Generations of TV fans know them as Andy Taylor, sheriff of Mayberry, N.C., and Quinton McHale, commander of PT 73. Andy Griffith, who died July 3 at 86 at his home in Roanoke, N.C., and Ernest Borgnine, who died July 8 at 95 in Los Angeles, created TV personas that will rerun forever in a million fans' memories. On The Andy Griffith Show, which ran from 1960 to '68, the star provided a rural sedative for the urban chaos of 20th century America's most tumultuous decade. McHale's Navy (1962 to '66), turned Borgnine, an Oscar-winning dramatic actor, into a TV star on a military sitcom set in the Pacific theater of World War II--which seemed a cooler spot than the big muddy of Vietnam that the U.S. was wading into.
Both actors were the affable straight men to gifted comics (Don Knotts in Mayberry, Tim Conway on McHale's Navy). After their big shows went off the air, both remained TV regulars in series (Griffith's Matlock) or as guest stars on shows from Hollywood Squares to SpongeBob SquarePants (Borgnine). But the small screen didn't hold all their talent. Each man's richest, most daring and poignant work was done elsewhere--in movies for Borgnine and in three other media for Griffith. And it all started in 1953.
That's when Griffith landed in the Billboard Top 10 with a comedy monologue called "What It Was, Was Football." In a friendly-rube voice already identifiable as good ol' Andy, he told of wandering into a big cow pasture (a stadium) where a convict (referee) lets two bunchesful of men fight over a funny-lookin' little pumpkin (the ball). He parlayed his new fame as the Tar Heel Will Rogers into the lead role in No Time for Sergeants, a success on TV, then in the Broadway and film versions. Having become a star on records and Broadway as a Southern naif who won the world's heart, he boldly deconstructed that character as Lonesome Rhodes in the Elia Kazan--Budd Schulberg film A Face in the Crowd--the folksy TV spellbinder who thinks he can mold his audience into an angry army. That was 1957, a half-century before Glenn Beck.
Borgnine's 1953 breakthrough came as Sergeant "Fatso" Judson, Frank Sinatra's personal sadist in From Here to Eternity. Indeed, he would play a brutal guy for most of his 60-year film career, with hits including The Dirty Dozen and The Wild Bunch. But it was the sad Bronx butcher in Paddy Chayefsky's 1955 Marty that revealed the tough Borgnine's sensitive range. "I got hurt enough," this soft man shouts at his mother when she urges him to go to another Saturday dance from which he'll go home alone. "I don't wanna get hurt no more." On film, that hurt was beautiful--an actor's art.
Marty found happiness, and so did Borgnine: he beat out Sinatra, Spencer Tracy, James Cagney and James Dean as Oscar's Best Actor of 1955.