A few weeks ago, the 95-year-old Ernest Borgnine ended his over 60 year-long acting career. With his passing there were the expected obituaries and articles. Most of them recalled his action movies like The Dirty Dozen (1967), Ice Station Zebra (1968) and The Poseidon Adventure (1972), or his western work in The Wild Bunch (1969) and TV’s Wagon Train (1957). Borgnine was remembered for his early dramatic turns in the Oscar-winning Marty (1955) and From Here To Eternity (1953) as well as the comedic side he displayed in the television shows, McHale’s Navy (1962) and the SpongeBob cartoon (1999), where he voiced Mermaid Man. What almost all of these writers of the various tributes failed to recall was his awesome work in genre pictures.
One of Borgnine’s earliest acting jobs was as a villain on what is possibly TV’s first sci-fi show, Captain Video and His Video Rangers, back in 1951. Between then and his recent role as The Record Keeper in the movie adaptation of the comic book Red (2010), Borgnine contributed to many horror, sci-fi and other related projects.
What is arguably Borgnine’s best non-mainstream work can be found in a trio of movies 40 Oz. fans are sure to love. He really delivered as Bruce Davison’s jerky slob of a boss in Willard (1971). So greatly does he make the audience hate him that it is hard not to cheer when he is eventually devoured by an army of rats.
A campily cheesy film brought us one of his most fun leading parts, the satan-worshipping cultist Jonathan Corbis in The Devil’s Rain (1975). The sequence where Borgnine turns into a goat and then melts (yes, you read that right) is hard to forget. Also worth mentioning: this movie features Shatner (yes, THAT Shatner), Travolta (yes, THAT Travolta in his film debut) as well as Tom Skerrit, Keenan Wynn and other familiar names. It is really a must see.
Perhaps Ernest Borgnine’s greatest “alternative” role can be found in John Carpenter’s sci-fi action masterpiece Escape From New York (1981). Borgnine is one of the film’s trio of “old masters”, along with Lee Van Cleef and Donald Pleasance. As the lovable Cabbie he delivers great lines, ties NYC’s past to its future and is the closest thing to a sidekick Snake Plissken ever needed due to his one “super-power”, the ability to show up just when someone needs a ride.
Also not to be forgotten are his turns as the journalist in Disney’s sci-fi flop The Black Hole (1979) and his quick appearance as an outpost ruler in the hard-to-find apocalyptic gang war flick, Ravagers (1979). He also can be found in small but good roles in the stylishly cold Gattaca (1997) and Wes Craven’s Amish cult thriller Deadly Blessings (1981).
To be clear, not all of the genre films he was involved in were great or even good. Cases in point are his roles as Professor Braun in Laser Mission (1989) with Brandon Lee and the diver in the underwater turkey The Neptune Factor (1973). A favorite of these bombs finds him as the unnamed grandfather in the bookend segments of Merlin’s Shop of Mystical Wonders (1996). One has to hope he was not too offended at the way Mystery Science Theater 3000 savaged him when they riffed it, mocking Grandpa Borgnine for smuggling “a sea turtle under his sweater vest”.
Last but not least we have what are probably Borgnine’s strangest roles of his long career in the form of two sci-fi police stories. The bizarre Italian-made Super Fuzz (1980) has Borgnine playing the stupidly bewildered Sgt. Dunlop, whose partner is transformed into the title character when hit by red nuclear dust in this superhero comedy. And in the undeservedly short-lived mid-‘70s TV show Future Cop Borgnine stars as the human partner to the first android on the police force.
Borgnine created some amazing work in his few quality genre pictures and even left us some great guilty pleasures in those that didn’t turn out so well. Gone but not forgotten, 40 Oz. of Horror raises a can in his honor: rest in peace Ernest Borgnine!