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Obituary: Ernest Borgnine

Ernest Borgnine

Obituary by Jack Foley

OSCAR-winning actor Ernest Borgnine has died at the age of 95, his spokesman has said.

The popular star, whose career spanned 60 years, passed away from renal failure in a Los Angeles hospital with his family by his side on Sunday, July 8, 2012, his spokesman, Harry Flynn, told the Associated Press.

Borgnine was a highly regarded character actor whose memorable roles included being a part of Sam Peckinpah’s Wild Bunch, General Worden in The Dirty Dozen, Rogo in The Poseidon Adventure and – most recently – Paul Manning in hit hospital TV drama ER.

He won an Oscar in 1955 for his role in the film Marty.

HIs family released a statement saying Borgnine “had been in excellent health until a recent illness”.

Born on January 24, 1917 in Hamden, Connecticut, Ernest Effron Borgnino was the son of Italian immigrants, who moved to New Haven in 1923 and changed the family name to Borgnine.

Ironically, Ernest had no early ambition to act, enlisting in the Navy instead in 1935. He was discharged in 1941 but re-enlisted following Pearl Harbor and continued to serve until the end of the war.

Upon returning to civilian life, he took up factory work until his mother suggested that his outgoing personality and charisma might lend itself well to a life on the stage.

He promptly enrolled at a drama school in Hartford and then joined the famous Barter Theatre in Virginia (so named because people paid for their seats with produce from their farms). But it wasn’t until his off-Broadway performance as the Gentleman Caller in Tennessee Williams’ play, The Glass Menagerie, that he got his first real break (despite later admitting he thought he was terrible in it).

Having been hailed by several New York critics who attended the play, Borgnine got his Broadway break and appeared as a male nurse in a production of Harvey before then making a bid for cinema stardom.

He broke into movies after successfully taking part in a screen test against 140 other actors and made a big impression in his first major role alongside Frank Sinatra in 1953’s From Here To Eternity, in which he played the sadistic sergeant Fatso.

Numerous roles as villains followed, including Bad Day At Black Rock with Spencer Tracy, until he was cast against type as a shy, sensitive butcher in the film Marty.

The performcnace landed him the best actor Oscar against strong competition from Spencer Tracy, Frank Sinatra, James Dean and James Cagne. He also won a BAFTA.

That award success enabled Borgnine to underline his versatility as an actor and helped him land prominent roles in some of the biggest films of the next few years, including – most notably – The Vikings, The Dirty Dozen and The Poseidon Adventure.

He also found success on TV with roles in McHale’s Navy and, later, Airwolf – and this despite claiming he disliked the small screen.

Borgnine was also noted for having a strong set of moral values. He never condoned violence and felt that bad guys should be seen to be punished for their mis-deeds, even turning down a hefty payday when offered the chance to play Al Capone.

He also steered clear of roles that involved excessive swearing or explicit sex.

Borgnine continued to act into his 90s and, in 2009, memorably starred in the final series of landmark medical drama ER, winning an Emmy nomination for his role.

He also provided the voice of Mermaid Man on children’s TV series SpongeBob SquarePants.

In his private life, Borgnine was married five times.

His last wife, Tova, was a cosmetics entrepreneur.

He had a daughter with his first wife, Rhoda Kemins, and two children with Donna Rancourt, his fourth wife.

He was also married to the Mexican actress, Katy Jurado, and the musical star, Ethel Merman, the latter marriage lasting barely a month.

Paying tribute to the great man, Borgnine’s manager Lynda Bensky told The Hollywood Reporter: “It’s a very sad day. The industry has lost someone great, the caliber of which we will never see again.

“A true icon, but more importantly the world has lost a sage and loving man who taught us all how to ‘grow young.’ His infectious smile and chuckle made the world a happier place.”