So Long, Ernie

When you see the photo of an actor of a certain age on the front page of The New York Times, you come to know exactly what to expect.

I’d spent the weekend in the mountains with my family, sequestered from pretty much all news media, so I didn’t hear until we got back to San Francisco and I logged on. There was a publicity still from ‘Marty.’ So, in pretty short order, I knew that actor Ernest Borgnine had passed away.

Ernest Borgnine provides a sort of demographic litmus test. For most people my son’s age, he is best known as the voice of Mermaid Man to Tim Conway’s Barnacle Boy on the animated TV series SpongeBob Squarepants. For those my age, he was the fun-loving, wise-cracking, Navy commander Quinton McHale on TV’s ‘McHale’s Navy.’ To those of his own generation, Borgnine would always be the Oscar-winner who portrayed Marty the New York bachelor butcher.

He was, of course, so much more.

As an actor, Borgnine inhabited a dizzying array of roles in singular films like ‘From Here to Eternity,’ ‘The Wild Bunch’ and ‘Bad Day at Black Rock.’ He more than held his own with co-stars who were legends of film acting and entertainment, such as Frank Sinatra, Burt Lancaster, WIlliam Holden and Spencer Tracy. Even when he portrayed a tough guy or bad man, which was a lot of the time, he was often the person in the cast the audience most closely identified with. Some called him an everyman but he was really more like the man everyone wanted to either be or have around to watch your back.

Borgnine’s best and most beloved characters were, without exception, normal working stiffs. Sometimes they were put in situations over their heads and sometimes they put themselves there but they were always normal working stiffs. Marty Piletti, perhaps his all-time most beloved character was, after all, a simple butcher. Not, as populate so many films today, people of means (e.g., doctors, lawyers, architects, superstar athletes or entertainers, or just plain old rich guys) who can afford just about anything they want. Ernie played working stiffs.

They had to cut corners to make ends meet. They knew the price, by God, of a cut of beef and a quart of milk. Some were abused as kids. Some had been roughed up. In truth, all had, in one way or another. They took the bus and the subway. They lived in little apartments they felt lucky to have. They didn’t have professionally decorated summer homes in the Hamptons. They didn’t run the precious latest-thing bakery in Santa Barbara.

No, by God, Ernest Borgnine was playing quintessential hard-working Americans back when that concept didn’t seem like an anachronism on TV and in films.

What actor takes on that kind of role today? Exactly.

Ernest Borgnine was 95 when he died; he’d led a full and exciting life (He’d been married to Ethel Merman, which was the source of some hysterical stories I’d heard him tell one time.) and I bet we’re going to miss him a hell of a lot more than he’s going to miss us.

Ernest Borgnine was an actor who played the best of what we Americans used to value most in ourselves and each other.

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