Ernest Borgnine, who died Sunday at the age of 95, with a last film, “The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez” still making the rounds of the festival circuit, played many parts in his rarely idle time. Notably, there was his Oscar-winning role in the 1955 film of “Marty,” in which he played Paddy Chayefsky’s “fat little ugly guy,” a lonely butcher on the verge of middle-age who finds love, or the chance of it, by accepting his ordinariness. But to me he was first and always Quinton McHale, the clever, unconventional skipper of a Pacific Theater PT boat, in the 1960s World War II sitcom “McHale’s Navy.”
A hefty, sweet-faced man with heavy eyebrows and an exceptionally wide, gap-toothed grin, he had something of the look of a big friendly dog, or a small friendly bear, which he turned to good, ironic advantage playing bullies and villains in adult dramas — in the pre-porn sense of the word — such as “From Here to Eternity” (a breakthrough role in 1953) and “Bad Day at Black Rock” (1955), in which he is thrashed by one-armed hero Spencer Tracy. But his sweetness won out over the course of his career.
It was an astonishingly long one: His television work nearly spans the history of the medium, from his first guest appearance on the cardboard-and-poster-paint sci-fi adventure “Captain Video and His Video Rangers” to the final episode of “ER,” which won him a last Emmy nomination in 2009 at the age of 92, to his providing the voice of the senescent superhero Mermaid Man on “SpongeBob SquarePants.” In between those poles were many, many appearances, from the dramatic anthologies that gave the 1950s its “golden age” glow — shows with “Theater” and “Presents” and “Playhouse” in the title — to such latter-day classics as “The Love Boat,” “Murder, She Wrote” and “Touched by an Angel.”
“McHale’s Navy,” which aired from 1962 to 1966 and belongs to Borgnine’s early middle period, was one of a spate of anti-authoritarian military comedies that came to big and little screens around that time, when the Second World War was becoming a popular object of nostalgia, satire and critical dissection. (Both Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22" and Robert J. Donovan’s “PT 109: John F. Kennedy in WWII” had been published the year before “McHale” hit the air.) Specifically, the series was a mixture of “Seven Against the Sea” — a one-shot 1962 TV drama that introduced the character of McHale, the PT-73 and the theme of productive independence versus incompetent authority — and “The Phil Silvers Show” (1955-59), a.k.a. “Sgt. Bilko,” whose producer, Edward Montagne, also produced “McHale.”
Coming in a window between the Eisenhower Age of normality and the culture clashes of the late ‘60s, such crazy-gang comedies, themselves descended from the anarchic antics of the Marx Brothers, were like training films for young minds, schooling us to question authority, to cherish nonconformity, to value improvisation. I don’t think it’s going too far to say that, doubtless without intending to, they helped set the stage for the chaotic tribalism and prankish politics of the ‘60s counterculture; there is a line you can draw from “McHale’s Navy” to the Chicago Seven.
Borgnine, already in his mid-40s when he took on McHale, was of the generation that had fought in McHale’s war, but, like any cool older person not beholden to a book of rules, he seemed to me to be very much of my own time. (I would have joined his gang.) And if even as a young man he had a face that looked lived-in, as an older one, all the way into his white-haired 90s, he never really looked old. Indeed, you can spend a lot of time trawling YouTube for clips of the actor in his last decades, marveling at his apparently ineradicable youthfulness. (In 2008, on an edition of"Fox and Friends,"he famously revealed one secret of his longevity; I will let you look that one up for yourself.)
If this agelessness was obviously in some way genetic, it was certainly also temperamental. He began acting, he often said, on his mother’s suggestion: “You always like getting in front of people and making a fool of yourself. Why don’t you give it a try?’ ”
The mischievous elan he bought to the ridiculous “Airwolf,” the mid-1980s series about a high-tech helicopter in which he costarred with the rigidly intense Jan-Michael Vincent, is all that saves that series from complete self-parody. It does not seem to have occurred to Borgnine, as it might to us, that he was doing work for which he was spectacularly overqualified or that such a thing might even be possible. Of his role in the 1995-97 Jonathan Silverman sitcom “The Single Guy,” he recalled: “They said, ‘You’re playing the part of a doorman.’ I said, ‘Well, I haven’t played a doorman before — let’s go!’” And as Mermaid Man on “SpongeBob,” he attacked his potted, sometimes potty dialogue with audible energy and commitment.
He took his craft seriously, but not himself.
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