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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.