A COUPLE OF years ago, the action-comedy "Red" rolled into town with an unusual gimmick: The main characters are spies and counterspies played by big stars, as you might expect, but they're also members of the AARP generation — Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman and John Malkovich. Richard Dreyfuss is on hand as well.
And a couple of scenes are set in Langley, Va., in a secret underground bunker of CIA headquarters where a feisty and funny old-timer holds court, reminiscing about the old days. Ernest Borgnine had that role, and it was a real treat to see him in an A-list picture, as vibrant and commanding as ever, with an energy that was so palpable it was hard to believe the guy was 93!
Borgnine, who died last weekend at age 95, was a "character actor," meaning he played a wide variety of supporting-role "types" in dozens of movies and could always be counted on to deliver a solid performance.
But with a best-actor Oscar under his belt and an Emmy nomination for his title role in the 1960s sitcom "McHale's Navy," Borgnine was also a recognizable star, earning a level of fame that most character players never achieve.
According to the Internet Movie Database, Borgnine appeared in more than 200 movies and TV shows, and from his earliest stage efforts in the late 1940s to a soon-to-be-released independent film, he never stopped working, defying the stereotype of older actors being unable to find work.
Over the past couple of decades, his roles were primarily in made-for-TV or independent productions, in which he often played benign paternal figures, winningly flashing his disarming gap-toothed grin, as with last year's "Love's Christmas Journey" and other recent Hallmark channel cable movies.
And he was equally adept at comedy, as demonstrated by the popularity of the '60s World War II sitcom "McHale's Navy," which is still in reruns, and its 1964 theatrical movie spinoff. (He also had a cameo in the 1997 "McHale's Navy" spoof starring Tom Arnold.)
Borgnine's Oscar-winning role as "Marty," a lonely, gentle Bronx butcher looking for love, came in 1955, very early in his big-screen career, demonstrating a wide acting range and an ability to make the audience identify with him as an overweight, ordinary-looking everyman.
But he made his career in the 1950s and '60s as more menacing figures, none more brutal than his breakthrough role as Sgt. "Fatso" Judson in "From Here to Eternity" (1953), in which he beat a smart-mouthed soldier, played by Frank Sinatra, to a bloody pulp. Sinatra won the Oscar as best supporting actor for the role and it revitalized his then-flagging career. But Borgnine was equally unforgettable in the film.
He parlayed that hard-nosed persona into a string of tough-guy supporting roles in popular major-studio pictures, including "Johnny Guitar" (1954), "Vera Cruz" (1954), "Bad Day at Black Rock" (1955), "Jubal" (1956), "The Vikings" (1958), "Barabbas" (1961), "Flight of the Phoenix" (1965), "The Dirty Dozen" (1967), "Ice Station Zebra" (1968), "The Wild Bunch" (1969), "Willard" (1971), "The Poseidon Adventure" (1972)," "Emperor of the North" (1973), "The Black Hole" (1979), "Escape From New York" (1981) and many more.
Lately, Borgnine had also been doing voices for animated programs, including a regular role as Mermaid Man for the "SpongeBob SquarePants" television series. His sidekick in the show was voiced by his old "McHale's Navy" co-star Tim Conway. Borgnine also co-starred in two other series, "Airwolf" (1983), in which he played a helicopter pilot, and "The Single Guy," as the affable doorman of a Manhattan hotel.
But perhaps his most famous recent role was as a grieving man whose wife has just died in the final episode of the popular hospital series "ER." For his performance, Borgnine earned his third Emmy nomination, his first in 29 years. (His first Emmy nomination came for "McHale's Navy" in 1963 and the second was in 1980 for "All Quiet on the Western Front," a Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movie.)
Besides his ability to handily embody an identifiable everyman, Borgnine's signature trait seemed to be that he could go into even the strongest projects with the most charismatic co-stars and still provide an energy boost just by showing up.
You can't teach screen presence. You either have it or you don't. Borgnine had it, as you can find out for yourself since most of the above films are available on various home-video venues.
Though it's been almost two weeks since Andy Griffith died at age 86, and much has been written about his impact on the TV landscape with two long-running iconic series, "The Andy Griffith Show" and "Matlock," I'd like to add a word about his big-screen career.
Before he landed the role of the lovable sheriff of Mayberry on the small screen, Griffith embodied a pair of characters so perfectly in his first two films that it's hard to imagine anyone else ever playing the roles.
Griffith made his debut in "A Face in the Crowd" (1957), an edgy, dark satire on the cult of celebrity, and the advertising and television industries (when the latter was still in its infancy). He stars as Lonesome Rhodes, an Arkansas drifter whose natural talent as an amusing, folksy singer/storyteller belies his true mean-spirited, self-centered nature. After being spotted by a small-town radio reporter (Patricia Neal), he lands a local radio show and eventually finds a national audience with a New York-based TV program. But fame and power corrupt Rhodes even further, and his disdain for his audience may lead to his downfall. Griffith gives a brilliant performance in a brilliant film that remains every bit as relevant today as when it premiered 55 years ago.
For his second movie, "No Time for Sergeants" (1958), Griffith played a character that was 180 degrees from Lonesome Rhodes, one he had honed on TV (on "The United States Steel Hour" anthology program) and then Broadway: illiterate, sweet-natured and completely guileless Air Force draftee Will Stockdale. It's a hilarious comedy and Griffith is equally brilliant here in a broad role that he makes warm and human, as opposed to merely a comic caricature. (The film also has a small but noteworthy role for Don Knotts, who would, of course, go on to co-star on "The Andy Griffith Show.")
Although he would never again make a big-screen film with the impact of those two, Griffith nonetheless appeared in a number of other enjoyable movies, including "Onionhead" (1958), "The Second Time Around" (1961), "Angel in My Pocket" (1969), "Hearts of the West" (1975), "Rustlers' Rhapsody" (1985) and "Waitress" (2007).
He was also in some memorable TV movies: "Go Ask Alice" (1973), "Pray for the Wildcats" (1974), "Winter Kill" (1974), "The Girl in the Empty Grave" (1977), "Murder in Texas" (1981, for which he earned an Emmy nomination), "Fatal Vision" (1984) and the miniseries "Centennial" (1979).
Most of these are also available for rent or purchase.