Legendary film and TV actor Ernest Borgnine has died at age 95. Tributes to his life and work are pouring in from across the world, mainly for his performance in the 1955 film Marty, which gained him the Oscar for Best Actor over Frank Sinatra and James Dean. Now I haven’t seen Marty, or in fact any of the other films he appeared in over his long career. However, there’s no doubt in my mind that Borgnine was a terrific actor, and this is all due to just one of his roles. From 1999 to the present day, Borgnine voiced the senile superhero Mermaid Man on the American cartoon SpongeBob SquarePants.
I was two years old when SpongeBob started airing, and since then it’s been a constant presence in my life. The deranged plotlines and surreal gags, along with a healthy disregard for the laws of physics (Lighting a fire under the sea is completely possible in this bizarre universe) have made it one of the greatest kid’s TV shows around. As good a show as SpongeBob is normally, there are a select few episodes that elevate it to dizzying heights rarely reached in animation. These are, of course, the ones featuring Ernest Borgnine as Mermaid Man.
Along with his long-suffering sidekick Barnacle Boy (voiced by Tim Conway, Borgnine’s co-star in the 1960s programme McHale’s Navy), Mermaid Man fought underwater crime for many years, inspiring a huge line of merchandise including a television show. Whenever this show appears in an episode of SpongeBob, it’s a pitch-perfect parody of Adam West’s Batman, along with a dash of the far less cool Aquaman. “WHACK!” and “POW!” effects fill the screen during fight scenes, the superhero duo drive around in an ‘Invisible Boatmobile’, and the whole thing is accompanied by a campy, shouted voiceover.
The only concession to his old age is a pair of pink fuzzy slippers on his feet
The glory days of Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy are hilariously juxtaposed with the present-day reality of the heroes, living in a retirement home and reminiscing about past adventures. Mermaid Man has become rotund and white-haired, still wearing his superhero costume of a seashell bra and a starfish over his nose. The only concession to his old age is a pair of pink fuzzy slippers on his feet. He still treats Barnacle Boy like the “young ward” he used to be, despite the fact that the sidekick is similarly aged, and sick of this treatment.
While they are queuing up in the canteen, Mermaid Man dramatically shouts out his destination in the style of Adam West. “To the meatloaf! To the broccoli! To the table! Away!” His mental state has declined to the point where the slightest mention of the word “evil” will send him leaping around the room, looking for his former enemies. Borgnine’s excellent, high-pitched and wavering delivery of the “evil!” line never fails to make me laugh. Even his superhero name is rambling and odd, how can he possibly be a mermaid and a man at the same time?
Now that Borgnine has passed away, the future of Mermaid Man is called into question. If they decide to replace his voice actor, it just won’t be the same. The brilliance of Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy was the contrast between Borgnine’s overacted sincerity and Conway’s weary sarcasm. A new actor would just be doing an impersonation of Borgnine, and would never be able to achieve the heart he put into every line.
Ernest Borgnine was renowned the world over for his many roles in a lengthy lifetime. I’ll definitely be seeking out his older work in order to gain more of an appreciation for him, but to me and many other people, Borgnine will always be a cartoon of a doddering old man in a seashell bra.
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