ERNEST BORGNINE, TOUGH BUT TENDER ACTOR
Ernest Borgnine outside his home in Hollywood, Calif., in 1969.
By ANITA GATES
Published: July 8, 2012
Ernest Borgnine, the rough-hewn actor who seemed destined for tough-guy characters but won an Academy Award for embodying the gentlest of souls, a lonely Bronx butcher, in the 1955 film “Marty,” died Sunday in Los Angeles. He was 95.
The death was confirmed to The Associated Press by his spokesman, Harry Flynn.
Mr. Borgnine made his first memorable impression in films at the age of 37, appearing in “From Here to Eternity” (1953) as Fatso Judson, the sadistic stockade sergeant who beats Frank Sinatra’s character, Private Maggio, to death. But Paddy Chayefsky, who wrote “Marty” as a television play, and Delbert Mann, who directed it (Rod Steiger was the star of that version), saw something beyond brutality in Mr. Borgnine and offered him the title role when it was made into a feature film.
The 1950s had emerged as the decade of the common man, with Willy Loman of “Death of a Salesman” on Broadway and the likes of the bus driver Ralph Kramden (“The Honeymooners”) and the factory worker Chester Riley (“The Life of Riley”) on television. Mr. Borgnine’s Marty Pilletti, a 34-year-old blue-collar bachelor who still lives with his mother, fit right in, showing the tender side of the average, unglamorous guy next door.
Marty’s awakening, as he unexpectedly falls in love, was described by Bosley Crowther in The New York Times as “a beautiful blend of the crude and the strangely gentle and sensitive in a monosyllabic man.”
Mr. Borgnine received the Oscar for best actor for “Marty.” For the same performance he also received a Golden Globe and awards from the New York Film Critics Circle, the National Board of Review and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.
Mr. Borgnine won even wider fame as the star of the ABC sitcom “McHale’s Navy” (1962-66), originating the role of an irreverent con man of a PT boat skipper. (The cast also included a young Tim Conway.) He wrote in his autobiography, “Ernie” (Citadel Press, 2008), that he had turned down the role because he refused to do a television series but changed his mind when a boy came to his door selling candy and said, although he knew who James Arness of “Gunsmoke” and Richard Boone of “Have Gun, Will Travel” were, he had never heard of Ernest Borgnine.
Over a career that lasted more than six decades the burly, big-voiced Mr. Borgnine was never able to escape typecasting completely, at least in films. Although he did another Chayefsky screenplay, starring with Bette Davis as a working-class father of the bride in “The Catered Affair” (1956), and even appeared in a musical, “The Best Things in Life Are Free” (1956), playing a Broadway showman, the vast majority of the characters he played were villains.
Military roles continued to beckon. One of his best known was as Lee Marvin’s commanding officer in “The Dirty Dozen” (1967), about hardened prisoners on a World War II commando mission. He also starred in three television-movie sequels.
But he worked in virtually every genre. Filmmakers cast him as a gangster, even in satirical movies like “Spike of Bensonhurst” (1988). He was in westerns like “Bad Day at Black Rock” (1955) and Sam Peckinpah’s blood-soaked classic “The Wild Bunch” (1969).
He played gruff police officers, like his character in the disaster blockbuster “The Poseidon Adventure” (1972), and bosses from hell, as in the horror movie “Willard” (1971). Twice he played a manager of gladiators, in “Demetrius and the Gladiators” (1954) and in the 1984 mini-series “The Last Days of Pompeii.”
Mr. Borgnine’s menacing features seemed to disappear when he flashed his trademark gaptoothed smile, and later in life he began to find good-guy roles, like the helpful taxi driver in “Escape From New York” (1981) and the title role in “A Grandpa for Christmas,” a 2007 television movie.
“McHale’s Navy” and the 1964 film inspired by it were his most notable forays into comedy, but in 1999 he began doing the voice of a recurring character, the elderly ex-superhero Mermaid Man, in the animated series “SpongeBob SquarePants.”
Unlike many of his fellow actors who began on the stage, Mr. Borgnine professed to have no burning desire to return there. “Once you create a character for the stage, you become like a machine,” he told The Washington Post in 1969. In films, he said, “you’re always creating something new.”
Ermes Effron Borgnino was born on Jan. 24, 1917, in Hamden, Conn., near New Haven. His father was a railroad brakeman. His mother was said to be the daughter of a count, Paolo Boselli, an adviser to King Victor Emmanuel of Italy.
The boy spent several years of his childhood in Italy, where his mother returned during a long separation from her husband. But they returned to Connecticut, and he graduated from high school there.
He joined the Navy at 18 and served for 10 years. During World War II he was a gunner’s mate. After the war he considered factory jobs, but his mother suggested that he try acting. Her reasoning, he reported, was, “You’ve always liked making a damned fool of yourself.”
He studied at the Randall School of Drama in Hartford, then moved to Virginia, where he became a member of the Barter Theater in Abingdon and worked his way up from painting scenery to playing the Gentleman Caller in “The Glass Menagerie.”
In the late 1940s he headed for New York, where by 1952 he was appearing on Broadway as a bodyguard in the comic fantasy “Mrs. McThing,” starring Helen Hayes. He had already made his movie debut playing a Chinese shopkeeper in the 1951 adventure “China Corsair.”
Mr. Borgnine continued working almost untilthe end of his life.In the 1980s he starred in another television series, the adventure drama “Airwolf,” playing a helicopter pilot. He took a supporting role as a bubbly doorman in the 1990s sitcom “The Single Guy.”
Mr. Borgnine had five wives. In 1949 he married Rhoda Kemins, whom he had met when they were both in the Navy. They had a daughter but divorced in 1958. On New Year’s Eve 1959 he and the Mexican-born actress Katy Jurado were married; they divorced in 1962.
His third marriage was his most notorious because of its brevity. He and the Broadway musical star Ethel Merman married in late June 1964 but split up in early August. Mr. Borgnine later contended that Ms. Merman left because she was upset that on an international honeymoon trip he was recognized and she wasn’t.
In 1965 he married Donna Rancourt; they had two children before divorcing in 1972. In 1973 he married for the fifth and last time, to Tova Traesnaes, who under the name Tova Borgnine became a cosmetics entrepreneur.
In addition to his wife, his survivors include a son, Christopher, and two daughters, Nancy and Sharon.
Asked about his acting methods in 1973, Mr. Borgnine told The New York Times: “No Stanislavsky. I don’t chart out the life histories of the people I play. If I did, I’d be in trouble. I work with my heart and my head, and naturally emotions follow.”
Sometimes he prayed, he said, or just reflected on character-appropriate thoughts. “If none of that works,” he added, “I think to myself of the money I’m making.”
Such a great character actor, who left unforgettable images in the minds of his many fans:
Cabbie, in the 1981 John Carpenter film Escape from New York:
Then there is the 1955 film Marty, a Burt Lancaster/Delbert Mann production:
Yep, they don’t make movies like that anymore. Heck, they don’t make trailers like that anymore.
Then there is the TV show McHale’s Navy (1962), where Mr. Borgnine’s character McHale was always outwitting his superior, Capt. Binghampton (portrayed by Joe Flynn):
And lastly, his poignant performance in the 1997 movie Gattaca, where he played a supervisor of janitors, one of whom included the character Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke):
Mr. Ernest Borgnine came from an era when actors truly were stars of the silver screen.
Thank you so much for the memories, Mr. Borgnine.
Rest in peace.
JOYCE D. MILLER, BREAKER OF GLASS CEILINGS
By DENISE GRADY
Published: July 6, 2012
Joyce D. Miller, an influential advocate for women who believed that equality for them in the workplace could be best achieved through labor unions, and who championed that cause when she broke into the male-dominated leadership of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., died last Saturday in Washington. She was 84.
The cause was a stroke, her son Joshua said.
Ms. Miller was an advocate for women in the workplace for decades. She was a founding member and later president of the Coalition of Labor Union Women, a national group that since 1974 has helped organize women into unions.
In 1980, she became the first woman elected to the executive board of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations.
And in 1993, President Bill Clinton appointed her executive director of the Glass Ceiling Commission, created by the Civil Rights Act of 1991 to study the barriers to promotion that women and minority employees faced in large companies.
When she was elected to the A.F.L.-C.I.O. board, she had been in union management for about 20 years and used to working in a “sea of men,” The Associated Press quoted her as saying. She was 52 and divorced with three children. A 1981 photograph of the board shows her in a blue outfit and pearls, smiling, smack in the middle of 33 men in suits and ties.
Ms. Miller saw union membership, collective bargaining and labor contracts as the road to equality for working women, and she believed that women should be a part of union management to make sure that attention was paid to issues like equal opportunity, equal pay, parental leave, child care, health insurance and discrimination against pregnant women in the workplace.
She was a tall, formidable presence, possessed of a strong voice that carried well without a microphone (although she had avoided speaking out at her first A.F.L.-C.I.O. meeting because, she said, she did not want to seem like a “pushy woman,” The A.P. reported).
“Joyce didn’t hesitate to speak out, to speak out when she thought something was going in the wrong direction,” said John J. Sweeney, a former A.F.L.-C.I.O. president, adding, “She was very focused on fairness and justice.”
In 1982, at a Manhattan conference on women’s difficulties in being admitted to skilled union trades like construction and plumbing, Ms. Miller predicted a “feminization of poverty.”
“Employers will say that no real woman wants to work in overalls,” she said. “The truth is that no real woman wants to starve.”
And to anyone who argued that women earned less than men because they tended to pick less challenging work, she had a reply.
“When secretaries were men, clerical work was well paid, upwardly mobile and high status,” she wrote in a letter to The New York Times in 1985. “When women became secretaries, they hit a low-paid dead end. The same thing happened when women replaced men as sewing-machine operators, bank tellers and telephone operators. The market seems to notice when the workers in a job undergo a sex change.”
Joyce Dannen was born in Chicago on June 19, 1928. Her mother was a teacher, and her father owned a dry-goods store. She was raised “with a social conscience,” she said in an oral history project in 2000. She received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago in 1950 and a master’s in social sciences and education there in 1951.
Classes about factory workers and the unemployed seeded her ambition to become involved in the labor movement. But despite her education, the only union job she could find at first combined secretary, receptionist and switchboard operator — even though she could not type or take shorthand — at the Cooperative League of America, a group for jointly owned businesses.
Later, as a regional education director for a union in Pittsburgh, she found that its employees received food allowances, but that women were given less than men because it was assumed that men would take them out for dinner and pick up their checks.
In 1952, she married Jay A. Miller, who also worked for a union. They had three children and moved several times, and she held part-time teaching jobs at colleges and in the public schools. She also kept her hand in the labor movement, volunteering at union education conferences.
Everything changed in 1962, when the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America asked her to become its education director in Chicago. She took the job and rose to vice president.
She helped set up child care centers for the union, including one that a government report called “the Rolls-Royce of day care,” as well as housing, legal assistance and college scholarship programs for union members and their children.
After joining the Glass Ceiling Commission under President Clinton in 1993, she later became a special adviser to Robert B. Reich, the secretary of labor. Afterward she adjudicated disputes for the Labor Department’s Wage Appeals Board until 1998, when she retired.
Her marriage to Mr. Miller ended in divorce in 1965. (He died this year.) Besides her son Joshua, Ms. Miller is survived by another son, Adam; a daughter, Rebecca; two granddaughters; and a brother, Avrum Dannen.
“I came to the labor movement with stars in my eyes,” Ms. Miller told The Times in 1980. “I saw it as a vehicle for social change, and I’ve never changed my mind.”
ANDY GRIFFITH, TV’S LAWMAN AND MORAL COMPASS
Andy Griffith from “The Andy Griffith Show.” More Photos »
Published: July 3, 2012
Andy Griffith, an actor whose folksy Southern manner charmed audiences for more than 50 years on Broadway, in movies, on albums and especially on television — most notably as the small-town sheriff on the long-running situation comedy that bore his name — died on Tuesday at his home on Roanoke Island in North Carolina. He was 86.
His death was confirmed by the Dare County sheriff, Doug Doughtie.
Mr. Griffith was already a star — on Broadway in “No Time for Sergeants” and in Hollywood in Elia Kazan’s film “A Face in the Crowd” — when “The Andy Griffith Show“ made its debut in the fall of 1960. And he delighted a later generation of television viewers in the 1980s and ’90s in the title role of the courtroom drama “Matlock.”
But his fame was never as great as it was in the 1960s, when he starred for eight years as Andy Taylor, the sagacious sheriff of the make-believe town of Mayberry, N.C. Every week he rode herd on a collection of eccentrics, among them his high-strung deputy, Barney Fife, and the simple-minded gas station attendant Gomer Pyle. Meanwhile, as a widower, Andy raised a young son, Opie, and often went fishing with him. “The Andy Griffith Show,” seen Monday nights on CBS, was No. 4 in the Nielsen ratings its first year and never fell below the Top 10. It was No. 1 in 1968, its last season. After the run ended with Episode No. 249, the show lived on in spinoff series, endless reruns and even Sunday school classes organized around its rustic moral lessons.
The show imagined a reassuring world of fishin’ holes, ice cream socials and rock-hard family values during a decade that grew progressively tumultuous. Its vision of rural simplicity (captured in its memorable theme song, whistled over the opening credits) was part of a TV trend that began with “The Real McCoys” on ABC in 1957 and later included “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Petticoat Junction,” “Green Acres” and “Hee Haw.”
But by the late 1960s, the younger viewers networks prized were spurning corn pone, and Mr. Griffith had decided to leave after the 1966-67 season to make movies. CBS made a lucrative offer for him to do one more season, and “The Andy Griffith Show” became the No. 1 series in the 1967-68 season. But Mr. Griffith had decided to move on, and so had the times. “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” with its one-liners about drugs and Vietnam, and “The Mod Squad,” about an integrated trio of undercover officers, were grabbing a new audience.
But the characters in “The Andy Griffith Show” — Barney (Don Knotts), Gomer (Jim Nabors), Opie (Ron Howard, who went on to fame as a movie director), Aunt Bee (Frances Bavier) and the rest, including Gomer’s cousin Goober Pyle (George Lindsey, who died in May) — have remained tantalizingly real to their fans, who continue to watch reruns on cable TV and online.
Andy Griffith was more complex than Andy Taylor, although the show was based on his hometown, Mount Airy, N.C. Before he fetched up in Mayberry, he was known for bringing authenticity to dark roles, beginning with the lead in “A Face in the Crowd,” in 1957, the story of a rough-hewn television personality who, in the clutches of his city-slicker handlers, becomes something of a megalomaniac.
From the 1970s to the 1990s, Mr. Griffith starred in no fewer than six movies with the words “murder” or “kill” in their titles. In 1983, in “Murder in Coweta County,” he played a chillingly wicked man who remains stone cold even as he is strapped into the electric chair.
Sheriff Taylor aside, Mr. Griffith was no happy rustic; he enjoyed life in Hollywood and knew his way around a wine list. His career was tightly controlled by a personal manager, Richard O. Linke.
“If there is ever a question about something, I will do what he wants me to do,” Mr. Griffith told The New York Times Magazine in 1970. “Had it not been for him, I would have gone down the toilet.”
Far from the gregarious Andy Taylor, Mr. Griffith was a loner and a worrier. He once hit a door in anger, and for two episodes of “The Andy Griffith Show” he had a bandaged hand (explained on the show as an injury Andy received while apprehending criminals).
But the show’s 35 million viewers would have been reassured to learn that even at the peak of his popularity, Mr. Griffith drove a Ford station wagon and bought his suits off the rack. He said his favorite honor was having a stretch of a North Carolina highway named after him in 2002. (That was before President George W. Bush presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005.)
He was also gratified to find his character ranked No. 8 on TV Guide’s list of the “50 Greatest TV Dads of All Time” in 2004. (Bill Cosby’s Dr. Cliff Huxtable was No. 1.) But one honor denied him was an Emmy Award: he was nominated only once, for his role in the TV movie “Murder in Texas.” “The Andy Griffith Show” itself, though nominated three times, also never won an Emmy, but Mr. Knotts did — five times — for his performance as Deputy Fife, and so did Ms. Bavier, once, as Andy’s aunt.
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Andy Samuel Griffith was born in Mount Airy on June 1, 1926, the only child of Carl Lee Griffith and the former Geneva Nann Nunn. His father was a foreman at a furniture factory. Mr. Griffith described his childhood as happy, but said he never forgot the pain he felt when someone called him “white trash.”
After seeing the trombonist Jack Teagarden in the 1941 film “Birth of the Blues,” he bought a trombone from Sears, Roebuck & Company, then wheedled lessons out of a local pastor, who later recommended him to the University of North Carolina, where he won a music degree and married Barbara Edwards.
He moved on to singing, and for a while hoped to be an opera singer. He tried teaching music and phonetics in a high school but left after three frustrating years. “First day, I’d tell the class all I knew,” he told The Saturday Evening Post in 1964, “and there was nothin’ left to say for the rest o’ the semester.”
In spare moments Mr. Griffith and his wife put together an act in which he posed as a country preacher and told jokes (one was about putting frogs in the baptismal water) while she danced. They played local civic clubs.
In 1953, performing for an insurance convention, Mr. Griffith, in his bumpkin preacher persona, told a comic first-person tale about attending a college football game and trying to figure out what was going on. Some 500 discs of the monologue were pressed under the title “What It Was, Was Football,” and it became a hit on local radio. Mr. Linke, then with Capitol Records, scurried to North Carolina to acquire the rights and sign Mr. Griffith.
Mr. Linke was soon guiding him onto television and nightclub stages. But Mr. Griffith’s big break came on Broadway, in 1955, when he was cast in “No Time for Sergeants” as a mountain yokel drafted into the Air Force — a role he had played on television, on “The United States Steel Hour.” The play was a hit, running for almost two years, and he reprised the role for the 1958 film version.
His first movie role, in “A Face in the Crowd,” was far more complicated. The character, Larry Rhodes, known as Lonesome, is a vagrant who is discovered playing the guitar in an Arkansas jail and then groomed to become a beloved television star, only to be undone by his dark side. Mr. Griffith told The New York Times Magazine that he was so consumed by the stormy character that it affected his marriage.
“I’ll tell you the truth,” he said. “You play an egomaniac and paranoid all day and it’s hard to turn it off at bedtime. We went through a nightmare.”
In 1959, Mr. Griffith returned to Broadway in the musical comedy “Destry Rides Again,” in a role that had been played in films by Tom Mix, James Stewart, Joel McCrea and Audie Murphy. Though reviews were mixed, Newsday declared, “There isn’t a more likable personality around than Andy Griffith.”
The pilot of “The Andy Griffith Show,” in February 1960, was actually an episode of “The Danny Thomas Show” in which Mr. Thomas, as Danny Williams, is arrested by a sheriff for running through a stop sign while driving through Mayberry.
Danny baits the sheriff, calling him “hayseed” and “Clem.”
“The name ain’t Clem, it’s Andy, Sheriff Andy Taylor!” he responds.
Sheldon Leonard, producer of Mr. Thomas’s show, had decided to build a sitcom around Mr. Griffith after seeing him in “Destry.” Mr. Griffith negotiated for 50 percent ownership, which gave him a large say in the show’s development.
Critical to the show’s success was the casting of Mr. Knotts as the inept but lovable Barney Fife. So was the simple but appealing formula: characters would confront a problem, then resolve it by exercising honesty or some other virtue.
When Mr. Knotts left the show in 1965, a year after Mr. Nabors, Mr. Griffith became “nervous” about its future, he said. But though some critics and viewers said the show in its later years lacked the sparkle it had once possessed, its ratings never tottered.
Still, after the 1967-68 season, Mr. Griffith had had enough and left the show. But he did produce a kind of sequel series for the following season, “Mayberry R.F.D.,” with Ken Berry starring as a widowed farmer alongside many of the regular characters from “Andy Griffith.” It ran three seasons.
Mr. Griffith’s acting career stalled afterward, despite a five-year deal with Universal Pictures. He said he was not offered roles he wanted to play. Returning to television in 1970, he starred in two short-lived shows, “The Headmaster” and “The New Andy Griffith Show.”
Then came a raft of made-for-TV movies. One, “Diary of a Perfect Murder,” served as the pilot for a new series, “Matlock,” in which Mr. Griffith played a rumpled but cagey defense lawyer. The show’s run, from 1986 to 1995, exceeded that of “The Andy Griffith Show.”
Mr. Griffith continued to play occasional movie and television parts, including that of an 80-something widower who rediscovers romance, and sex, in a nursing home in “Play the Game.”
He never lost his singing voice. In 1996 he recorded a gospel album, “I Love to Tell the Story: 25 Timeless Hymns,” which won a Grammy.
In 2010 he showed a political side when he extolled President Obama’s health care legislation in a television commercial for it. Republican politicians and conservative talk show hosts leapt on him, and Jon Stewart made boisterous fun of the brouhaha on “The Daily Show.”
Mr. Griffith’s marriage to Barbara Edwards, in 1949, ended in divorce in 1972. An eight-year marriage to the Greek actress Solica Cassuto ended in divorce in 1981. In 1983, he married Cindi Knight, who survives him, as does a daughter from his first marriage, Dixie Griffith. A son from his first marriage, Andy Jr., known as Sam, died in 1996.
To viewers, Mr. Griffith’s portrayal of the sheriff seemed so effortless, they presumed he was just playing himself. He wasn’t, he insisted; he was always acting. But he took that misimpression as a compliment to his artistry.
“You’re supposed to believe in the character,” he said. “You’re not supposed to think, ‘Gee, Andy’s acting up a storm.’ “
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: July 6, 2012
Because of editing errors, an earlier version of this obituary misidentified the television anthology series on which Mr. Griffith played the lead role in “No Time for Sergeants” in 1955, a role he would later play in the stage and film versions, and referred incorrectly to his two children. The show was “The United States Steel Hour,” not “Playhouse 90.” Mr. Griffith’s son, Andy Jr. (who died in 1996), and his daughter, Dixie Griffith, were the children of his first marriage, not his third.
Even though he made his mark before entering television with celebrated movies such as A Face in the Crowd, and the hilarious No Time for Sergeants, Andy Griffith will forever always be asscociated with the The Andy Griffith Show/Mayberry, RFD and its catchy whistled tune familiar to anyone who is a fan of the famous series. Everyone, including their pet cockatiel, knew the tune by memory:
In the 1957 movie A Face in the Crowd, he was a newcomer to viewers who saw his skills as an actor:
In the 1958 movie No Time for Sergeants, he showed his comedic flair, here with the unforgettable “toilet salute”:
Unknown to many fans is Mr. Griffith’s portrayal as a vacationing businessman motorcycle rider who goes on a trip to Baja, California with three of his buddies in the 1974 TV movie Pray for the Wildcats:
Long before we knew him as Andy of Mayberry, Mr. Griffith had a versatile movie career.
And who can forget those 1977 Ritz Cracker commercials?
“Mmm, mmm. Good cracker. Good cracker”.
He will be missed.
Rest in peace, Mr. Griffith.
Rest in peace.
JIMMY BIVINS, TOP BOXING CONTENDER
Published: July 5, 2012
Jimmy Bivins, a heavyweight boxer who in the 1940s and ’50s beat eight future world champions but, to his lasting regret, never got a shot at the title himself, died on Wednesday in a Cleveland nursing home. He was 92.
A spokeswoman for the Lucas Memorial Chapel funeral home in Garfield Heights, Ohio, confirmed the death.
If prizefighting adds up to a montage of cruelty and courage, fame and fear, Bivins’s life was representative. He realized the power of his fists early on, and then glimpsed the heights to which they could carry him. But bad luck, bad timing and perhaps bad people thwarted him, and near the end of his life he was a neglected shell of the warrior he had been.
From 1942 to 1946, Bivins plowed through the heavyweight and light-heavyweight divisions, going undefeated before losing to Jersey Joe Walcott in February 1946. Between 1940 and 1955, he beat a parade of fighters who would go on to become champions, among them Gus Lesnevich, Joey Maxim, Ezzard Charles and Archie Moore.
Playing the villain and sticking his tongue out at opponents, Bivins became one of boxing’s big attractions, a scrappy, crouching slugger with a stinging left jab. At one point he was a top title contender in both the light-heavyweight and heavyweight divisions. Joe Louis was among many in the sport who were puzzled that Bivins was not given a shot at a championship.
“I can’t understand why he hasn’t gotten further than he has,” Louis said in an interview with The New York Times in 1948.
Bivins did not say much at the time, but in 1999, speaking with The Plain Dealer of Cleveland, he mentioned a conversation with “this mob guy from New York.” The man said Bivins “should play ball with him,” Bivins recalled. To him, the message was clear — that he should be willing to throw fights when told to.
“Shoot, I told him I wasn’t a ballplayer; I’m a fighter,” Bivins said.
For a man who never wore a championship belt, Bivins, known as the Cleveland Spider Man, left a lasting impression. In 1997, Boxing Digest named him the No. 16 light-heavyweight of all time; in 2002, Ring Magazine ranked him No. 6 in the same category. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1999.
All that eased his disappointment but did not erase it. “The only thing is, I fought my heart out and didn’t get no pay,” he told The Plain Dealer in 1994. “Now, guys go for two rounds and come out a millionaire. They couldn’t wipe my nose. That’s the way the fight game is.”
Though he fought Louis in a six-round exhibition match in 1948 and again in a 10-round, nonchampionship fight in 1951, he lived the rest of his life regretting never fighting him for the title. “All I wanted was a chance,” Bivins said. “I deserved a chance.”
James Louis Bivins was born in Dry Branch, Ga., on Dec. 6, 1919, and his family moved to Cleveland three years later. His first sport was track, and when young people made fun of him for his dedication to his school work, he would run away, he said. One day he stopped in his tracks and faced his tormentors. “I beat the stew out of them,” he said.
After his sister Viola married a boxer, Bivins went with him to a recreation center to try the sport. His father took him to see the legendary Jack Johnson put on an exhibition. And when his friend and fellow track runner Jesse Owens, who would go on to Olympic glory in 1936 in Berlin, told him that he should make boxing his sport because it paid better, Bivins was persuaded.
Though only 5 feet 9 inches, he had a 79-inch reach, and in 1937 he won the Cleveland Golden Gloves novice featherweight championship. Two years later, he won as a welterweight. He made his professional debut as a middleweight in January 1940 and won $25 by knocking out his opponent in the first round. By the end of 1942, he was the No. 1 contender in the light-heavyweight division.
But all titles were frozen until the end of World War II. In February 1943, Bivins beat Anton Christoforidis to become the temporary light-heavyweight champion until fighters in the military returned to competition. Later that year, the National Boxing Association ranked Bivins second or third among the contenders for Louis’s heavyweight crown.
Louis was in the Army at the time. In 1944, Bivins, too, joined the Army.
By February 1945, Bivins had been honorably discharged and was fighting again. One of his most memorable postwar fights was against Moore in August 1945. He knocked Moore down six times en route to a knockout victory. But he began to lose more often.
Bivins retired in 1953, and then came back to fight twice more in 1955. His lifetime record was 86 wins, 25 losses and one draw. He knocked out 31 opponents and was knocked out five times.
In his retirement, Bivins drove trucks delivering bakery goods, potato chips and pretzels, and he coached youths in boxing. He made a tradition of cooking Sunday dinners for them, always ending with homemade cobbler and ice cream. His third wife, Elizabeth, died in 1995.
Bivins dropped out of sight and was largely forgotten until 1998, when the police discovered him living in the squalid attic of his daughter’s house, wrapped in a urine-soaked blanket. His 110-pound frame was covered with bedsores, and he had severed a piece of his right middle finger trying to pry open a can of beans with a knife, resulting later in a partial amputation.
His son-in-law, Darrell Banks, was convicted of elder abuse. As part of his plea, the case against Bivins’s daughter, Josetta Banks, was dismissed. She survives him, as do five grandchildren and numerous great- and great-great-grandchildren. He had three sisters and two brothers, all of whom have died.
During his last years, his sister Maria Bivins Baskin cared for him. He liked to play checkers, making up his own rules.
FROM THE ARCHIVES
(July 2, 1919)
(July 2, 1961)
(July 2, 1989)
(July 2, 1997)
(July 6, 1971)
(July 9, 1974)
(July 10, 1979)
(July 14, 1965)
(July 17, 1903)
(July 17, 1959)
(July 21, 1998)
(July 23, 1885)
(July 23, 1999)
(July 26, 1952)
(July 27, 1946)
(July 29, 1981)