Then came Marty, a low-budget film based on a Paddy Chayefsky television play that starred Rod Steiger. Mr. Borgnine played a 34-year-old who fears he is so unattractive he will never find romance. Then, at a dance, he meets a woman with the same fear.
The realism of Chayefsky's prose and Delbert Mann's sensitive direction astonished audiences accustomed to happy Hollywood formulas. Mr. Borgnine won the Oscar and awards from the Cannes Film Festival, New York Critics, and National Board of Review.
"The Oscar made me a star, and I'm grateful," Mr. Borgnine told an interviewer in 1966. "But I feel had I not won the Oscar I wouldn't have gotten into the messes I did in my personal life."
Those messes included four failed marriages, including one in 1964 to singer Ethel Merman that lasted less than six weeks.
But Mr. Borgnine's fifth marriage, in 1973 to Norwegian-born Tova Traesnaes, endured and brought with it an interesting business partnership. She manufactured and sold beauty products on QVC under the name of Tova and used her husband's rejuvenated face in her ads.
In 2004, Tova Borgnine bought a house in East Goshen Township so that they could live more comfortably than they would in a hotel.
The couple hit the town regularly. Two years ago, they happened to drop into Chickie's & Pete's in South Philadelphia while the Sixers were hosting dancer tryouts. He cut up with them and was photographed wearing a "Got crabs?" T-shirt. At age 93.
Although Mr. Borgnine was not a marquee star until after Marty, the roles of heavies started coming regularly after From Here to Eternity. Among the films: Bad Day at Black Rock, Johnny Guitar, Demetrius and the Gladiators, and Vera Cruz.
He played a sensitive role opposite Bette Davis in another film based on a Chayefsky TV drama, The Catered Affair.
But producers also continued casting Mr. Borgnine in action films such as Three Bad Men, The Vikings, Torpedo Run, Barabbas, The Dirty Dozen, and The Wild Bunch.
Then he made the transition to TV comedy. From 1962 to 1966, Mr. Borgnine - a Navy veteran himself - starred in McHale's Navy as the commander of a World War II PT boat with a crew of misfits and malcontents. The cast took the show to the big screen in 1964 with a McHale's Navy movie.
Mr. Borgnine's later films included Ice Station Zebra, The Adventurers, Willard, The Poseidon Adventure, The Greatest (as Muhammad Ali's manager), Convoy, Ravagers, Escape from New York, Moving Target, and Mistress.
More recently, Mr. Borgnine had a recurring role as the apartment house doorman-cum-chef in the NBC sitcom The Single Guy.
Ermes Efron Borgnino was born in Hamden, Conn., on Jan. 24, 1917, the son of Italian immigrants. The family lived in Milan when the boy was 2 to 7, then returned to Connecticut, where he attended school in New Haven.
Mr. Borgnine joined the Navy in 1935 and served on a destroyer during World War II. He weighed 135 pounds when he enlisted. He left 10 years later, weighing 100 pounds more.
His mother persuaded him to enroll at the Randall School of Dramatic Arts in Hartford. He stayed four months, the only formal training he received.
Mr. Borgnine's marriages to Rhoda Kenins and Donna Rancourt each produced a daughter. He was also married to Katy Jurado and Merman before his union with Traesnaes.
During an interview in 2007, Mr. Borgnine complained that he wanted to continue acting but most studio executives kept asking, "Is he still alive?"
"I just want to do more work," he said. "It keeps your mind active and it keeps you going."
Inquirer reporter Michael Klein contributed to this report.