Published July 09, 2012
LOS ANGELES – With his beefy build and a huge orb of a head that looked hard enough to shatter granite, Borgnine naturally was cast as heavies early on, notably as Sgt. Fatso Judson, the brute who beat Frank Sinatra's character to death in 1953's Pearl Harbor saga "From Here to Eternity."
More bad guy roles followed, but Borgnine showed his true pussycat colors as lovesick Marty Piletti, a Bronx butcher who, against all odds and his own expectations, finds romance with a wallflower in "Marty," adapted from Paddy Chayefsky's television play. Borgnine won the best-actor Oscar, and the film picked up three other awards, including best picture.
It turned out to be Borgnine's only Oscar nomination, yet it was a star-making part that broke him out of the villain mold. Borgnine went on to roles in such films as "The Dirty Dozen," "The Wild Bunch," "The Flight of the Phoenix," "The Poseidon Adventure" and "Escape from New York," but after "Marty," the veteran sailor's most memorable character appropriately came with the title role of the 1960s TV comedy "McHale's Navy" and its big-screen spinoff.
Mischievous con man McHale, commander of a World War II PT boat manned by misfits and malcontents, was far closer in spirit than shy Marty or savage Fatso to the real Borgnine, who had a cackling laugh and a reputation as a prankster.
Despite his big-hearted nature, Borgnine was typecast as a thug from the start, playing bad guys in a series of Westerns including Randolph Scott's "The Stranger Wore a Gun," Joan Crawford and Sterling Hayden's "Johnny Guitar" and Gary Cooper's "Vera Cruz" and Victor Mature and Susan Hayward's historical saga "Demetrius and the Gladiators."
Borgnine was playing another nasty character opposite Spencer Tracy in "Bad Day at Black Rock" when he auditioned for "Marty." In a 2004 interview, Borgnine recalled that Chayefsky and "Marty" director Delbert Mann thought of him as an actor whose lone screen specialty was to "kill people."
The filmmakers had hoped to cast Rod Steiger, who played the lead in the TV version of "Marty," but he had just landed a part Borgnine himself coveted -- the bad guy Jud Fry in "Oklahoma!" Mann and Chayefsky flew to the "Black Rock" location to audition Borgnine, who showed up wearing a "cowboy suit, cowboy hat, three-day growth of beard, cowboy boots," the actor recalled. He even began the audition in a Western drawl before shifting to Marty's Bronx accent.
Borgnine said he knew immediately he had won over Mann and Chayefsky, and "Marty" charmed audiences who saw for the first time that he could play the teddy bear as well as the beast.
Borgnine played a sensitive role opposite Bette Davis in another film based on a Chayefsky TV drama, "The Catered Affair," a film that was a personal favorite. It concerned a New York taxi driver and his wife who argued over the expense of their daughter's wedding.
Among Borgnine's other films were "Three Bad Men," "The Vikings," "Torpedo Run" and "Barabbas," "Ice Station Zebra," "The Adventurers," "Willard" and "The Greatest" (as Muhammad Ali's manager).
More recently, Borgnine had a recurring role as the apartment house doorman-cum-chef in the NBC sitcom "The Single Guy." He had a small role in the unsuccessful 1997 movie version of "McHale's Navy." And he was the voice of Mermaid Man on "SpongeBob SquarePants" and Carface in "All Dogs Go to Heaven 2."