In the John Sturges film “Bad Day at Black Rock,” Ernest Borgnine played a thuggish desert rat named Coley Trimble who — with menace coiled in his neck and voice — memorably tried to pick a fight with Spencer Tracy’s character, the movie’s unwelcome outsider: “I’m half-hoss, half-alligator. You mess with me — and I’ll kick a lung outta ya. Whaddya think of that?”
In later decades, Borgnine’s gap-toothed grin and taxi-stand bellow would make him a bear-hug presence whether he was the title character in the 1960s series “McHale’s Navy,” the feckless cabbie in John Carpenter’s 1981 “Escape From New York” or retiree Bert O’Riley reconnecting with family in “A Grandpa for Christmas,” the 2007 Hallmark Channel production that earned him a Golden Globe nomination.
But on the set of “Bad Day at Black Rock,” filmed in Lone Pine, Calif., in 1954, Borgnine arrived with considerable villainy credentials. He was the brutish stockade sergeant who killed Maggio, played by Frank Sinatra, in “From Here to Eternity,” and even before that, on television, he had gotten a gig on “Captain Video and His Video Rangers” playing Norgola, a Martian beast who dressed like Moses and acted like a vaudeville version of Mussolini.
One day, Borgnine was leaving the set when Tracy (who was often seething or morose while making the movie, which would be his last for MGM) called out and playfully asked where he was going. Tracy pointed out that maybe the star of the film should be the first one to head to wardrobe at the end of a shoot.
Borgnine had director Delbert Mann and playwright Paddy Chayefsky waiting for him. They’d had a bumpy flight in a small plane up from L.A. and, when Mann saw the dusty, brawny Borgnine, it added to the sour feeling in his stomach.
The pair had come to see if Borgnine was their best choice to play the lead in “Marty,” a movie about a sensitive butcher and bachelor who wants more from life but can’t quite lose the dull edge that holds him back.
The glowering Borgnine didn’t look like the right guy, but, as they waited, he washed the grime off his face, changed the tilt of his chin and read for the part. He won them over on the spot and repeated the trick with moviegoers.
The Oscar that Borgnine won for “Marty” led to a long and winding career path, and he did so much, it’s hard to get your arms around his legacy. The trophy for “Marty” was the shining moment, of course, but that’s an elusive reference for many in the contemporary audience.
They are more likely to know him from “The Dirty Dozen,” which reaches its 45th anniversary next week (and reminds us that, clearly, that Summer of Love wasn’t echoing in every corner of pop culture). Some might chuckle to remember Borgnine as Ragnar the Evil in “The Vikings,” which starred Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis — it could have been the"Game of Thrones” of its time except for its plot, tone, quality and characters. My generation (now in its early 40s) remembers him bug-eyed in a hovering high-tech gunship called “Airwolf” on TV in the 1980s.
I met Borgnine on three occasions. The first was in March 2002, when I was covering the Oscars and watched the actor and his wife, Tova, make a painfully slow red-carpet stroll past a press corps that didn’t recognize them and/or didn’t care. I walked up and expressed my admiration for “Marty” and “Escape From New York” and watched my hand disappear inside the calloused bowling bag of his right hand.
“Nice to meet you, young fella!”
We chatted for a bit and I asked him about the then-new home for the awards, at the corner of Hollywood and Highland. “I think it’s wonderful that it’s here,” he said. “I won my Oscar up the street at the Pantages, and it’s nice to be back over here.”
I saw him again in 2010 at the Publicists Guild banquet and, like a loud uncle at family gathering, he seemed to enjoy shocking the guests.
A year later, he picked up a trophy at the Screen Actors Guild Awards and looked to be in a bit of rush. Tova was with him, and he explained his haste by nodding toward her and saying, “Let’s get back to the table and eat before they take the plates.”
His was a generation that knew war and scarcity and discipline. Each time I saw him, he and Tova spoke about the next project, the next job, the need to keep moving — the son of a train brakeman in Connecticut, he knew the toll of stopping too often.
Borgnine had been in the Navy himself and then extended his military service with roles in “From Here to Eternity” and “McHale’s Navy” in the 1960s. And there were further maritime exploits in “The Poseidon Adventure” in the 1970s, and, yes, even “SpongeBob Square Pants.” On that show he played the underwater doofus Mermaid Man, which put him back in the ear of young television viewers a full 60 years after “Captain Video.”
Back in 2002, when I first met him, he said the key to the red carpet was to never get caught flat-footed. “If you keep moving,” he said, “you can’t sink.”
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