In Memory: Brother Ernest Borgnine

by Midnight Freemasons Contributor
Todd E. Creason

The Illustrious Ernest Borgnine, 33ยบ

It's with great sadness, I mark the passing of Bro. Ernest Borgnine.  When I wrote Famous American Freemasons: Volume II, I had the opportunity to interview him over the phone in 2007--although that's not entirely accurate.  I didn't get a chance to ask many questions--he talked, and I listened, and for the better part of an hour, the stories he told me were amazing.  The movies he'd been in, the actors and actresses he'd worked with, and the way Hollywood was back when he began his career there.  Much of what he told me was in the chapter I wrote about him in my book, and many others he included in his autobiography Ernie--he was working on his book as I was working on mine.  I'd highly recommend it.  And for a period of a few months after that interview, every so often he'd call me and ask how the book was coming, and tell me about a movie I might want to watch that was coming up on Turner Classic Movies, and he always had a joke to tell me (if there was one I could repeat, I would).  I sent him the chapter when I finished it, and he loved it.  I share the entire chapter with you now.  There's not likely to be another Hollywood actor quite like Ernie--there certainly wasn't one before he arrived on the scene.

Chapter 24

If you’ve got talent and perseverance, and fate is willing to lend an occasional hand, the rest will take care of itself.

He wasn’t handsome—something he had to struggle with as an actor.  It wouldn’t be hard for him to get a part as a cab driver or an army sergeant, but he would hardly be offered leading roles.  He looked like every other American—just another everyday face in a crowd.  As he walked down a New York street in October, 1950, he wasn’t even sure why he had gone into acting.  He had been going from audition to audition, looking for jobs.  He was lucky to work as an actor once a month, and he had a family to feed.  If he couldn’t find more work on stage or in the movies, he knew he would have to work for a living at something—sometimes he imagined himself working on one of the tugboats on the Hudson River or loading cargo on one of the loading docks.  He was beginning to believe that the big break would never come.

At the time, he certainly wouldn’t have believed that nearly sixty years later, he would be acting in his 200th screen role at the age of ninety-two, and that he would be known and loved for his acting by four generations of Americans.  He certainly wouldn’t have believed that in his very near future he would co-star with some of Hollywood’s best— actors like Burt Lancaster, William Holden, Spencer Tracy, Lee Marvin, Kirk Douglas, Glenn Ford, and many others.  He would have laughed out loud if he had been told then that within a dozen years he would be the star of an Emmy winning television show.   He would have been seriously concerned about a person’s mental health if he or she had told him that within five years of that moment, he would be standing before the Academy, thanking them for the Oscar he had just won for Best Actor.  But all of these things happened to this man because he believed he had a gift, and he had the perseverance to chase his dream of being an actor.  However, he has never forgotten to thank fate for lending an occasional hand, nor has he ever failed to thank his fans for his success.  

He is known by many names depending on the age of those fans.  Octogenarians most likely remember him as Marty.  Those just eligible for social security no doubt know him as McHale.  Those in their forties, remember him as Dominic Santini, the veteran helicopter pilot.   And the little kids are familiar with his voice as Mermaid Man on SpongeBob SquarePants.  His completely unbiased best friend for nearly forty years, George “Goober” Lindsay, called him “one of the Great Treasures of the entertainment world.” 

He is Ernest Borgnine. 

Ernest Borgnine was born Ermes Effron Borgnino on January 24, 1917, in Hamden, Connecticut.  He was the son of Italian immigrants, Charles and Anna Borgnino.  When his parents divorced when he was two years old, he and his mother went back to live in Italy, but five years later, they returned to Hamden, Connecticut, where he attended public school.

After graduating from high school, Borgnine joined the United States Navy in 1935, and served six years.  He was discharged in 1941.  He re-enlisted when the United States entered World War II and served another four years in the Navy, reaching the rank of Gunner's Mate 1st Class.  He received several decorations, including the American Campaign Medal, the Good Conduct Medal, the American Defense Service Medal with Fleet Clasp, and the World War II Victory Medal.  In 2004, Borgnine received the honorary rank of Chief Petty Officer, the U.S. Navy's highest ranking enlisted sailor at the time, for his support of the Navy and Navy families worldwide.

After leaving the Navy, he spent a few years trying to figure out what he wanted to do.  He began attending the Randall School of Drama in Hartford, Connecticut.  Following graduation, he began a performance career at the famous Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Virginia. His first role on stage was as the gentleman caller in Tennessee Williams' Glass Menagerie.  In 1949, he debuted on Broadway in the hit play Harvey, which later became a famous movie starring Jimmy Stewart.

Borgnine was married five times.  In fact, since he was first married in 1949, he was never a bachelor for more than a year.  His longest marriage, which has endured over thirty-five years, has been his last.  His shortest, which lasted barely a month, was to Ethel Merman in 1964.  He said of his marriage to Merman—“Biggest mistake of my life. I thought I was marrying Rosemary Clooney.”

In 1951, Borgnine moved to Los Angeles, California, where he received his big break in 1953 playing the cruel Sergeant “Fatso” Judson in From Here to Eternity.  The movie, which was a great success, helped Borgnine build a reputation as a dependable character actor although in the beginning, he usually played villains. 

Borgnine remembers one of the first times he was recognized, shortly after the film was released.  In the movie From Here to Eternity, the actions of his character lead to the death of a fellow solider, Angelo Maggio, played by Frank Sinatra.  One evening, Borgnine made an illegal lane change while driving, and was pulled over by the police.  Recognizing him, the officer yelled back to his partner, “Guess who I got this time—it’s the son of a bitch who killed Frank Sinatra!”  Considering the officer’s reaction, Borgnine gladly accepted the ticket and paid the fine—he thought he got off easy.

Even though Borgnine’s roles were usually as heavies and villains, such as the parts he played in Johnny Guitar (1954) and Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), in 1955, he was given an opportunity to try something different, and it paid off.  He starred in his classic role as a warm-hearted butcher in the film Marty—a part that earned him an Academy Award for Best Actor.  He was paid a paltry $5,000 to play the part, but when he was asked about it, he said, “I would have done it for nothing.”

The Academy Award opened many doors for him.  He appeared in many classic film roles and starred with Hollywood’s best actors.  He appeared with Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis in The Vikings, with Jimmy Steward in The Flight of the Phoenix, with Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson in The Dirty Dozen, and with William Holden in The Wild Bunch. He was part of an all-star cast that included Gene Hackman, Shelly Winters, and Roddy McDowell in the The Poseidon Adventure in 1972.

But Borgnine was not just a film actor.  In 1962, he was offered a part in a television pilot, Seven Against the Sea.  It was planned as a dramatic wartime series reminiscent of Henry Fonda’s film Mr. Roberts.  But the one hour pilot did not do as well as expected.  The show was completely revamped as the situation comedy McHale’s Navy.  As was the pilot, the series was set in the Pacific Theatre of World War II.  It focused on the crew of PT-73, led by Lieutenant Commander Quinton McHale.

If Borgnine had any qualms about doing a sit-com instead of a television drama, he never showed it.   He happily played the straight-man to a superb cast of comics surrounding him, most notably, his naive bumbling second-in-command, Ensign Chuck Parker.  The part made the career of the young comedian Tim Conway.  Bornine said “[Conway] was always ad-libbing and coming up with comic bits that kept the show fresh and the cast on our toes.  You had to be sharp to act with him.” 

During the series, sometimes a character would mention an unnamed commander of the PT-109.  Of course, most Americans knew when the series originally aired who the wartime commander of PT-109 had been in real life—he was the President of the United States when the series debuted, John F. Kennedy. 

McHale’s Navy became a big hit, and aired from 1962 through 1966.  Ernest Borgnine received an Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series in 1963. The series spun off into two theatrical film releases.  Borgnine starred in the 1964 film version of the series.  In 1965, and another film was made, McHale’s Navy Joins the Air Force, Borgnine did not appear because he was working on the film The Flight of the Phoenix. But more than thirty years later, he appeared in a cameo role on the big screen again in the 1997 remake of McHale’s Navy starring Tom Arnold. 

Borgnine would return to television in the 80’s co-starring with Jan-Michael Vincent as veteran helicopter pilot Dominic Santini in the action adventure series Airwolf.   The series ran from 1984 to 1986.

When Borgnine was in his early 80s, he decided to see the country and meet his fans, so he and his good friend, Hugo Hansen, took off in a forty-foot RV.  They crossed the United States east and west, north and south.  They even went up into Canada and to Alaska.  “It’s a magnificent way to see our great country,” he said. 

In 1997, a filmmaker from Washington, D. C., Jeff Krulik, decided that seeing America through Borgnine’s eyes would be a good subject for a documentary, so he followed Borgnine on one of his cross country adventures.  They stopped and talked to people; they visited in cafes and ice cream stands.  Borgnine recalls that they even got lost in a cornfield at one point.  Borgnine says that to this day, he still gets letters about that documentary entitled Borgnine: On the Bus —his fans loved it.

Mermaid Man!
Borgnine’s great strength has been his ability to remain in the public eye over generations.  He is remembered by one generation as a 1950s film actor and for his role as Marty.  He is known by another generation as Quentin McHale.  Yet another generation remembers him for his role in Airwolf.  And Borgnine has reintroduced himself yet again to the latest generation.  Since 1999, Borgnine has provided the voice for the elderly superhero Mermaid Man in the cartoon SpongeBob SquarePants.  As Mermaid Man, he is once again paired up with his friend and second-in-command from McHale’s Navy, Tim Conway, who does the voice of his sidekick Barnacle Boy.  Bornine said, “I bitch from time to time, but this can be a great business. How many people do you know who are still working with old colleagues after so many years?” 

Ernest Borgnine is still making movies.  In 2007, the 90-year-old actor starred in the Hallmark Original Movie A Grandpa for Christmas. His character discovers he has a granddaughter he never knew about after his estranged daughter is injured in a car accident. He is his granddaughter’s closest relative so she comes to live with him while her mother recovers.  They soon become great friends. For his performance in A Grandpa For Christmas, Borgnine received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor.  At ninety, he was the oldest Golden Globe nominee ever.

For his contribution to the motion picture industry, Ernest Borgnine has received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 1996, he was also inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

As of this writing, Ernest Borgnine is not yet ready to retire.  Even at ninety-two, he shows no sign of slowing down.  He married his fifth wife Tova in 1973.  They continue to enjoy an active life in Los Angeles, California, and Ernie (as he prefers to be called) continues to work on a regular basis.  He credits acting as helping to keep him young—that and another thing he remarked on in his now-famous Fox News interview in 2008.  He credits his success as an effective character actor to realizing early on that acting has to come from the heart not from the head.  He made three movies appearances in 2008.  He is currently working on another western, Death Keeps Coming, expected to be released in 2009.  This film will mark his 200th film role in his remarkable career as an actor. 

Will it be his last? 

“Not likely,” he says . . .


The Illustrious Brother Ernest Borgnine is a member of Abingdon Lodge No. 48 in Abingdon, Virginia.  He holds the 33rd degree of the Scottish Rite of Masonry and is also a member of the Shriners.  The Illustrious Brother Ernest Borgnine tells of the difficulties he had in becoming a Mason. He did not know that at the time he became a Mason in Virginia, it was necessary to ask a Mason three times about joining before he could petition the lodge. He requested information from a friend who made no reply on two different occasions, but on the third request, his friend readily presented him with a petition and endorsed him.  He was accepted without delay into the Abingdon Lodge.

On November 9, 2000, he was presented with his 50-year pin by the Grand Master of Masons in Virginia, the Illustrious William Lee Holiday. 

It was obvious to all present at the 50-year ceremony that Brother Ernest Borgnine holds a warm and loving place in his heart for Abingdon, Virginia, where he became a Master Mason, and for its Barter Theater where be first honed his theatrical skills.  He has served the Craft with honor and distinction.  Regardless of his great success, he still displays great humility and a sincere love for the Craft and his fellow man.

~Todd E. Creason

1 comment:

  1. I met Mr. Borgnine twice...both times in Hollywood 30 plus years apart...both times he was very kind and very friendly..something rare in that town.


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