Somebody get to the contempo philosopher King known as Sting and inform him that I owe him one. (You know, synchronicity and all that.) Recently sick at home and determinedly trawling through a batch of Wagon Train episodes I wound up continually spying one of the grittier character guys in Hollywoodland, Robert Wilke, in a number of different appearances. At the same time, I also spotted the one and only Ernie B (born Ermes Effron Borgnino in Hamden, CT in 1917, better known as Ernest Borgnine) boarding that ol’ prairie train a few times too. Being a natural born, dyed-in-the-wool, genuine A#1 pop cult shamus, I couldn’t help but contemplate what exactly what the non-transferable magic quality that allowed a barrel-chested, bug-eyed, salt-of-the-earther like Ernie B to climb into starring roles on television and in the movies and sustain one hell of a lengthy career (199 movie and television credits since 1951) on top of it. (A career that recently included a top-billed performance in the recent Hallmark Channel’s original movie Wishing Well at the tender age of 92.)
Why Ernie B and not the always dead on Wilke? Why not another abjectly coarse minor icon of big and small screen masculine characterizations like Ted DeCorsica, M. Emmet Walsh, Bert Remsem, Adam Williams, Jack Elam, Claude Akins, Don Stroud, Strother Martin, Robert Webber, or James Gammon and dozens more? Did Ernie B, a few more of his ilk (Jack Palance, Warren Oates, and certainly Lee Marvin), have better acting chops, greater career circumstances, or simply all out more significant mojo?
Gathering more clues, I did a quick abebooks purchase of Ernie: The Autobiography (Citadel Press, 2008), but much like similar recent tomes from equally cool cats like Eli Wallach and Peter Falk, the thin volume consists of largely strung together showbiz anecdotes coiled around a whole lot of homespun, hard-earned wisdom. Easy reading, but no great revelatory shakes. As I was about to pen a particularly penetrating thesis about the mysterious showbiz transition from character type to first-biller, I was shaken off by the results of some other minor sleuthing. Not one those aforementioned dog-eared, well-worn, convincingly pugnacious, perpetually earthy, ostensibly authentic types where ever (as far as my files show), ever, at any point, evuuhh ON The BUS, like Ernie B, which is a truly special treat, as the clip below indicates.
Sweet, right? All joshing aside, I’ve long worshipped the ground that Ernie B has trodden upon. I truly, truly, have followed Ernie B since childhood, and his best stuff, like a just-about-stale cigar, always deserves revisiting. Don’t worry about the ancillary details like the full decade in the navy, or having the grand distinction of being the first ever center square on Hollywood Squares (them some private dick chops, or what?) the infamous 32 day marriage to Ethel Merman or the 3 year hook up with the singular Katy Jurado, or the 138 episodes of McHale’s Navy from 1962-66, or especially the 56 episodes of Airwolf from 1984-86. Just concentrate on Ernie B’s Virtually Imputable Top Ten (in chronological order):
From Here To Eternity (1953). Fatso Jusdon. Brutalizing Sinatra. Nuff said?
Johnny Guitar (1954). As six-billed thug cowboy Bart Lonergan, equipped with a poisonous glare, a bully’s sneer, and a heavy’s fate.
Vera Cruz (1954). Working for the first time under the underrated Robert Aldrich as a second level (and eighth-billed) cowpoke mercenary (alongside Charles Bronson and Jack Elam), snakes eyes glinting above a perpetual scowl.
Bad Day at Black Rock (1955). Teamed up with Lee Marvin as threatening, sauntering, post WW II westerner townies, Ernie B gets his ass kicked by judo-wielding one-armed war hero Spenser Tracy.
Marty (1955). Ernie B wound up playing one the greatest schlep parts of the 1950’s, winning a Best Actor Oscar with his first and only nomination, and he couldn’t have even spelled-out method acting.
The Flight of the Phoenix (1965). Working with the pinpoint Aldrich again as part of a classically weathered masculine cast (Jimmy Stewart, Ian Bannen, Richard Attenborough, Hardy Kruger), as a sweaty, truculent and malevolent American stuck in the dessert.
The Dirty Dozen (1967). Ernie B absolutely steals the few scenes he’s in as a cagy, Lee Marvin-sympatico general, doing it with a knowing wink for Aldrich yet again.
The Wild Bunch (1969). Unforgettable as Dutch Engstrom, the weirdly loyal right man to William Holden’s Pike; his sideways glances at his leader suggest a forbidden (and closeted) adoration that doesn’t usually turn up in the western genre. Ernie B will be forever captured in the mind’s eye, as part of sepia-toned gun-wielding tableaux with those other burned-in-the-retina visages Holden, Edmond O’Brien, Jamie Sanchez and the equally unforgettable Gorch brothers Tector (Ben Johnson) and Lyle (Warren Oates).
The Poseidon Adventure (1972). Both cheese fest and box office bangalanglang, with Ernie B’s tough and tender police Lieutenant Mike Rogo emerging, after watching his ex-prostitute wife (Stella Stevens) fall to her death, as one of the six survivors in one of the definitive 70’s disaster pics.
Emperor of the North Pole (1973). Robert Aldrich directed this depression era tale set in Oregon amidst the hobo culture. Lee Marvin’s kingpin ‘bo, called A No. 1, goes one-on-one with Ernie B’s Shack, the train conductor who is a wonderfully unredeemable, hatefully vicious, psychopath, in short one of the coolest heavies to ever make a big screen appearance.