I won’t pretend to have a vast knowledge of Ernest Borgnine’s career. Hell, if you asked me to name the last movie he was in, I’d scratch my head for a few minutes and guess BASEketball. Of course, I’d eventually yell, “Wait, he was in Red!” because I’m one of the 12 people who loved that movie. But if you’re going to have had respect for an actor and an amazing career, there are few who would deserve praise more than Borgnine, who passed away yesterday at the age of 95.
Ninety-five-years old and he was still acting, having filmed The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez earlier this year. Again, I’ve never even heard of it, but the plot actually sounds pretty great. Regardless, the man was a legend, appearing in some of the best films of several eras, including The Wild Bunch, The Dirty Dozen, and one of my all-time favorite films, Escape from New York. He was also part of one of the best TV shows of my childhood, Airwolf.
Borgnine wasn’t the best-looking man, and Hollywood didn’t accept him because he was breaking hearts. They loved him because he was a big, tough sonofabitch who could break some heads. But even he knew that he could be something bigger and better, and in 1955 he won the Best Actor Oscar for Marty. He was Hollywood’s everyman when people cared about telling stories more than they cared about selling tickets.
For me, though, Borgnine represented a generation of celebrities that just didn’t give a sh*t. When I was younger, I’d stay up late at night just to watch the infomercials for the Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts. You know, back when roasts were actually funny. I don’t know what it was about watching a bunch of misogynistic drunks rip each other with cheesy one-liners, but I loved it enough that I’d watch the same clips every night. And Borgnine was right there with Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Telly Savalas, Angie Dickinson (oh my word, she was something), and a bevy of the most important celebrities of the 1960s.
Unlike today’s “celebrity” roasts, Martin and Co. provided an incredible pool of the top names in movies, TV, and sports, and they had this access because they were all friends, and you could see that as they picked on each other to their own drunken delight. And there at the dais, with the biggest smile in the room was Borgnine, laughing the loudest because he was loved and respected by everyone.
I’ve included the Dean Martin Celebrity Roast of Telly Savalas below. You can fast forward to around the 20:45 mark to see Borgnine’s bit.