Ernest Borgnine and his Wisconsin Ties
Ernest Borgnine, who won an Oscar for his touching performance as the lonely butcher looking for love in the 1955 movie "Marty" but who became Milwaukee's favorite clown for his many appearances leading the Great Circus Parade, died Sunday. He was 95.
He died of renal failure at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles with his wife, Tova, and children at his side, according to his longtime spokesman, Harry Flynn.
"We've lost a good friend," Jack McKeithan, the co-chair of the circus parade, said Sunday. "He only missed one year because he had to do filming on location, but his love of this community never changed."
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said Sunday: "Ernie loved Milwaukee. He was generous with his time and gracious to his fans. In return, Milwaukeeans loved Ernie. He will be missed from here to eternity."
Burly, with a gap in his front teeth, Borgnine spent decades on TV and in the movies playing good guys and bad guys. In the 1960s, he became known for the TV comedy "McHale's Navy," where he played a PT boat skipper, and more recently he was the voice of Mermaid Man on "SpongeBob SquarePants."
In the 1950s he played the notable villain Fatso Judson, who beat Frank Sinatra to death in "From Here to Eternity."
He also played heavies in the films "Bad Day at Black Rock," "Johnny Guitar" and "Demetrius and the Gladiators." And he appeared in "The Dirty Dozen," "The Wild Bunch" and "The Bunch Adventure."
In 1973 he appeared in the TV movie "Portrait: Legend in Granite: The Vince Lombardi Story ."
But it was his role in the low-budget movie "Marty," based on a TV play by Paddy Chayefsky, that won Borgnine an Academy Award.
For that role, Borgnine also received a Golden Globe and awards from the New York Film Critics Circle, the National Board of Review and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.
"The Oscar made me a star, and I'm grateful," Borgnine said in an interview in 1966. "But I feel had I not won the Oscar I wouldn't have gotten into the messes I did in my personal life."
The troubles in his personal life included four failed marriages, including his 1964 wedding to famed Broadway singer Ethel Merman that lasted less than six weeks.
But his fifth marriage, to Norwegian-born Tova Traesnaes in 1973, lasted until his death.
While he was known for his roles in the big and little screens, through the years he became one of Milwaukee's favorite sons for his faithful and repeated performances at the city's Great Circus Parade, known for its pageantry and colorful wagons brought from the Circus World Museum in Baraboo.
"He was a wonderful ambassador for Milwaukee," parade co-chair Bill Fox said Sunday. "He brought star status to the parade. He was the first celebrity we ever used, and he was terribly loyal to the parade."
Dave SaLoutos, circus parade director, said: "Milwaukee just took him to heart. The year we tried to put him in a carriage because of his knees, he only went about a block before he got out. He just wanted to see the expression on the kids' faces."
In "Ernie: The Autobiography," Borgnine devotes a chapter to "Clowning Around" in Milwaukee's circus parade, reliving the day he appeared on the "Tonight" show and was asked what he had left to do as an actor.
"I've never been a clown," he answered. The next day he got a call from Milwaukee parade impresario Ben Barkin inviting him to put on a rubber nose and big shoes. Borgnine joined the parade from 1972 to 2002 and wrote: "I treasured it."
The outfit and makeup Borgnine wore in Milwaukee was, he told the Journal Sentinel, just what he had wanted to wear when he first imagined himself as a clown: a crumpled fedora, an oversized checkered coat and size 16 red, white and blue shoes made for him by the Allen Edmonds shoe factory in Port Washington.
Borgnine sat in a makeup chair for more than an hour to don the classic smiling clown grease paint for every parade.
Every year that Borgnine appeared in the parade, he first held court in a usually sweltering open circus tent at the show grounds, signing autographs and letting fans take pictures with him.
His tattered ragman clown outfit contrasted with the tailored "Ringmaster" tails and top hat worn by his wife, Tova, when she joined him in the parade.
In his role as "Chief Parade Clown," he tossed candy to the crowds along the parade route, laughing and waving. It was a performance that he loved, and Milwaukee loved him back. During the 2009 parade, the Borgnines drew a standing ovation all along the route.
"This is the best parade ever," said Borgnine, who was then 92.
Tom Hignite, who owns Miracle Homes and Miracle Studios, said Sunday that he saw Borgnine about four weeks ago when he went to Hollywood to work with him.
Hignite said Borgnine was doing the starring voice in an animated film his studio is making called "Miracle Mouse: Cranky's Miracle."
"I spent two hours doing a voice session with him and one hour talking to him about everything under the stars, and it was amazing," he said.
Borgnine appeared in good health, he said.
"He behaved like a 60-year-old man and easily went up a flight of stairs," he said.
He described the part Borgnine was playing as that of a crank who is an old man no one likes but turns lovable at the end.
Hignite said, "We found many actors who could play the part mean, but Borgnine played it mean, but also endearing."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.