On Ernest Borgnine and “McHale’s Navy”

Ernest Borgnine (1917-2012), had an exceedingly rare career trajectory: he achieved an excellent (Oscar winning) film career, then had a hit tv show, then he returned to a great movie career pretty much like he had left it off a few years earlier. In other words, he was not completely swallowed up by his tv character as so many others actors were. Most big movie stars, once they took the plunge into television, were forever associated with that last role ever after and you didn’t see them in movies much any more at all after that, Robert Young, Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, being some prominent examples. And of course, more modest movie actors, like a Russell Johnson or a DeForest Kelley had their gooses cooked. “I can’t cast you! You’re the Professor from Gilligan’s Island!”

But Borgnine weathered that somehow. Hey, if you’re like me you’ve probably wondered “What the hell kind of name is Borgnine, anyhow?” The answer is, it’s no kind of name at all. The real name is Borgnino, which is a perfectly nice, euphonious Italian name, and then a light dawns! You’re not even supposed to say the damn “g”. The original name is kind of nice, but the Anglicization makes it sound like one of Marty’s cold cuts. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

So Borgnine is from Hamden, Connecticut, in the greater New Haven area. Here’s one amazing irony: he went into the Navy fresh out of high school in 1935. Who went into the American military in 1935? Scarcely anyone! And then — more irony — he signed up for a five year hitch, which meant that he was discharged October 1941, two months before Pearl Harbor! So he reenlisted and remained in the service for the duration of the war, seeing action this time, and gaining valuable experience for his first major role as the sadistic army sergeant in From Here to Eternity (1953) as well as Lieutenant Commander Quinton McHale on McHale’s Navy (1962-1966) although he was never an officer himself.

After the war, he bummed around a little, then went into acting. He studied drama in Hartford, was with a rep company in Virginia, got a couple of small roles on Broadway, broke into tv, and this led to film. In addition to Eternity, there was his Oscar winning role in Marty (1955), and notables westerns like Johnny Guitar and Vera Cruz (both 1955) Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) and Jubal (1956).

In 1962 he acted in the serious made-for television movie Seven Against the Sea about a P.T. boat crew stranded on a South Sea island during WWII. Counterintuitively the show was developed into a situation comedy by Edward Montagne, previously a producer on The Phil Silvers Show/ Sgt. Bilko. He saw the potential for a naval service comedy set during the war in a sleepy backwater, borrowing many of the same ingredients: scheming servicemen, frantically trying to evade detection and punishment by their commanding officers (played by Joe Flynn and Bob Hastings). Some of the writers and minor cast members were brought over from Bilko. Because of the transplanted setting, comparisons to Mr. Roberts are also unavoidable:  Flynn’s sputtering, red faced Captain Binghamton has more than a little in common with Cagney’s Captain in Mr. Roberts, and Tim Conway’s bumbling, ineffectual ensign seems reminiscent of Ensign Pulver. Other memorable cast members included Carl Ballantine as “Gruber” and Gavin MacLeod (later of Mary Tyler Moore and The Love Boat).

The show is unavoidably dated by racial attitudes. The Japanese are the enemy, but an attempt is made to soften the hostility by making the captured Fuji (Yoshio Yoda) a sort of pet or mascot, and he is not only their servant (much like the later Ho-Jon on M*A*S*H) but he actively helps the American sailors in their various schemes. Beyond this (much like the later Gilligan’s Island) there are the native South Sea islanders, who are pretty much Halloween costume level portrayals.

Not irrelevant to the success of the show was that then-President John F. Kennedy was a PT boat commander. His heroic exploits were the subject of a book and a 1963 movie. There were also theatrically released movies spun off of McHale’s Navy: McHale’s Navy (1964), and McHale’s Navy Joins the Air Force (1965), our only opportunities to see the show in color. Significantly, Borgnine was not in the latter feature — he was busy keeping his movie career going by appearing in The Flight of the Phoenix (1965).

No doubt, the star could see the writing on the wall. The ship was running aground. Desperate for new plot ideas, in the fourth season, completely implausibly the entire crew was reassigned to Italy. There was probably no instance of such a thing ever happening in World War Two. The show called it quits in 1966. But it left a legacy for while anyway. You can see its influence in service comedies that came immediately afterward like Hogan’s Heroes (1965-1971) and F Troop (1965-1967).

Borgnine went on to do The Dirty Dozen (1967), The Wild Bunch (1969), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Black Hole (1979) and Escape from New York (1981). He was a regular on the action show Airwolf (1983-1986), was the voice of Mermaid Man on Sponge Bob from 1999 until his death, and was nominated for an Emmy for his performance in the last episode of E.R. in 2009. And much else besides.

He was a good actor, but what kept him working I thinking was that he was an irreplaceable type. He was kind of Shrek before Shrek, a lovable, huggable ogre, coarse of countenance, gruff of voice, hairy, gap-toothed, strong as an ox. With a big heart, quick to anger, but quick also to melt. He can’t have been a total prince. He had five wives, one of whom, Ethel Merman, only lasted a month. (She famously dissed him by the making the chapter about him in her autobiography and empty page). But that’s the beauty of movie and tv stars. By definition, we get to watch them from the safety of way-over-here, without having to love with them.