Categories: Arts, Hamden, Hartford, New Haven, North Haven, Popular Culture, Postwar United States, World War II

Ernest Borgnine: Breaking the Hollywood Mold

Image of Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair from the trailer of the movie Marty, 1955, United Artists

by Andy Piascik

It is unlikely anyone ever mistook Ernest Borgnine for Tyrone Power. Short and stocky and possessing a look not traditionally coveted for leading roles in Hollywood, Borgnine nonetheless carved out a long, admirable career in movies and television. He exhibited great range and worked into his 90s on both the dramatic series ER and as the voice of superhero Mermaid Man on SpongeBob SquarePants.

Ernest Borgnine Grows Up in Connecticut

Borgnine was born Ermes Effron Borgnino on January 24, 1917, in Hamden, the son of two Italian immigrants. When his parents separated, Borgnine lived for four years in Italy with his mother. His parents reconciled and Borgnine returned to Connecticut with his mother in 1923. The family lived for a brief time in North Haven and Hamden and then settled in New Haven where they rented a house on Bassett Street.

The family had a garden in the backyard and Borgnine recalled the hours he spent working there with great fondness. Mrs. Borgnine oversaw the gardening so that it included vegetables to eat and flowers for the kitchen table. Borgnine recalled that the garden grew larger and the vegetables it yielded became more central to the family’s meals after the stock market crashed in 1929. He so took to working the soil that he signed on at a nearby farm picking peaches and apples.

Advertisement for the film Marty starring Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair, 1955

Advertisement for the film Marty starring Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair, 1955

With the onset of the Great Depression, Borgnine’s father found employment through the Works Progress Administration (WPA) as a foreman on the construction of roads and bridges in New Haven. Ernest, meanwhile, attended local schools and graduated from Hillhouse High School. He enlisted in the navy in 1935 and served two tours of duty totaling ten years.

At the end of the Second World War, Borgnine retuned to Connecticut and, with nothing in particular to do, heeded a suggestion from his mother to study acting. At the rather advanced age of 28, he enrolled in the Randall School of Dramatic Art in Hartford in the fall of 1945. Thereafter he joined a repertory company in Virginia and made his professional debut on Broadway in Harvey in 1949.

Marty Brings Film Stardom

It was in the 1950s that Borgnine made a number of film appearances that were as disparate as they were well received. In a span of just two years, he played sadistic, thuggish characters in the vintage film version of James Jones’s From Here to Eternity and in Bad Day at Black Rock while also appearing in two classic westerns, Vera Cruz and Nicholas Ray’s cult favorite Johnny Guitar. All of these films featured great ensemble acting of which Borgnine was an integral part.

In 1955, Borgnine appeared as the title character in Marty, the part and the movie for which he is best known. Unlike many of the previous movies Borgnine had been in, Marty was a relatively low-budget film and, aside from himself, utilized a cast of lesser-known actors. Marty earned seven Academy Award nominations and won four, with Borgnine winning for Best Actor.

Ernest Borgnine as McHale in the television program McHale's Navy, 1962, ABC Television

Ernest Borgnine as McHale in the television program McHale’s Navy, 1962, ABC Television

After Marty, Borgnine continued to appear regularly in movies, including Ice Station Zebra, The Dirty Dozen, The Wild Bunch, and The Poseidon Adventure, while also playing the lead character in the television comedy McHale’s Navy for four years beginning in 1962. Four decades later, he received an Emmy nomination for a part he played on ER, a Golden Globe nomination for his performance in A Grandpa for Christmas, and, capping his long career, a prestigious Life Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild in 2010.

Return Visits to Connecticut

People from Connecticut who met Borgnine over the years observed that he was down-to-earth and never let his acting fame go to his head. He returned to Hamden in 1971 for a reunion and spent hours visiting familiar sites and reminiscing with town residents. In 2004, Hamden showed its appreciation with Ernest Borgnine Day; while in 2009, Borgnine traveled to New Haven to attend events marking the 150th anniversary of his alma mater, Hillhouse High School. And in 2010, though he was 93 at the time, Borgnine flew from his California home to talk at Sacred Heart University in what turned out to be his last visit to his home state. Borgnine died on July 8, 2012, at the age of 95.

Bridgeport native Andy Piascik is an award-winning author who has written for many publications and websites over the last four decades. He is also the author of two books.

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Books

Borgnine, Ernest. Ernie: The Autobiography. New York, NY: Citadel Press, 2008.

Articles

Rizzo, Frank. “Ernest Borgnine Returns to Connecticut.” Hartford Courant. October 24, 2010.
Albert, Bridget. “Oscar-Winning Film Star Ernest Borgnine, of Hamden, Dead at 95.” New Haven Register. July 8, 2012.
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