Last night when my wife told me “Ernest Borgnine died,” my daughter asked, “Who’s that?” I thought quickly and told her, “He was the voice of Mermaid Man.” Her response was, “Oh, no!”
For those of you who do not live in the world of kids ages 3-12, legendary actor Ernest Borgnine voiced the part of Mermaid Man on the hit Nickelodeon series Spongebob Squarepants. Mermaid Man is an aging superhero, who along with his equally decrepit sidekick Barnacle Boy (voiced by another legend Tim Conway), are the heroes of the titular yellow sponge and his goofy friend Patrick. All sorts of mayhem results in an appearance of the two in various episodes over the years, and my kids just love the characters.
Borgnine it seemed would not have had it any other way. I heard him talking on a radio show one time, and someone called in and asked how it felt it be known as “a silly cartoon character.” Borgnine didn’t miss a beat and said, “I love it!”
What my kids don’t know (at least not yet) is that Borgnine was an accomplished actor who played a variety of roles. He made an indelible impression as the bully sergeant in From Here to Eternity, but was equally impressive as the lonely butcher in Marty, which won him his only Oscar. He played many villain roles to be sure, but that butcher is the one remembered and also it propelled him into the role of a lifetime: Lt. Commander Quinton McHale in the hit television show McHale’s Navy.
I watched McHale’s Navy as a kid, and I loved it. This show was in many ways the precursor of M*A*S*H, another great TV series about war with more serious tangents, but the theme was basically the same. McHale and his men got the job done but cavorted as much as possible during down time, all the while trying to pull the wool over basically clueless Captain Binghamton’s (Joe Flynn) eyes. Tim Conway starred as Ensign Parker in this series, so the pairing of them as Mermaid and Barnacle Boy was pure genius later on in Spongebob.
I had seen Borgnine many times on talk shows over the years, and he always seemed affable and happy to be where he was, at times even downright humble. He recognized his good fortune to have found a niche in Hollywood despite not having the Rock Hudson or Paul Newman type of good looks. Someone who was no doubt originally seen as a good character actor by casting directors ended up being quite a fine actor.
Still, on this day, to many the world has lost the voice of a beloved character. My kids are sad and quite frankly I am too. Rest in peace, Ernest Borgnine and Mermaid Man.
Photo Credits: Borgnine-People; Mermaid Man – whotalking.com