Sunday, 8 July 2012

An Oscar-Winning Boy Scout

What actor appeared in “Hamlet,” “The Glass Menagerie” and “Harvey” (opposite Jean Stapleton)?

The correct answer is Ernest Borgnine, though you likely never saw him in any of those performances.

While the obits you’ve read today about him talk about his Oscar win as Marty and his adventures on and off the PT-73 on “McHale’s Navy,” likely precious few delve into his stage career after World War Two. Borgnine was part of a repertory company based out of Abingdon, Virginia called the Barter Players. It had three units, the Red, White and (predictably) Blue Companies, the latter of which toured the U.S. while the others were regional. Borgnine was in one of the first two.

The Charleston Gazette of October 23, 1948, wrote a little profile of Borgnine’s career to date. The paper was sponsoring the performance he was in; tickets went from 79 cents to $1.75.

Borgnine, Now a Star, Started in Scout Play
Few stage careers have sprung from such colorful origins as that of the vary colorful Ernest Borgnine who appears here with the famous Barter Theater in the delightful comedy “Pursuit of Happiness”, at the Municipal auditorium next Wednesday.
Borgnine, right, who can look back on a diversified career in which he played everything from a spear carrier in “Trojan Women” to Father Time in Maeterlinck’s “Blue Bird”, remembers vividly a day back in 1934 when he did his first command performance.
Borgnine was about 16 years old at the time and he was called on to perform as a clown in a Boy Scout circus. His performance almost disrupted the ceremonies but he did manage to get the “star’s” dressing room and top billing. That incident was enough to whet his appetite for show business.
This is his third year with Robert Porterfield’s nationally known Barter Players in which he scored a notable success in the summer season as the Gentleman Caller in the Barter Theater production of “The Glass Menagerie”.
In the “Pursuit of Happiness” which is appearing here under sponsorship of The Gazette. Borgnine plays the comical sheriff, Thad Jennings.

Borgnine appeared as a hospital orderly in the 1950 road show version of “Harvey” before heading to Hollywood for a movie career. A whole generation grew up with him on reruns of “McHale’s Navy,” which was kind of a “Bilko Light.” Borgnine’s Quentin McHale wasn’t as fast talking as Phil Silvers’ Ernie Bilko, but the similarities are inescapable. Surprisingly, the show wasn’t originally planned that way. The tone was quite different. This review came from United Press International’s venerable Hollywood columnist, dated April 12, 1962.

HOLLYWOOD (UPI)—Ernest Borgnine has two things in common with President John F. Kennedy—both were navy men and now big Ernie has become a PT boatskipper.
Borgnine’s prospects of reaching the White House, however, are as slim as its present occupant taking up an acting career.
The heavyset Oscar winner has thrown caution and movies to the wind to star in a new television series, “Machale’s Seven,” [sic] in which he plays a hard nosed lieutenant commander.
He should live so long.
When Ernie was a navy man he attained the rank of petty officer first class — strictly an enlisted man.
“That’s a big jump into the officer class,” Borgnine grinned. “And the pay is real good too. Better than a navy officer gets. I also own part of the company.”
Men Under Pressure
Televiewers had a preview of Ernie’s new show last week on ABC-TV’s Alcoa Premiere show. It was called a “Spinoff” in video patois.
“The series is the story of a World War II PT boat based in the South Pacific,” the big guy explained. “I call it a ‘Wagon Train’ on water. It’s not so much a war story as it is a study of personalities under pressure.
“I think this is the first World War II series television has tried. But it isn’t all grim drama. There's plenty of humor, too. It’s kind of a combination of ‘Mr. Roberts,’ ‘Teahouse of the August Moon’ and ‘Victory at Sea’.”
Ernie was asked why he has finally decided on a video series after spending the past seven years in movies.
“Well, when they offered me this show I took a good look around at the number of pictures being made in Hollywood and at how many good scripts I’d seen in the past two years,” he said.
“Then I thought about how many pictures will be made in the next five years and the future didn’t look too bright.
“This show has plenty of guts, and I spent 10 years as a gunners mate in the navy. It all added up to a chance to earn some good money and to have some fun at the same time.”
Tired of Travel
Additionally, Ernie is tired of globe-trotting. He and his wife, Katy Jurado, have had only a few weeks together in their Beverly Hills home in the past two years.
“Why knock your head against a wall looking for good pictures,” he said. “If you want to work steady in movies you have to travel all over the world these days.
“Now that I'm doing a series I’ll have eight months of steady work right here in Hollywood and four months off to make a movie or relax and enjoy myself.
“Besides, PT boats are very fashionable these days. They’ve got good connections, if you know what I mean.”

The show was less about McHale, though the character held the show together and drove the plot, and even less about his Navy (Gavin McLeod, having really nothing to do, left the show after the first season), and more about comic relief—Tim Conway and Joe Flynn, who got their first real national exposure on the show. There wasn’t a lot of mental heavy lifting for viewers. And, unlike any other situation comedy at the time I can think of, it spun off a couple of feature films; one wonders if that was part of the original deal to get the show on TV.

After an inexplicable change of setting to Italy killed “McHale’s Navy,” Borgnine carried on in the film world. He explained to Scott of UPI in a later interview that he, Peter Falk and Cloris Leachman could (unlike Carroll O’Connor) move between films and TV because people didn’t associate them with one particular character or type of role.

I suppose it’s true. People are remembering him today for his work in television comedy and film drama. Borgnine had proved his versatility in a long-forgotten road company years before.


  1. Talk to the current generation, and Borgnine still has a pop culture spot (with Conway) on Spongebob, though I doubt many pre-teens can match the face to Mermaid Man.

    McLeod actually made it through Season 2 on the show, while as it ended up on the air, Silvers' Bilko personality was split between Borgnine's McHale and Carl Ballentine's nakedly scheming con man, Lester Gruber. Aside from the show starting as a drama originally, it also started with a pretty high-powered writing staff, with Danny Arnold, Danny Simon and Joseph Heller writing some of the early scripts that centered more on Borgnine's character (who by the end of that's year had a few shows he barely appeared in, as the focus shifted to the Flynn-Conway slapstick).

  2. I feel woefully ignorant that I mainly know him as Mermaid Man. Judging by his friendly attitude in photos and interviews I doubt he would've minded. I'm loving the outpouring of articles and blogposts about Borgnine since he passed!