It’s always risky business when you meet a childhood idol. Too often we discover that the idol has feet of clay and our fantasy is dashed, causing us to doubt ourselves and adversely affect our self-confidence. But other times that moment becomes a shining highlight in your life. Thus it was for me when I met Ernest Borgnine … TWICE! And now he’s gone, leaving behind a wealth of colorful roles and a personality too large for death to claim.
Ernest Borgnine passed away 8 July in Los Angeles at the tender age of 95. His age only proves that not only do the good die young but the good also die in the golden years.
Born “Ermes Effron Borgnino” on Jan. 24, 1917 in Connecticut, Borgnine spent much of his childhood in Italy before returning to the USA to graduate from high school. Joining the Navy at age 18, he served for 10 years and was a gunner’s mate during WWII.
After the war he considered factory jobs but his mother suggested that he try acting. It was a smart move! Once he started, he NEVER stopped!
There are hundreds of Borgnine tributes on the web and on TV now so I’ll not repeat that here. If you are reading this, then you know all about this tough-guy actor who spent a career playing villains, cops, vikings, cowboys and military men. Few knew that he was an Academy Award winner, winning the Best Actor Oscar for his role as a big-hearted butcher in Marty (1955). I always felt that this movie was the template for the similar John Candy/Ally Sheedy hit, Only the Lonely (1991).
Like so many others of my generation, I grew to love “Ernie” thanks to his starring role in TV’s McHale’s Navy (1962-66), originating the role of an irreverent con man of a PT boat skipper in the Pacific of WWII. As a little kid, the humor and light-hearted nature of the series gently exposed me for the first time to the reality of WWII and the importance of a strong military. It was a lesson I never forgot.
I first met Ernie in a casino in Las Vegas in the Fall of 1980. He was just hanging at the bar getting ready to play a table with William Conrad (the original radio voice of Matt Dillon from Gunsmoke). I introduced myself as a young 2LT who had grown to respect the military thanks in large part to McHale’s Navy in the 60s. Borgnine was THRILLED to hear it. He shook my hand rigorously and flashed that trademark toothy smile of his. “That’s WONDERFUL,” he said over and over. “Just wonderful!”
Was he being sincere, polite, or just acting?
I choose sincere because we kept in touch from time to time over the years. I’d drop him a line and he’s respond, usually with a short, hand-written note and a photo tossed in.
In 2008, he published his long overdue biography, Ernie (Citadel Press). I devoured it like a starving wolf and loved every page. The stories of his childhood, coming to America and seeing the Statue of Liberty in NY Harbor, Navy life, and behind the scenes stories with his favorite actor friends (Charles Bronson, Lee Marvin, etc) thrilled me no end!
I came full circle in 2011, meeting Ernie in Atlanta and sharing many old and new stories with him. He was as gracious as ever. When I told him I’d recently watched Emperor of the North on TV, he got excited! “How did you like that fight scene with Lee Marvin?” he excitedly asked me. “We were pretty tough, huh?”
We laughed together about the night a NY cabbie threatened to beat him up because “you stabbed Sinatra in the back” in From Here to Eternity! And how he played Kirk Douglas’ father in The Vikings even though he’s a few months younger than ol’ Spartacus! And of course, how The Dirty Dozen influenced my love for action movies! I could have gone on forever but I finally left him after he was “discovered” by a gang of little girls anxious to meet Mermaid Man, the character he brought to life on the Spongebob Squarepants cartoon series. Full circle indeed!
I didn’t really know Ernest Borgnine like I know my friends, college classmates or neighbors. But I feel like I did thanks to a lifetime of film and television that brought him into my world on a regular basis. Our paths crossed briefly a few times in my life … a moment of forever … and I’m thankful for it.
He was genuine, sincere, and had a heart as big as the Atlantic.
He was a patriot, a WWII veteran, and a lover of freedom.
He was a husband, father, grandfather and brother.
But let’s not forget that first and foremost, he was an actor. Many will remember him playing gruff, crude, violent or boisterous roles. That’s where the acting came into play. In reality, Ernest Borgnine was a kind man who loved his country, his family, his profession and his fans! He was my true American Idol!
Fair winds and following seas, Commander McHale! You were the best!