9 p.m., March 22
The lights came up and Ernest Borgnine stood center stage, his hat brim throwing a knifelike shadow across his face. Just give his barrel chest an excuse to bulge and someone in the crowd would have lost an eye when the buttons on his silk shirt began to pop. Effortlessly freeing his door jamb-widening shoulders from the jacket draped over them, Borgnine lifted his head and, parting his lips to smile, revealed his rugged gap-toothed grin.
It was a one-man flop called An Offer You Can’t Refuse that passed through Chicago on its way to nowhere. Borgnine starred as a Mafia chieftain. A critic friend with tickets called asking if I wanted to occupy the “plus one” next to him. How many chances does one get to see Ernest Borgnine on stage? I was there faster than it took Fuji to head for the hills.
Ernest Borgnine died Sunday from kidney failure. He was 95. And then there was Mickey Rooney. Who else is left from Hollywood’s Golden Age?
Peripheral fans will probably remember Borgnine for two roles: Momma’s boy Marty, for which he took home an Oscar, and Quentin McHale, the wisecracking skipper of the PT73 on television’s McHale’s Navy. Marty’s call-and-response exchange of desperation and loneliness with his weasely sidekick Ange (Joe Mantell), struck a chord with theatergoers. McHale was Ernie’s desperate attempt to keep his career going at a time when actors, especially those in possession of an Academy Award, were looked down upon for appearing on television. (Does it count that McHale’s Navy spawned two theatrical features?)
He was at his best playing muscle-bound slobs whose piggish behavior forever found them sentenced to life’s perimeter. Below are a few favored images of Mr. Borgnine from my private collection. (Does anyone have the shot that ran for years in The National Enquirer of Ernie applying wife Tova's face cream to the cheeks of Marty Allen? I seem to have misplaced mine.)
It was a great run, Ernie. Rest in peace!
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