The Screen Actors Guild announced that Ernest Borgnine will be the recipient of its Lifetime Achievement Award at the SAG Awards dinner in January 2011. The 93-year-old Borginine is still active: He appeared at a showing of a restored print of the 1954 A Star is Born back in April and has completed five films that will be released in 2010/11 and is signed to act in a sixth. His career stretches back to 1951 when he appeared in ethnic drag as Hu Chang in China Corsair.
It was a year after the release of the Vincente Minneli-Judy Garland classic remake of A Star is Born that Ernest Borgnine appeared in a lead role in a very modest picture based on a TV “teleplay.” Nineteen-fifty-five was the year of the widescreen processes CinemaScope, CInerama and Todd-AO, as Hollywood was using spectacular production values to draw in audiences from sitting at home in front of the tube. 3-D films had had a brief vogue just a year before.
Borgnine won a Best Actor Oscar as the eponymous Marty, a character written by Paddy Chayefsky and first played by Rod Steiger (a future Oscar winner himself) on the small screen. No one thought much of the prospects of the low-budget, black-and-white remake of a TV show in the days of big-budget blockbusters, but Marty fooled everyone — including its producers — and turned out to be a blockbuster, too.
This is Ernest Borgnine with Esther Miniciotti playing his mother in the famous “Loaded With Tomatoes” scene:
It is said that producers Burt Lancaster and Harold Hecht made the movie for a tax write-off against the big grosses of Burt’s spectacular productions like The Crimson Pirate and Vera Cruz. Burt didn’t even put his name on the picture, which meant that at the 1955 Academy Awards, it was Hecht who walked home with the Best Picture Oscar, as did Paddy Chayefsky (the first of his three for screenwriting), director Delbert Mann — and Ernest Borgnine.
Rod Steiger had turned down the offer to reprise the role because Hecht-Lancaster Productions wanted to sign him to a seven-year contract and he wanted his freedom. Borgnine had acted with Burt Lancaster in From Here to Eternity (another classic) and Vera Cruz, all bad guy parts, and had acquitted himself well playing another “heavy” with acting greats Spencer Tracy and Robert Ryan in Bad Day at Black Rock. (Borgnine and Ryan would co-star 15 years later in Sam Peckinpah’s classic The Wild Bunch, though they had no scenes together.)
Marty movie was made for a modest $343,000 — a B-movie budget — and grossed a then-astounding $3 million, making it at the time the most profitable movie ever made. The great trial lawyer Edward Bennett Williams, who was handing Harold Hecht’s problems with the House Un-American Activities Committee (Hecht was a former Communist Party member) kicked himself for turning down Hecht’s offer of 10% of the profits in lieu of his high fee.
No one expected that such a picture, pulled out of the maw of the motion picture’s worst enemy, television, could prove such a massive hit with audiences in the razzmatazz Fifties. It was Ernest Borgnine’s heartfelt performance that wrung all the pathos out of Paddy Chayefsky’s brilliant script that helped turn the trick. An actor who had played heavies, even evil men like Fatso Judson in From Here to Eternity showed a new, unexpected side of himself and went on to become one of America’s favorite character actors.