Sunday, August 5, 2012

Andy and Ernie

Last month, we said goodbye to two popular entertainers, Andy Griffith and Ernest Borgnine. Those of us who grew up in the sixties welcomed Sheriff Andy Taylor and the rest of Mayberry into our homes every Monday night, and spent Tuesday evenings laughing at the antics of McHale’s Navy. It’s interesting that they both made their first impressions on the big screen, in roles that were polar opposites of their most famous ones.

Andy Griffith made his film debut in A Face in the Crowd in 1957. This was an early look at the potential power and influence of television. His character, Lonesome Rhodes, is an Arkansas drifter who parlays his ability to spellbind people with his folksy charm into national celebrity. What his adoring fans don’t see behind the “Aw, shucks, I’m just a country boy” fa├žade is a power-hungry sociopath who will crush anyone who gets in his way. Budd Schulberg’s script casts a cynical light on the marriage of electronic media and politics that’s even more relevant today. People have told me that if they’d seen this movie before watching Griffith’s TV series, they wouldn’t have loved Sheriff Andy quite so much.

He followed this with the comedy No Time for Sergeants, in which he had starred on Broadway. Country bumpkin Will Stockdale is a complete one-eighty from Lonesome Rhodes, and Griffith scores laughs as a draftee who befuddles the Air Force with his down-home naivety. Most of the gags still hold up, and the scene where he prepares the barracks latrine for inspection is hilarious. This was also the first on-screen pairing of Griffith with Don Knotts. The basic storyline was later used as the premise for Gomer Pyle, USMC.

Ernest Borgnine broke into movies playing an assortment of nasty thugs, from a sadistic Army Sergeant in From Here to Eternity to a gleeful bully in Bad Day at Black Rock. He seemed an unlikely choice to play a sensitive character in Marty by Paddy Chayevsky, but play it he did, earning the Oscar for best actor of 1955. Marty is shy and awkward around women, still lives with his mother in the Bronx and has resigned himself to being alone. When he tearfully proclaims “Whatever it is that women want, I ain’t got it,” and “I don’t want to get hurt no more,” it pulls at the heartstrings.

He continued to work steadily for the next sixty-plus years in a wide variety of roles, including voiceover work on Spongebob Squarepants. He brought imposing authority to The Dirty Dozen and added character depth to The Wild Bunch and The Poseidon Adventure. Good guy or bad, authority figure or rebel, he always delivered the goods. In his memoir, Borgnine recounted that he only agreed to do McHale’s Navy after a kid came to his door selling candy bars, didn’t know who he was even after Borgnine told him, but kept asking “What TV show are you on?”   

What’s your favorite memory of these two versatile actors?   

Tim Smith is an award-winning, bestselling author whose books range from romantic mystery/thriller to contemporary erotic romance. More info about his books can be found at his website, www.timsmithauthor.com.   


Tina Donahue said...

Just last week I saw "Marty" on TCM. At the time, I was desperate as there wasn't anything else on TV. I'm glad I stuck with it. Great movie. Great story. Ernest Borgnine was wonderful in the role. :)

jean hart stewart said...

I'm not a TV fan so can't really comment. I know, I'm weird. liked your column though, very insightful

Tim Smith said...

Tina, whatever the reason I'm glad you caught 'Marty.' It's a sweet story that proves that we all have our perfect match out there somewhere.

If you get a chance to see 'A Face in the Crowd' please do so. It still packs a wallop. Griffith didn't get too many chances to play an SOB and he's terrific.