How ''Marty'' made Oscar history -- A look back at the 1955 sleeper hit that won Best Picture and made Ernest Borgnine a star

By Steve Daly
Updated February 03, 2006 at 05:00 AM EST

It didn’t have any stars. It didn’t come from a major studio. It wasn’t in color, or shot in one of the flashy new wide-screen formats like CinemaScope, and it ran only 91 minutes — a brevity usually encountered only in lowly B pictures that played on the bottom half of double bills. So how did an underdog like 1955’s Marty outrun the big-studio thoroughbreds on Oscar night a half century ago? Simple: It wagged its waifish little mutt’s tail, and the entire Academy went awwwwwww!

Nominated in eight categories, Marty took Best Picture — an enormous coup for a now-little-known producer named Harold Hecht. He was the maverick former choreographer and dancer who’d discovered Burt Lancaster, become his agent, and formed a production company with him, Hecht-Lancaster. Marty was the outfit’s first departure from packaging vehicles for Lancaster (such as Apache and Vera Cruz), and its success — a $5 million-plus gross on a budget of $340,000 or so — cemented Hecht-Lancaster as the Miramax of the 1950s: a thriving mini-major indie production company. (For a good decade, they remained the jewel in the crown of upstart United Artists, with whom they had a financing and distribution deal.) TIME magazine reported that en route to the Oscars, Hecht-Lancaster spent $350,000 promoting Marty, thereby outstripping its production budget — a lopsided approach later perfected by Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein.

At least one Hecht-Lancaster alumnus has since disputed that promotion-budget figure. But whatever the actual final tab, the campaign to push Marty into theaters and then for awards — including catered, in-home showings for Academy members using 16mm prints — was certainly elaborate, and clearly effective. It helped clinch a Best Director statuette for feature-film newbie Delbert Mann, who remained the only first-time-at-bat winner in that category until Jerome Robbins repeated the trick with West Side Story in 1962. Marty also snagged Best Screenplay for Paddy Chayefsky, who would win again in the ’70s for his blistering satires The Hospital and Network. Most remarkably, the sleeper hit brought a Best Actor prize to character actor Ernest Borgnine, in the sweet, sympathetic role of a lovesick Bronx butcher — a persona Borgnine had even played out as a publicity stunt at a Santa Monica supermarket.

Borgnine had been best known previously as Fatso, the sadistic, pug-nosed, gap-toothed military guard who beats Frank Sinatra’s character to death in 1953’s From Here to Eternity. (That got him a wave of bad-guy gigs through the mid-1950s.) He’d go on to TV-sitcom fixturedom, first as a cutup commander in McHale’s Navy in the early ’60s, then as doorman Manny on NBC’s The Single Guy in the ’90s, as well as memorable turns in such movies as The Wild Bunch, Willard, and The Poseidon Adventure. But in early 1956, as Oscar season unfolded, the newsmaking story on Borgnine was that the heavy had bucked typecasting to play a hero. He won accolade after accolade — first at Cannes, then from U.S. critics’ groups — as Marty Piletti, a lonesome 34-year-old bachelor who wins the heart of a lonesome 29-year-old Brooklyn schoolteacher (Betsy Blair, then married to the dashing MGM star Gene Kelly). Thanks in good part to Borgnine’s enormous likability in the role, audiences bought the courtship, despite Marty’s tendency toward such blunt proclamations as ”You’re not such a dog as you think you are.”