Born Ermes Effron Borgnino in January 1917 in Hamden, Connecticut, the actor was the son of Italian immigrants and the grandson of Count Paolo Boselli, who shared his apparently abundant financial wisdom with King Victor Emmanuel of Italy. Borgnine graduated from New Haven's high school in 1935 and worked a stint selling vegetables off the back of a truck before enlisting. It was while he was pondering his future as a vegetable salesman (at the same time fully aware of how lucky he was to have a job in those lean years) that Borgnine's gaze fell upon a U.S. Navy recruiting poster. Not long thereafter he was in the Navy, an experience that he still credits with making a man out of him. It also provided a fertile atmosphere for the development of his future character in television's McHale's Navy.
The apprentice seaman remained in the Navy for ten years (including one hiatus), from October 1935 to October 1941 and then from January 1942 to September 1945. His first tour was served on board the four-stacker USS Lamberton (DD-119). During the 1930s the Lamberton operated out of San Diego, towing targets for surface combatants, submarines, and aircraft, a role that was to serve her well during World War II. She also participated in experimental minesweeping exercises and was redesignated DMS-1 (minesweeper, destroyer) in November 1940.
In the 1930's Ernest Borgnine served on board the USS Lamberton (DD-119), which towed targets out of San Diego. This photo of the ship's company includes Seaman Borgnine in the fourth row, second from the left.
(Ernest Borgnine collection)
In 1941 Borgnine left the Navy, only to reenlist after Pearl Harbor. From January 1942 until the end of the war he served in the USS Sylph (PY-12), a converted yacht devoted to antisubmarine-warfare activities throughout the war. Operating first out of Tompkinsville (New York) and then New London (Connecticut), the Sylph patrolled for German U-boats during 1942, a devastating year for American merchantmen off the East Coast. In the fall of 1943 she was assigned to Quonset Point, Rhode Island, and a year later to the naval base at Port Everglades, Florida, along with her unit, the surface division of the Atlantic Fleet's Antisubmarine Development Detachment. She was used mainly for training sonarmen and testing and researching new sound and antisubmarine equipment. The Sylph and her unit contributed greatly to the U.S. victory over Germany's vaunted undersea gray wolves.
Borgnine's World War II ship was the USS Sylph (PY-12), which patrolled for U-boat and tested new equipment.
(U.S. Naval History & Heritage Command)
During his naval service Borgnine rose in rank from seaman to gunner's mate first class. Upon his discharge in 1945, he was allowed to wear the American Campaign Medal, the Good Conduct Medal, the American Defense Service Medal with Fleet Clasp, and the World War II Victory Medal.
He returned to New Haven but could not muster any enthusiasm for the life of factory work that seemed to loom before him. He seriously considered reenlisting in the Navy, but finally, encouraged by his mother, he decided to give show business a whirl. A logical choice, he concluded, as he had always liked to ham it up.
The GI Bill gave Borgnine the means to pursue his education, and he studied for six months at the Randall School of Dramatic Art in Hartford. Next, in the spring of 1946, he was off to the Barber Theater in Abindgon, Virginia, for some real-life experience. He wound up staying there for four years, working at whatever was needed at the moment--driving, scenery-painting, various stagehand chores. At last he persuaded his higher-ups to let him get on the stage during a performance, and there he remained. After appearing in numerous plays throughout the following few months, the budding actor decided it was time to move on to New York.
The city greeted him with its customary indifference, and Borgnine had his share of tough times before getting a part on Broadway in the play Harvey, in the role of a hospital worker. This led to other theater work, including the role of Guildenstern in a production of Hamlet that traveled to Denmark and Germany to entertain U.S. servicemen.
After appearing in several more plays as well as television programs, one of which was Captain Video, Borgnine landed his first work in movies, China Corsair (1951). Now it was time for Hollywood, but by now he had also been typecast as a villain. Several fine roles resulted, including From Here to Eternity (1953), before his performance in Marty (1955) proved definitively that Ernest Borgnine was a versatile actor. After winning the Academy's best-actor award in 1955, his future was secure. His work in All Quiet on the Western Front (1979, costarring Richard Thomas) helped win that movie an Emmy nomination.
Big, friendly, and endowed with a Latin gusto for everyday life, Borgnine was known for his amiability and lack of pretention. The father of three children, he had been married since 1972 to Tova Traesnaes. He was wed four times previously; his renowned 1964 third marriage was to Ethel Merman.
Borgnine continued to make movies and television shows; in 1995-97 he played a doorman in the sitcom The Single Guy. He still corresponded with some of his old Navy pals, and as an honorary flight leader of the Blue Angels, he often took the team to dinner when they flew into Naval Air Station Point Mugu, California. Mr. Borgnine died 8 July 2012 in Los Angeles, at the age of 95.
A friend of the Blue Angels, Borgnine was honored with a plaque from the team in 1957, aboard the Boxer (CVA-21). (U.S. Naval History & Heritage Command)
Source: Wise, James E., Jr., and Anne Collier Rehill, Stars in Blue: Movie Actors in America's Sea Services (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1997): 117-121.
Acknowledgment: The Navy Department Library gratefully acknowledges the Naval Institute Press for giving permission to post this chapter on the Naval History & Heritage Command website. All rights are reserved by the author and publisher.