Ernest Borgnine was the exception.
Borgnine, who died Sunday at the very respectable age of 95, became a star not because he was ruggedly handsome or particularly glamorous. He became a star because he wasn’t.
Appealing because audiences could identify with him, could believe that he might be a neighbor or friend, Borgnine was able to cultivate his everyman appeal into an impressive string of heroes and villains that included Norse warlords (The Vikings), post-apocalyptic survivors (Escape From New York), space explorers (The Black Hole) and cowboy heavies (Bad Day at Black Rock).
Was he a movie star? Absolutely.
He had the Oscar to prove it. He just didn’t have to work as hard at it as his chiseled counterparts. Below are a few of his signature roles, a small part of a substantial cinematic legacy.
FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1953): Borgnine’s Sgt. ‘Fatso’ Judson cemented his reputation as both an accomplished actor and a terrifying heavy. The believable beat down he laid on Frank Sinatra not only helped his crooning victim win his own Oscar, it launched Borgnine as a real Hollywood player.
MARTY (1955): After a few years specializing in bad guys, Borgnine confounded audiences with this small movie about a small man who, despite his insecurities, finds love. It’s a beautiful character-driven drama that won Academy Awards for best screenplay, director and picture as well as a gold statue for Borgnine’s performance in the title role.
FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX (1965): Although few remember this desert survival tale or the 2004 remake, it’s an interesting movie. Equal parts human drama, adventure and intrigue still keep audiences guessing about the motivations of the all-star cast and Borgnine’s role adds real pathos to the proceedings.
THE WILD BUNCH (1969): This is, quite simply, one of the greatest Westerns ever made. Borgnine is one of a gang of aging outlaws who find themselves becoming obsolete in a rapidly disappearing West. A movie about progress and violence and the price paid for a life lived on the fringes, it’s a magnificent movie that allowed Borgnine and co-stars ample opportunity to shine.
THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1972): During the early 1970s, big budget disaster movies with all-star casts were enormously popular. And while planes crashed, buildings burned and the earth quaked, Borgnine opted to go on a sea cruise. The result is a superior disaster movie that focused not only on the spectacle of a cruise ship in peril, but also the humanity of passengers fighting to survive. Borgnine’s cop-on-vacation Mike Rogo was a big part of that.