This past Sunday, the Screen Actors Guild honored veteran performer Ernest Borgnine with a lifetime achievement award. The actor himself publicly questioned whether he deserved such an honor, but considering that he’s been in the business for sixty years -- with some 200 film and television titles to his credit -- we respectfully disagree. He played a doomed cowboy in The Wild Bunch, a no-nonsense general in The Dirty Dozen, a crusty chopper pilot in Airwolf, a lovelorn butcher in Marty (which landed him an Oscar for Best Actor), and -- last but not least -- the original accept-no-substitutes Quinton McHale in McHale’s Navy. Among those better-known efforts are a handful of notable sci-fi and horror films. Since we loves him and since we want you to loves him too, here’s a countdown of his five most interesting genre efforts. (We’re leaving off the marvelously MSTied Merlin’s Shop of Mystical Wonders because… well because we loves him.)
You know what you need when making a luxury-ship-gets-upended flick? A police detective with an ex-hooker wife. The Poseidon Adventure is one of the single goofiest movies ever created, but as the moral center of it, Borgnine at least gives us someone to root for. He spends the whole film butting heads with Gene Hackman’s nutty preacher while moving heaven and earth to keep the dwindling band of survivors on the road to safety. Without him, there’s nothing to do but point and laugh. With him (and admittedly Hackman), The Poseidon Adventure becomes an irresistible guilty pleasure.
In a film about old codgers, Borgnine is hands-down the codger-est. He was well into his 90s when he agreed to appear as Henry the Records Keeper, a CIA relic holding one of the key pieces of information that the good guys need. RED gets the mention here because of what Borgnine does with such limited screen time: playing an unassuming nobody who just happens to know everything.
Borgnine specialized in nice guys for much of his career, aided by an easy grin and a hearty, infectious laugh. He went against type in the original Willard, playing the title character’s ball-busting prick of a boss. As the symbol of banal conformity, he constantly hounds the oddball Willard until you’re begging to see him noisily devoured by the hero’s hordes of rats. (He avoids that fate by falling out of a window, but we’ll take it anyway.) Thanks to Borgnine’s deliciously hateful performance, the moment carries all the visceral satisfaction we could ask for.
Few science fiction films in recent memory are as smart as Gattaca, and few ask their audience to engage in its intellectual meditation as seriously. It depicts a future society where genetic engineering has created perfect people. Those born “naturally” are consigned to unspoken second-class citizenship. Ethan Hawke’s hero dares to dream for more; Borgnine’s petty authoritarian janitor serves as an ever-present reminder of what he faces should he fail.
The unquestioned high point of Borgnine’s forays into genre entertainment comes with Escape from New York, the John Carpenter cult classic that remin ded us why the Big Apple sucks. He play Cabbie, the city’s lone holdout who loves Manhattan so much that he refuses to leave when it gets turned into a giant prison. He serves up some much-needed comic relief, enhancing the satire while letting star Kurt Russell handle the bad-assery as Snake Plissken. That dynamic eventually leads to the film’s pitch-perfect twist, in which Cabbie inadvertently provides Plissken with the ultimate means of sticking it to the Man.