Ernest Borgnine, who died on Sunday of apparent kidney failure at age 95, may have won an Oscar and may be remembered for his roles in the film “Marty” and the sitcom “McHale’s Navy,” but to an entire generation of kids, he’s Mermaid Man from “SpongeBob SquarePants.”
Borgnine began voicing the character, an elderly superhero, in 1999 during the animated series’ first season. He went on to play the character in several episodes of the series alongside his former “McHale’s Navy” co-star Tim Conway, who voiced Mermaid Man’s sidekick Barnacle Boy.
Though the height of Borgnine’s critical acclaim peaked decades earlier, the actor found a renewed fan base among kids of all ages through his work on the Nickelodeon series.
In 2010, he told the Television Academy Foundation about a recent speech he gave at the National Press Club, followed by a meet-and-greet with a group of Girl Scouts.
“I asked [the girls] how many of you have seen my pictures?” he recalled. “They said nothing. Zilch. Suddenly I had a brain storm. I said ‘How many of you know SpongeBob?’ Yes! I said ‘Well I happen to play Mermaid Man.’ I was in!”
As for Mermaid Man’s distinctive delivery of the word, “evil,” even Borgnine can’t quite say. He told the interviewer, “My voice cracked when I was saying ‘evil’ and I said, ‘By golly, we started something!’”