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Ernest Borgnine - More Than Just a Pretty Face

Updated on November 15, 2011

Ernest Borgnine

Ernest Borgnine is an American TV and movie actor whose career has spanned more than six decades. Maybe his looks aren't so pretty, with his thick-set physique, bushy eyebrows and jowly face but his grizzled looks have predetermined his parts. He has normally played character roles, often as middle aged heavies in dramas and Westerns, but in the films where he plays the lead he has shown that he is an actor of great skill and power. He won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of the Italian butcher Marty Piletti in 'Marty' in 1955.

Later in his career he transferred easily to television where he became well known for playing Quinton McHale in the 1962-66 comedy series 'McHale's Navy', and costarring in the mid-1980s action series 'Airwolf'. At the age of 92 Borgnine earned an Emmy nomination for his work on the series 'ER' and in 2009 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rhode Island International Film Festival.

With his Oscar in 1956, with Jack Lemmon, Jo Van Fleet and Grace Kelly
With his Oscar in 1956, with Jack Lemmon, Jo Van Fleet and Grace Kelly
Ernest at 6 months
Ernest at 6 months | Source

Early Years

Borgnine was born Ermes Effron Borgnino in Hamden, Connecticut on January 24, 1917. He was the first of two children of first generation Italian immigrants. His parents separated when Ernest was 2, and he went with his mother to live in in Milan, Italy where they lived for 5 years before his parents reconciled and the family returned to Hamden, anglicising the family name from Borgnino to Borgnine. He is still a fluent Italian speaker.

In the Navy
In the Navy

Ernest showed no interest in acting as a child but was a good at sports, particularly boxing. After graduating from James Hillhouse High School Borgnine enlisted in the United States Navy in 1935. He was discharged in 1941 but when the US entered the war he immediately re-enlisted. He eventually spent a total of 10 years in the Navy and reached the rank of Gunner's Mate 1st Class.

Returning home after the war he drifted for a while and worked in factories. His mother encouraged him to use his strong personality as an actor and he enrolled at the Randall School of Dramatic Art in Hartford. He graduated after one year an spent the next four years with the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Virginia, getting his first stage role in 1947 in 'State of the Union'. His big break came in 1949 when he made his Broadway debut as a male nurse in 'Harvey'. It was the first in a long series of character acting roles.

From Here to Eternity, 1953
From Here to Eternity, 1953

Early Acting Career

He made the decision to make a career in movies and in 1951 he moved to California. After a few small roles in TV series he made  his movie debut as a Chinese shopkeeper in 'China Corsair' in 1951 followed by another small role in 'The Whistle at Eaton Falls' in the same year. With these and successive performances he began to make his reputation as a capable and versatile actor.

His budding career took a great leap forward in 1953 when he played the ruthless, sergeant "Fatso" Judson in 'From Here to Eternity'. He won considerable critical acclaim and his performance led to numerous supporting roles, normally, because of his physical appearance, as a thug or gangster in a string of thrillers and Westerns. One such appearance for which he got particular praise was as the menacing henchman, Coley Trimble, in 'Bad Day at Black Rock' in 1955.

With Betsy Blair in Marty, 1955
With Betsy Blair in Marty, 1955

Marty Trailer

Hollywood Star

Borgnine showed a  more sensitive side to his acting skills when he portrayed the warm-hearted, lonely Italian butcher, Marty Piletti, in the film version of the television play 'Marty' in 1955, which gained him an Academy Award for Best Actor as well as a Cannes Festival award. His brilliant performance ensured that he was no longer automatically typecast as a "heavy" and his film career continued successfully during the following decades. He invariably played the supporting rather than the leading role, as in 'The Vikings' in 1958 with Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis and 'The Flight of the Phoenix' in 1965, supporting James Stewart.

 One of his most famous roles was that of Dutch, in the 1969 Sam Peckinpah Western classic, 'The Wild Bunch' and in the 1970's his successes continued with 'The Poseidon Adventure' in 1972 and 'Law and Disorder' in 1974.

McHale's Navy
McHale's Navy

Television Star

Borgnine had started appearing on television as early as 1951 when the medium was still in its infancy and throughout his movie career he continued to make regular TV appearances. In 1962 he was cast as LCDR Quinton McHale in the TV series "McHale's Navy" and remained in the show for four years, receiving an Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series in 1963. He continued working regularly in television in tandem with movies for the rest of his career.

He made several appearances on different episodes of 'Wagon Train', and on 'the Dean Martin show', 'Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In' and many others. He also appeared in several magnificent TV movies including 'Jesus of Nazareth' in 1977, 'Ghost on Flight 401' the following year and a remake of 'All Quiet on the Western Front' in 1979. From 1984-5 he appeared on television as Dominic Santini in the action series 'Airwolf' and he appeared on many occasions on the television game show 'Hollywood Squares'.

In 1999, Borgnine added another string to his bow when he began a career as a voiceover to the cartoon 'SpongeBob SquarePants'.

In McHale's Navy
In McHale's Navy | Source
Marriage to Ethel Merman, 1964
Marriage to Ethel Merman, 1964


Borgnine has been married five times, firstly in 1948 to Rhoda Kemins whom he met and courted whilst sill in the Navy and with whom he had one daughter. They divorced in 1959 and in the same year he married his second wife, the actress Katy Jurado. The marriage ended in 1963 and the following year he married the singer, Ethel Merman, but the marriage was dissolved after just 32 days. According to Borgnine, she could not reconcile to his having more fan attention than she did.

In 1965 he married Donna Rancourt with whom he had a son and a daughter and on his divorce in 1972 he married his fifth and current wife, Tova Traesnaes, almost 25 years his junior.

Tova and Ernest
Tova and Ernest

Up to Date

 In 2007, Borgnine  became the first Best Actor Oscar winner to be still alive on his 90th birthday, but even as he has aged, he is still hard at work and in his nineties, show no signs of slowing down.

He is a high ranking member of the Masonic Order, holding the 33rd degree of the Scottish Rite of Masonry and he has long been active in the organisation.

In 2004, Borgnine's orignal ten year navy service and his lifelong support for the Navy and Navy families worldwide, was recognised when he was awarded the honorary rank of Chief Petty Officer from the Master Chief Petty Officer of the US Navy.

His autobiography, titled simply "Ernie" was published in July 2008 and contains recollections and anecdotes of his acting career and personal life.

Ernest Borgnine, Superstar and Gentleman
Ernest Borgnine, Superstar and Gentleman

Ernest Borgnine on Amazon


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    • jimmyglaughlin profile image

      Jim Laughlin 4 years ago from Connecticut

      One of the greatest! Poseidon Adventure, growing up was my favorite movie.

    • Cogerson profile image

      Cogerson 7 years ago from Virginia

      He is getting a lifetime SAG award

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 7 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      I've seen quite a few of Ernest Borgnine's very long list of performances in movies and on TV, gunsock. I've been impressed by his versatility. His portrayal of "Marty" was unparalleled. Thanks for another great biographical sketch of Hollywood's best.