Ernest Borgnine, who died Sunday at 95, is remembered mostly for his tough-guy roles, but he could be surprisingly tender as well, as he proved with his Oscar-winning portrayal as the lovelorn butcher in “Marty.” The versatile star turned out to be equally adept at heroes and villains, comedy and drama, leading man and character parts.
The descendant of an Italian count, Borgnine always came off as a regular guy (one who, in real life, insisted that everyone call him Ernie.) He got into acting late (well into his 30s, before he made his film debut), but he worked steadily for 60 years until his death and racked up more than 200 movie and TV credits.
Naturally, there’s a lot of chaff in there, but he also made some landmark flicks that changed the course of film history. Here are ten roles for which Ernest Borgnine deserves to be remembered.
From Here to Eternity (1953)
Borgnine first made his mark as Sgt. “Fatso” Judson, the bully who brutally beats skinny Pvt. Maggio (Frank Sinatra) to a pulp. Here, the rough-hewn actor set the template for the heavies and villians he’d play throughout his career.
Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
It’s set in the days after World War II, but John Sturges’ thriller plays like a classic western. Spencer Tracy is the one-armed stranger in town, and Borgnine is Coley Trimble, the local bruiser who wants to make sure the town’s dirty secrets stay buried. Another great heavy role for Borgnine.
Borgnine was a more intuitive actor than the Method-trained Rod Steiger (who starred in the TV version that preceded the movie), but he proved the right choice to play the lonely Bronx butcher who finds a tentative romance in this kitchen-sink drama. After he’d become known as a heavy, Borgnine’s transformation into a city mouse surprised everyone and earned him a well-deserved Best Actor Oscar.
The Dirty Dozen (1967)
In the World War II commando drama that <a href=”http://news.moviefone.com/2012/06/13/the-dirty-dozen-45th-anniversary_n_1594779.html” target=”_hplink”>built the blueprint for the modern macho action movie</a>, Borgnine graduates to elder statesman status as a gruff general. He also sets a pattern for himself, serving as one tough guy among many in ensemble action pieces. Such as…
The Wild Bunch (1969)
Borgnine is an invaluable part of the ensemble in Sam Peckinpah’s milestone revisionist western. By this time, Borgnine was a veteran hard man, which gave his aging outlaw Dutch an elegaic poignance, but he was also hip enough to Peckinpah’s new ideas about how to portray bloodshed poetically that he seems thoroughly modern in his willingness to raise the bar on screen bloodshed.
The Poseidon Adventure (1972)
The movie is often derided as the first of a (rogue) wave of cheesy all-star disaster movies, but this one had a cast larded with Oscar-winners (Borgnine, Shelley Winters, Red Buttons, Gene Hackman), all emoting at the top of their drowning lungs. Arguably, the heart of the movie is Borgnine’s Rogo, a cop married to a former hooker, who undergoes the most surprising emotional journey as he reluctantly joins the band of survivors struggling to free themselves from the capsized ocean liner.
Emperor of the North (1973)
Borgnine faces off against “Dirty Dozen” co-star Lee Marvin on this Depression-era adventure. As a train conductor who’ll go to any lengths to keep hoboes from hitching rides, Borgnine’s cold-blooded Shack was the actor’s own pick for the scariest villain of his career.
The Black Hole (1979)
In this pioneering Disney sci-fi movie, Borgnine seems almost out of place, as if his sweater-clad reporter Harry Booth had shambled onto the spaceship from another movie. But he soon proves his worth as part of the action team pursuing a renegade scientist and his scary robot at the edge of the universe.
Escape From New York (1981)
He’s just called “Cabbie,” but Borgnine’s cab driver proves immeasurably helpful to Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken during his rescue mission in the prison-island Manhattan of the near future. He’s one of many action vets John Carpenter has cast in the movie as sort of a wink to the pulp thrillers we’d all grown up with, and which Borgnine had made a staple of his career.
Spike of Bensonhurst (1988)
Not a great movie (or a terrible one), but Borgnine steals it as a politically-minded mafia boss trying to keep the young hero (a Brooklyn street kid who dreams of boxing glory) away from his daughter. Borgnine and on-screen wife Anne De Salvo are priceless in their depiction of the mundane marital dramas of mafia life (in a way that anticipates “Married to the Mob” and “The Sopranos”). Borgnine often turned to comedy during his late career, but this was one role that also suited his larger-than-life, been-there-done-that persona.
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