When an actor works steadily for over six decades, he's bound to mean different things to different generations. The late, great Ernest Borgnine is known to younger fans as a guy who popped up in The Simpsons and Spongebob SquarePants; to my parents' generation he's the guy from From Here to Eternity (1953), Marty (1955), and McHale's Navy (1964). But to my generation, Ernest Borgnine was a genre film and b-movie demi-god. Owner of an effortlessly lovable face and a screen presence that could go from sweet to sour in a heartbeat, Mr. Borgnine enjoyed a long career by simply being the best thing in whatever movie he showed up in.
Here, then, are my own favorites from the long and seriously impressive career of Ernest Borgnine. 95 years is a long and excellent life, but it's safe to say that Hollywood is just a little less colorful without Ernest Borgnine residing within it.
The Dirty Dozen (1967) -- Twitter was quick to correct me when I noted that Ernest Borgnine was a member of The Dirty Dozen and The Wild Bunch, but the truth is that in this film, he was actually the general in charge, and not part of the actual action squad. It matters not.
The Wild Bunch (1969) -- Even as part of an ensemble that includes William Holden, Warren Oates, Robert Ryan, Strother Martin, and Ben Johnson... Ernest Borgnine manages to be one of the most magnetic characters found in Sam Peckinpah's (brilliant, classic) ode to the end of the Western era. (It pains me that I've only seen this film once. I'm not worthy of my Borgnine fan club membership card.)
The Poseidon Adventure (1972) -- Here's the movie that introduced a new generation to Ernest Borgnine, and he delivers a great, gruff, touching performance as an over-protective blowhard who has an inordinately beautiful wife -- and wants everyone to know it. And while it's probably tough to steal a few scenes from actors like Gene Hackman and Shelley Winters, Borgnine's exclamations at the finale ("My Linda! You took my Linda!") are as heart-wrenching as anything the actor has ever done.
The Black Hole (1979) -- Kind of a big deal when I was a kid, The Black Hole hasn't aged all that well, but it lives on because of its weird Disney lineage, and a rather bizarre cast that includes Anthony Hopkins, Robert Forster, Yvette Mimieux, Maximillian Schell, and (of course) Ernest Borgnine. Here he plays a likable but ill-fated journalist who is part of an interstellar exploration team. Weirdly dark and dour for a live-action Disney flick, but Borgnine offers some of his patented wide-eyed, enthusiastic charisma for (at least) the first half of the movie.
Escape from New York (1981) -- This was the biggie. On paper, Borgnine's "cabbie" character is little more than an amiable sidekick who pops up just to give our hero some important plot exposition (and a ride), but on the screen we get Ernest Borgnine at his most simply adorable. In a landscape filled with evil, devious bastards, Ernest Borgnine delivers the only character with a heart, and his relative sweetness is integral to the movie. Too much "innocence" would deflate the movie's dark comic book edge, but Mr. Borgnine laces his performance with a slight dementia, as if to indicate that Cabbie is a helpful ally now -- but was probably sort of a kook in his earlier life.
Of course Ernest Borgnine appeared in hundreds of films and TV programs, so please don't think that five fun films represent the whole of the man's artistic contributions. The five mentioned above are simply the films that wedged Ernest Borgnine firmly into my heart, and inspired me to dig through some of his older work.
Suffice to say the man was a true original, and that we'll never see another actor quite like Ernest Borgnine -- although actors who spend decades emulating his career have chosen a truly excellent role model. On behalf of everyone at Movies.com, our condolences to Mr. Borgnine's friends, family members, and legions of fans around the world. Artists like Ernest Borgnine make the world a better place, and the man left tons of evidence behind to support that theory.