“I don’t care whether a role is 10 minutes long or two hours,” he remarked in 1973. “And I don’t care whether my name is up there on top, either. Matter of fact, I’d rather have someone else get top billing; then if the picture bombs, he gets the blame, not me.”
Ermes Efron Borgnino was born in Hamden, Conn., on Jan. 24, 1917, the son of Italian immigrant parents. The family lived in Milan when the boy was 2 to 7, then returned to Connecticut, where he attended school in New Haven.
Borgnine joined the Navy in 1935 and served on a destroyer during World War II. He weighed 135 pounds when he enlisted. He left the Navy 10 years later, weighing exactly 100 pounds more.
“I wouldn’t trade those 10 years for anything,” he said in 1956. “The Navy taught me a lot of things. It molded me as a man, and I made a lot of wonderful friends.”
For a time he contemplated taking a job with an air conditioning company. But his mother persuaded him to enroll at the Randall School of Dramatic Arts in Hartford. He stayed four months, the only formal training he received.
He appeared in repertory at the Barter Theater in Virginia, toured as a hospital attendant in “Harvey” and played a villain on TV’s “Captain Video.”
After earning $2,300 in 1951, Borgnine almost accepted a position with an electrical company. But the job fell through, and he returned to acting, moving into a modest house in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley.
His first marriage was to Rhoda Kenins, whom he met when she was a Navy pharmacist’s mate and he was a patient. They had a daughter, but the marriage ended in divorce after his “Marty” stardom.
Borgnine married Mexican actress Katy Jurado in 1959, and their marriage resulted in headlined squabbles from Hollywood to Rome before it ended in 1964.
In 1963, he and Merman startled the show business world by announcing, after a month’s acquaintance, that they would marry when his divorce from Jurado became final. The Broadway singing star and the movie tough guy seemed to have nothing in common, and their marriage ended in 38 days after a fierce battle.
“If you blinked, you missed it,” Merman once cracked.
Next came one-time child actress Donna Rancourt, with whom Borgnine had a daughter, and finally his happy union with Tova.
On Jan. 24, 2007, Borgnine celebrated his 90th birthday with a party for friends and family at a West Hollywood bistro. He seemed little changed from his years as a lusty villain or sympathetic hero on the screen. His only concession to age had come at 88 when he gave up driving the bus he would take around the country, stopping to talk with local folks along the way.
During an interview at the time, Borgnine complained that he wanted to continue acting but most studio executives kept asking, “Is he still alive?”
“I just want to do more work,” he said. “Every time I step in front of a camera I feel young again. I really do. It keeps your mind active and it keeps you going.”