Borgnine earned his third Primetime Emmy Award nomination at age 92 for his work on the 2009 series finale of ER. He was known as the original voice of Mermaid Man on SpongeBob SquarePants from 1999 until his death in 2012. He had earlier replaced the late Vic Tayback as the voice of the villainous Carface in both All Dogs Go to Heaven 2 (1996) and All Dogs Go to Heaven: The Series (1996–1998).
Ernest Borgnine was born Ermes Effron Borgnino on January 24, 1917 in Hamden, Connecticut, the son of Italian immigrants. His mother, Anna (née Boselli; 1894–c. 1949), hailed from Carpi, near Modena, while his father Camillo Borgnino (1891–1975) was a native of Ottiglio near Alessandria. Borgnine's parents separated when he was two years old, and he then lived with his mother in Italy for about four and a half years. By 1923, his parents had reconciled, the family name was changed from Borgnino to Borgnine, and his father changed his first name to Charles. Borgnine had a younger sister, Evelyn Borgnine Velardi (1925–2013). The family settled in New Haven, Connecticut, where Borgnine graduated from James Hillhouse High School. He took to sports while growing up, but showed no interest in acting.
Borgnine joined the United States Navy in October 1935, after graduation from high school. He served aboard the destroyer/destroyer minesweeper USS Lamberton (DD-119; AG-21 and DMS-2) and was honorably discharged from the Navy in October 1941. In January 1942, he reenlisted in the Navy after the attack on Pearl Harbor. During World War II, he patrolled the Atlantic Coast on an antisubmarine warfare ship, the USS Sylph (PY-12). In September 1945, he was honorably discharged from the Navy. He served a total of almost ten years in the Navy and obtained the grade of gunner's mate 1st class. His military awards include the Navy Good Conduct Medal, American Defense Service Medal with Fleet Clasp, American Campaign Medal with 3⁄16" bronze star, and the World War II Victory Medal.
In 1997, Borgnine received the United States Navy Memorial, Lone Sailor Award.
On December 7, 2000, Borgnine was named the Veterans Foundation's Veteran of the Year.
In October 2004, Borgnine received the honorary title of chief petty officer from Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Terry D. Scott. The ceremony for Borgnine's naval advancement was held at the U.S. Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C. He received the special honor for his naval service and support of the Navy and navy families worldwide.
On February 5, 2007, he received the California Commendation Medal.
Borgnine returned to his parents' house in Connecticut after his Navy discharge without a job to go back to and no direction. In a British Film Institute interview about his life and career, he said:
He took a local factory job, but was unwilling to settle down to that kind of work. His mother encouraged him to pursue a more glamorous profession and suggested to him that his personality would be well suited for the stage. He surprised his mother by taking the suggestion to heart, although his father was far from enthusiastic. In 2011, Borgnine remembered,
He studied acting at the Randall School of Drama in Hartford, then moved to Virginia, where he became a member of the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Virginia. It had been named for the director's allowing audiences to barter produce for admission during the cash-lean years of the Great Depression. In 1947, Borgnine landed his first stage role in State of the Union. Although it was a short role, he won over the audience. His next role was as the Gentleman Caller in Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie.
In 1949, Borgnine went to New York, where he had his Broadway debut in the role of a nurse in the play Harvey. More roles on stage led him to being cast for decades as a character actor.
An appearance as the villain on TV's Captain Video led to Borgnine's casting in the motion picture The Whistle at Eaton Falls (1951) for Columbia Pictures. That year, Borgnine moved to Los Angeles, California, where he eventually received his big break in Columbia's From Here to Eternity (1953), playing the sadistic Sergeant "Fatso" Judson, who beats a stockade prisoner in his charge, Angelo Maggio (played by Frank Sinatra). Borgnine built a reputation as a dependable character actor and played villains in early films, including movies such as Johnny Guitar, Vera Cruz, and Bad Day at Black Rock.
In 1955, the actor starred as a warmhearted butcher in Marty, the film version of the television play of the same name. He gained an Academy Award for Best Actor over Frank Sinatra, James Dean (who had died by the time of the ceremony), and former Best Actor winners Spencer Tracy and James Cagney.
Borgnine's film career flourished for the next three decades, including roles in The Flight of the Phoenix (1965), The Dirty Dozen (1967), Ice Station Zebra (1968), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Emperor of the North (1973), Convoy (1978), The Black Hole (1979), and Escape from New York (1981).
One of his most famous roles was that of Dutch, a member of The Wild Bunch in the 1969 Western classic from director Sam Peckinpah. Of his role in The Wild Bunch, Borgnine later said,
Borgnine made his TV debut as a character actor in Captain Video and His Video Rangers, beginning in 1951. These two episodes led to countless other television roles that Borgnine would gain in Goodyear Television Playhouse, The Ford Television Theatre, Fireside Theatre, Frontier Justice, Laramie, Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre, Run for Your Life, Little House on the Prairie (a two-part episode entitled "The Lord is My Shepherd"), The Love Boat, Magnum, P.I., Highway to Heaven, Murder, She Wrote, Walker, Texas Ranger, Home Improvement, Touched by an Angel, the final episodes of ER, the first episode of Wagon Train, and many others.
In 2009, at the age of 92, Borgnine earned a Primetime Emmy Award nomination for his performance as Paul Manning in the series finale of ER, entitled "And in the End...". He made his first appearance as the character in the preceding episode "Old Times".
In 1962, Borgnine signed a contract with Universal Studios for the lead role as the gruff but lovable skipper, Quinton McHale, in what began as a serious one-hour 1962 episode called Seven Against the Sea for Alcoa Premiere, and later reworked to a comedy called McHale's Navy, a World War II sitcom, which also co-starred unfamiliar comedians Joe Flynn as Capt. Wally Binghamton and Tim Conway as Ens. Charles Parker. The insubordinate crew of PT-73 helped the show become an overnight success during its first season, landing in the Top 30 in 1963.
Like the McHale character, Borgnine was a longtime navy man in real life. He thrived on the adulation from fans for their favorite navy man, and in 1963 received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series. At the end of the fourth season, in 1966 low ratings and repetitive storylines brought McHale's Navy to an end.
Tim Conway said about the sitcom: "You know, we were all guys, it was about the war, and about men, so, there weren't many women working on the show, so we can spit, talk, swear, and everything—smoke? Gosh. So, it was male oriented." Conway once referred to Ernest Borgnine making new friends off of the Universal set, "It was the beginning of the trams, going through Universal. Ernie was probably one of the few people at Universal, who would stop the trams and say, 'Hello, how are you?' He would talk to everybody at the tram." While the show McHale's Navy was going strong, Tim had also said of Borgnine's short-lived marriage to Ethel Merman, "Ernie is volatile. I mean, there's no question about that; and Ethel was a very strong lady. So, you put 2 bombs in a room, something is going to explode, and I guess it probably did." He also said about the cancellation of McHale's Navy was, "We had gone from the South Pacific to Italy, and then, once in a while, we got to New York or something. The storylines were beginning to duplicate themselves. So, they actually said, 'Maybe, they had its run!'". Conway kept in touch with Borgnine for more than 40 years, while living not too far from one another. In 1999, the duo reunited to guest-voice in several episodes of the popular 2000s animated comedy, SpongeBob SquarePants. Katy Jurado's death in 2002 drew Borgnine and Conway much closer, as Tim had heard so much of the actress's death. He said he heard his resisting friend once referred to one of his ex-wives, "Beautiful, but a tiger." After Conway lost his TV captain, he later said, if Borgnine was more than likely to have died an Italian count, had it not been for Mussolini, "I can't envision him as a count," Tim had also said about McHale's Navy debuted, a half a century ago, boosting both ABC and the Navy fortunes: "But maybe as a king---certainly not a count." The last thing he said about his acting mentor's long career: "There were no limits to Ernie," said Conway, "When you look at his career---Fatso Judson to Marty, that's about as varied as you get in characters and he handled both of them with equal delicacy and got the most out of those characters."
Borgnine returned to a new contract with Universal Studios in 1983, for a co-starring role opposite Jan-Michael Vincent, on Airwolf. After he was approached by producer Donald P. Bellisario, who had been impressed by Borgnine's guest role as a wrestler in a 1982 episode of Magnum, P.I., he immediately agreed. He played Dominic Santini, a helicopter pilot, in the series, which became an immediate hit. Borgnine's strong performances belied his exhaustion due to the grueling production schedule, and the challenges of working with his younger, troubled series lead. The show was cancelled by CBS in 1986.
He auditioned a third time for a co-starring role opposite Jonathan Silverman in The Single Guy as doorman Manny Cordoba, which lasted two seasons. According to Silverman, Borgnine came to work with more energy and passion than all other stars combined. He was the first person to arrive on the set every day and the last to leave.
In 1996, Borgnine starred in the televised fantasy/thriller film Merlin's Shop of Mystical Wonders (partially adapted from the 1984 horror film The Devil's Gift). As narrator and storyteller, Borgnine recounts a string of related supernatural tales, his modern-day fables notably centering on an enchanted and malicious cymbal-banging monkey toy stolen from the wizard Merlin. The film was later featured in the parodical television series Mystery Science Theater 3000, and has since gained a prominent cult following.
Also in 1996, Borgnine toured the United States on a bus to meet his fans and see the country. The trip was the subject of a 1997 documentary, Ernest Borgnine on the Bus. He also served one year as the chairman of the National Salute to Hospitalized Veterans, visiting patients in many Department of Veterans Affairs medical centers.
Starting in 1999, Borgnine provided his voice talent to the animated sitcom SpongeBob SquarePants as the elderly superhero Mermaid Man (where he was paired up with his McHale's Navy co-star Tim Conway as the voice of Mermaid Man's sidekick Barnacle Boy). He expressed affection for this role, in no small part for its popularity among children. After his death Nickelodeon re-aired all of the episodes in which Mermaid Man appeared in memoriam. Borgnine also appeared as himself in The Simpsons episode "Boy-Scoutz 'n the Hood", in addition to a number of television commercials. In 2000, he was the executive producer of Hoover, in which he was the only credited actor.
In 2007, Borgnine starred in the Hallmark original film A Grandpa for Christmas. He played a man who, after his estranged daughter ends up in the hospital because of a car accident, discovers that he has a granddaughter he never knew about. She is taken into his care, and they soon become great friends. Borgnine received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor in a Mini-Series or Motion Picture made for Television for his performance. At 90, he was the oldest Golden Globe nominee ever.
Borgnine's autobiography Ernie was published by Citadel Press in July 2008. Ernie is a loose, conversational recollection of highlights from his acting career and notable events from his personal life.
On April 2, 2009, he appeared in the last episode of the long-running medical series ER. His role was that of a husband whose long marriage ended with his wife's death. In his final scene, his character is in a hospital bed lying beside his just-deceased wife. His performance garnered an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series, his third nomination and his first in 29 years (since being nominated for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series or a Special in 1980 for All Quiet on the Western Front).
In 2009, at age 92, he starred as Frank, the main character of Another Harvest Moon, directed by Greg Swartz and also starring Piper Laurie and Anne Meara. On October 2, 2010, Borgnine appeared as himself in a sketch on Saturday Night Live. On October 15, 2010, he appeared in Red, which was filmed earlier that year. In late 2011, Borgnine completed what would be his last film, playing Rex Page in The Man Who Shook The Hand of Vicente Fernandez.
Borgnine married five times. His first marriage, from 1949 to 1958, was to Rhoda Kemins, whom he met while serving in the Navy. They had one daughter, Nancee (born May 28, 1952). He was then married to actress Katy Jurado from 1959 to 1963. Borgnine's marriage to singer Ethel Merman in 1964 lasted only 32 days. Their time together was mostly spent hurling profane insults at each other, and both would later admit that the marriage was a colossal mistake (Merman's description of the marriage in her autobiography was a solitary blank page). Their divorce was finalized on May 25, 1965.
From 1965 to 1972, Borgnine was married to Donna Rancourt, with whom he had a son, Cristopher (born August 9, 1969) and two daughters, Sharon (born August 5, 1965) and Diana (born December 29, 1970). His fifth and last marriage was to Tova Traesnaes, which lasted from February 24, 1973 until his death in July 2012.
In 2000, Borgnine received his 50-year pin as a Freemason at Abingdon Lodge No. 48 in Abingdon, Virginia. He joined the Scottish Rite Valley of Los Angeles in 1964, received the KCCH in 1979, was crowned a 33° Inspector General Honorary in 1983, and received the Grand Cross of the Court of Honour in 1991.
Borgnine was a heavy smoker until 1962, after which he became a militant anti-smoker.
Borgnine died of kidney failure on July 8, 2012 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, California, with his family at his side. He was 95 years old.
Borgnine's hometown of Hamden, Connecticut, where he enjoyed a large and vocal following, named a street in his honor. For 30 years (1972–2002), Borgnine marched in Milwaukee's annual Great Circus Parade as the "Grand Clown".
In 1994, Borgnine received the Ellis Island Medal of Honor from the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations.
In 1997, Borgnine was the commencement speaker at Lakeland College, and received an honorary doctorate in humane letters in recognition of his distinguished acting career.
In 1998, the Palm Springs, California, Walk of Stars dedicated a Golden Palm Star to him.
In 2006 the comune of Ottiglio, Italy, his father's birthplace, gave him the honorary citizenship.
The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water is dedicated to Borgnine.
Borgnine won the 1955 Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Marty Piletti in the film Marty. At the time of his death, he was the oldest living recipient of the Best Actor Oscar.
For his contribution to the motion picture industry, Ernest Borgnine received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6324 Hollywood Blvd. In 1996, he was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.
He was honored with the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award at the 17th Screen Actors Guild Awards, held January 30, 2011.
In 2000, Borgnine received his 50-year pin as a Freemason in Abingdon Lodge No. 48, Abingdon, Virginia. He joined the Scottish Rite Valley of Los Angeles (in the Southern Jurisdiction of the U.S.A) in 1964, received the KCCH in 1979, was crowned a 33° Inspector General Honorary in 1983, and received the Grand Cross of the Court of Honour in 1991. He was also a member of the Loyal Order of Moose at that organization's Lodge in Junction City, Oregon. He volunteered to be Stories of Service National spokesman, urging his fellow World War II vets to come forward and share their stories.Ernest: "Spencer Tracy was the first actor I've seen who could just look down into the dirt and command a scene. He played a set-up with Robert Ryan that way. He's looking down at the road and then he looks at Ryan at just the precise, right minute. I tell you, Rob could've stood on his head and zipped open his fly and the scene would've still been Mr. Tracy's."
Ernest: "The trick is not to become somebody else. You become somebody else when you're in front of a camera or when you're on stage. There are some people who carry it all the time. That, to me, is not acting. What you've gotta do is find out what the writer wrote about and put it into your mind. This is acting. Not going out and researching what the writer has already written. This is crazy!"
Ernest: "Everything I do has a moral to it. Yes, I've been in films that have had shootings. I made The Wild Bunch (1969), which was the beginning of the splattering of blood and everything else. But there was a moral behind it. The moral was that, by golly, bad guys got it. That was it. Yeah."
Ernest: "Ever since they opened the floodgates with Clark Gable saying, 'Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn,' somebody's ears pricked up and said, 'Oh boy, here we go!'. Writers used to make such wonderful pictures without all that swearing, all that cursing. And now it seems that you can't say three words without cursing. And I don't think that's right."
Ernest on drugs: "No, I've never done anything. At least, not to my knowledge. I once took a bunch of goofballs by accident. They looked like candy. They were in a little bowl at a party. I grabbed a handful and went to town. That was some New Year's Eve. I didn't have a coherent thought till February."
Ernest on his marriage to Ethel Merman: "Biggest mistake of my life. I thought I was marrying Rosemary Clooney."
Ernest on his $5,000 salary for playing the eponymous lead in Marty (1955), which won him a Best Actor Oscar: "...I would have done it for nothing."
Ernest on Women's Rights: "They tried it the wrong way. You can't expect anyone to take you seriously if you burn your undies and tell me I'm a pig. That's why it failed. Too many ugly broads telling me that they don't want to sleep with me. Who wanted you anyway?"
Ernest: "I'm 81 years old and I like to speak my mind. As a legacy, on the day I die, I'd like to have a newspaper publish all the things that I find wrong in the United States today. And my first would be to get rid of the politicians."