The death of film star Ernest Borgnine earlier this week at the age of 95 brought to mind his most memorable performance as Marty, the simple unassuming Italian American butcher from the 1955 film classic of the same name.
Borgnine worked in films and television almost to the end of his long life. He could play "heavies" like the sadistic bully in From Here to Eternity, or comic characters like the lead in the TV series, McHale's Navy, but his best and most famous role was his portrayal of Marty.
This little black and white film was the sleeper hit of the 1955 Academy Awards. It won four Oscars including: Best Film, Best Director for Delbert Mann, Best Screenplay for famed writer, Paddy Chayefsky, and Best Actor for Borgnine.
It was also a milestone in another sense because it marked the first appearance of an Italian-American in a leading role in an American film. Borgnine's breakthrough was as remarkable as Sinatra's and Dimaggio's, especially since he was not portrayed as a gangster or Mafioso.
Borgnine portrayed a second-generation Italian-American who like most of that generation had become largely assimilated into the American way of life. Marty had served in the US Army in World War II, and had taken a job in a butcher shop after the war. He lived at home with his widowed mother who spoke broken English but his own English was strictly New York. "Whadda ya gonna do tonight Marty?" "I don't know Ange, whaddya gonna do?" He was completely at home in the Bronx of the 1950s. He was familiar with the teeming activity on Fordham road but never would have considered going to nearby Fordham University. In the evenings, he and his friends searched for "tomatas" on Manhattan's 72 St. or the famed Stardust ballroom but for the most part they stayed near home in the neighborhood bar. Of course, they would never miss Sunday Mass.
My father and mother were of that generation, as were my wife's father and mother. No one in either family was involved in the mob. Our uncles and aunts were all ordinary people. My father worked in my grandfather's grocery store until he worked in a defense factory after the start of WW II. One uncle was a policeman while another was a civil engineer for an electric utility. My wife's father took over the family fruit and vegetable business along with his two brothers. Most of her other uncles were plumbers. Most of the women were housewives although they usually were employed until the first child arrived.
Most of the children of their generation were ordinary hard working people who managed to make the difficult transition from the Old World to the New. No one ever did a better job of telling their story than playwright Paddy Chayefsky, and no one ever did a better job of portraying them than Ernest Borgnine did in Marty.###