.