Actor Ernest Borgnine has died. I try not to be too sad when folks die at such an age (he was 95); after all, Borgnine led a long life and he led it well, the kind of life where one might honestly say that the rest at the end of it is a well-earned reward. But it still saddens me, a bit.

I honestly don’t recall ever seeing Borgnine in anything in which I didn’t like him, unless he was playing a villain, in which case I disliked him in exactly the right way. His was an utterly unmistakable face, between the roundness of his head, the slight bulging quality of his eyes, and the gap between his two front teeth — but he was also one of those actors who was able to look the same and yet make you think of nothing else other than the character he was playing at any one time. (I consider Steve Carell to be another actor of this type.) Borgnine was able to put just the right look in his eyes to convey exactly what he wanted to convey about any character he played.

I assume that I first saw Borgnine in a guest-starring role on some show in the 1970s or so, maybe The Love Boat (which, yes, he was on — but then, so was everybody). The first thing I really remember him in was an episode of Little House on the Prairie that I’ve mentioned before in this space. It’s a two-parter called “The Lord Is My Shepherd”, and it’s one of the tear-jerkingest things I’ve ever seen. In Part 1, Charles and Caroline have a baby boy, whom Laura resents and (if memory serves) she actually wishes to die. Sadly, as infants sometimes did back then, little Baby Charles actually did die, and Laura became racked with guilt — so much so that, in part 2, she runs away from home to seek God and petition him to take her instead of Baby Charles. Quite logically for a child, Laura recognizes that her best bet of being heard by God is to seek high ground, so she goes atop a craggy mountain (we won’t ask what this mountain is doing there, in the middle of ‘the prairie’), where she meets a wise old man named Jonathan, played by Borgnine.

Here’s the entire episode of part 2:

Now, this episode can really only stand or fall based on what Borgnine does, and he conveys a pitch-perfect combination of warmth, wisdom, and mystery that suggests who or what he must be, well before a final reveal (of sorts) happens at the end. This episode made a mark on me years ago when I saw it as a kid, when Little House was an after-school re-run. Little did I ever suspect that this particular story would one day turn out to have some fairly uncomfortable parallels to events in my own life.

For a totally different side of Ernest Borgnine, there is his malevolent stockade administrator in From Here to Eternity. He’s a mean and sadistic bully, but Borgnine knows to portray a bit of the cowardice that lies at the heart of most bullies. Here he’s forced to stand down, but he knows that he’ll have his chance again, one day.

Thanks for the memories, Mr. Borgnine. About the only good thing about the passing of fine actors is that their memories are enshrined forever on film.

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