Posted by on July 9, 2012 in Stories

Do they make ’em like that anymore?

That’s what I found myself asking as I read Ernest Borgnine’s biography last year while digging into a batch of U.S. Navy muster rolls.

Ernest Borgnine—still Ermes Effron Borgnino—wasn’t famous when he came to the United States from Italy with his mother in 1923 aboard the Dante Alighieri.

 

He wasn’t an immigrant, either, though his parents were. His father became a citizen in May of 1921.

 

But Ermes had been born in Connecticut in 1917. In 1920, his mother took him to Italy. The story is that Ermes’ parents had separated and then reconciled; though this isn’t the explanation Anne Borgnino offers in her passport application as she prepares to return in 1923. In an Affidavit to Explain Protracted Foreign Residence, she says that she came to Italy to visit family and could not return because she had to settle an estate after her mother died in 1921.

The passport application itself includes the date she entered the U.S., a physical description, a marriage certificate number, and a picture of Anne and little Ermes:

 

Meanwhile, Camillo Borgnino had been living, at least during the 1920 census, with his own parents:

 

Camillo appears to have been planning a visit to Italy himself; he applied for a passport of his own in 1921, with the stated intent of going to Italy.

Whatever the reason for the separation, by 1930, the family was living together back in New Haven.

In 1935, Ermes joined the Navy and in 1936 was serving aboard the U.S.S. Lamberton, where he continued until October 1941, when he appears on the list of changes for the crew.

Discharged in October, Borgnine re-entered the service following the attack on Pearl Harbor, and in March of 1942 he reappears on Navy muster rolls, this time aboard the Sylph.

And this is where the story gets remarkable. He gets home from the war, he’s done with the Navy, and the time comes to get a job. So his mother says, essentially, you like to clown around in front of people. Why don’t you go be an actor? And at 30 years old, with 10 years in the service and a war under his belt, and no prior experience or inclination, he goes ahead and does just that.

 

From there, his life does take a turn for the famous, with six decades as a working actor, an Academy Award, and a famously short-lived marriage to Ethel Merman—amongst several others of a longer duration.

But he never quite lost that blue-collar, everyman feel you have to think came from being himself for so long before he started a career of pretending to be somebody else.

 

 

 

11 Comments

Talula Cartwright 

This is such a sweet story about such a fine man. Thanks for sharing it.

July 9, 2012 at 5:46 pm
Linda J. Barnes 

Beautiful story about a beautiful human being who gave so much to his country and audiences! RIP Mr. Borgnine!

July 9, 2012 at 8:34 pm
Flora May Kercheval 

Thank you for sharing this remarkable story. I loved him in McHale’s Navy. May

July 10, 2012 at 8:38 am
sammi brown 

Thank you for this poignant look at his history. I loved him in every role he ever played. May legions of angels greet him.

July 10, 2012 at 8:12 pm
Jeanette Aguirre 

Thank you for sharing this. I loved him as an actor, now appreciate him more. He always struck me as a macho type of man. Someone you’d feel very secure around. May he rest in peace.

July 10, 2012 at 9:50 pm
Nancy Taylor 

He was truly a, “one of a kind”! Thank God for his life.

July 11, 2012 at 3:56 pm
William Toomey 

Wow! Great research and story about a great man.
Thanks

July 11, 2012 at 7:07 pm
MsWinston 

Always gave a good solid performance. He was outstanding in, naturally, “Marty,” but also in “Bad Day at Black Rock” and “The Wild Bunch.”

July 13, 2012 at 7:50 am
Steve Carfora 

I really enjoyed Mr. Rawlins’ article and I’m amazed at how quickly he gathered all of the information about Mr. Borgnine and his family. Mr. Rawlins, would you be willing to discuss the search technique that you utilized to find Mr. Borgnine in the 1930 census? It took me quite awhile but I finally found Mr. Borgnine and his family in that census by resorting to using the rather unorthodox method of searching for his sister, Evelyn, after I had no success finding him. The census enumerator entered his name as ARMES BOGNINE which may account for the difficulty I had, but I am curious if I missed a simpler, more direct method to find him. I would be interested in hearing from Mr. Rawlins or any other subscribers who might want to weigh in on this topic. Thank you.

July 15, 2012 at 5:05 pm
Paul Rawlins 

Steve,

To be honest, I don’t have an definite answer for you. Juliana Smith actually turned this record up. I’ll see what I can find out from her. With the enumerator misspelling the first and last names, it can be a tough one to tease out. I’m pretty sure she used another family member as well, with dates and places to get her past the surname problem. I just don’t know which one.

Paul

July 17, 2012 at 3:27 pm
Steve Carfora 

Paul,

Thanks very much for replying and for looking into this for me!

Steve

July 17, 2012 at 3:58 pm