“You don’t have to be tall, dark and handsome to be a movie star,” Mr. Borgnine said after winning the Oscar, “but I was the first one to prove it.”
The beefy Mr. Borgnine was not alone in thinking he was far from leading-man material. His earliest film roles showed him to be effective as menacing characters, especially as a stockade sergeant who torments Frank Sinatra in “From Here to Eternity” (1953) and a thug who tries to pick a fight with a one-armed Spencer Tracy in “Bad Day at Black Rock” (1955).
Off screen, Mr. Borgnine was considered quiet and genial — traits that made directors aware of his range.
His breakthrough film was “Marty,” based on a Paddy Chayefsky teleplay and one of the first projects Hollywood adapted from the rival TV industry.
Some cinema historians suggested the movie was not supposed to be a success, with Burt Lancaster’s production company undertaking the project as a tax write-off after several lucrative films.
“Marty” had a small budget and characters who looked plain and spoke in the rhythms of everyday conversation. It starred no-name actors, including Betsy Blair (then Gene Kelly’s wife) as the homely teacher whom Marty romances.
Chayefsky’s dialogue was startling to audiences accustomed to hearing more polished movie speech.
“What do you wanna do tonight?” Marty’s pal Angie (played by Joe Mantell) asks as they pine for women.
“I dunno, Angie,” Marty replies. “What do you wanna do?”
To the teacher he likes, Marty says, “You know, us dogs aren’t really so much of the dogs that we think we are.”
On Oscar night, Mr. Borgnine beat out Tracy, who had been nominated as a leading man for “Bad Day at Black Rock.”
Ermes Effron Borgnine was born Jan. 24, 1917, in Hamden, Conn. His parents were Italian immigrants who had changed their surname from Borgnino.
After high school, Mr. Borgnine found work driving a vegetable truck and spent a decade in the Navy, including World War II service as a gunner’s mate aboard a destroyer.
An actor from his high school days, he used the G.I. Bill to attend the Randall School of Dramatic Art in Hartford, Conn. He then found work at the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Va., but he described himself as a nervous performer inclined to forget his lines. He said his solution was to laugh — long and loud — until he remembered the dialogue.
In New York, he alternated between television and theater work. He was the villainous Nargola in the children’s TV show “Captain Video” in the late 1940s and appeared on Broadway as a hospital attendant in Mary Chase’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Harvey,” about a man who says he befriended an invisible giant rabbit. He also played a gangster in Chase’s hit “Mrs. McThing,” starring Helen Hayes.