When die-hard Cinephiles think of the Hollywood legends that are still walking among us, the idea of bronzing them for their accomplishments might come to mind. But despite the innumerable cowboy statues he might possess, Ernest Borgnine is anything but an idol that should be cast in stone. Instead, picture a burly, gregarious average Joe with the energy and humor of a 40-year-old on shore leave, and you’ll get an idea of the warm approachability of this one-time Navy man who’s made it very good in La La Land--so good, in fact, that the Screen Actor’s Guild will be bestowing their Lifetime Achievement Award on Borgnine the 30th of this month. Not that the graciously humble, Best Actor-winning character man with an inimitable visage will admit he deserves it. Yet with a film and television career that comfortably straddles both the A-list efforts of Marty, From Here To Eternity, and The Wild Bunch, with the cult delights of The Poseidon Adventure, Escape From New York, and The Devil’s Rain (not to mention the sitcom classic McHale’s Navy), Borgnine has more than proven he’s got the stuff of greatness by seemingly not trying very hard at all--always displaying the kind of effortless emotional truth that actors many decades his junior could only wish for.
Born in 1917 as Ermes Effron Borgnine to Italian immigrant parents who knew their son’s force-of-nature personality could be parlayed into performance, Borgnine turned an early rough-and-tumble acting career around in a big way with his lucky break of being cast as Sgt. “Fatso” Judson in 1953’s From Here To Eternity. But if playing a Sinatra-bashing villain may have threatened typecasting, the heartbreaking vulnerability he’d show to Oscar-winning effect as Marty’s lovelorn Bronx butcher in 1955 more than showed Borgnine’s versatility. Since then, Borgnine has been a locomotive that’s been impossible to slow down, collecting enough reminiscences to fill his new biography, Ernie, with often hilarious recollections of his greatest hits list, as well as of a personal life whose ultra-brief marriage to Ethel Merman would turn into a decades-long romance with wife and business partner Tova.
Borgnine has been around for so long that it seems every generation over the last sixty years or so has a film or series that sucked them into the actor’s earthy charisma, whether it was watching Borgnine play a Nordic berserker in The Vikings, seeing steam coming out of his ears as Emperor of the North’s train man from hell, gasping as he lead in an expedition into The Black Hole, co-pilot “Airwolf”’s helicopter, or most recently giving Bruce Willis the CIA skinny as the oldest codger in Red. The list of famed movies and collaborators like Robert Aldrich and Sam Peckinpah goes on and on--a resume that SAG will have a heck of a job summing up to movie fans’ delight.
Borgnine and Tova have long resided in an award- and tchotchke-filled Beverly Hills mansion whose cheery air doesn’t bring a movie star’s domicile to mind so much as it does the feeling of taking a walk down the turn-of-the-century sights of Disneyland’s Main Street. Yet Borgnine’s energy is anything but antique, with a throaty laugh and vitality that promises memorable performances to come for another generation down his workaholic road. As he raconteurs about a fraction of a storied career, it’s easy to feel that you’re in the presence of that movie-struck Italian kid from Hamden, Connecticut--a boy who’s more than made the character actors he idolized proud.
Daniel Schweiger: You've received so many deserved plaudits. What does getting The Life Achievement Award from the Screen Actor’s Guild mean to you?
Ernest Borgnine: As far as I'm concerned, it's a wonderful gesture on their part because I never expect anything like this. My goodness. When they first called me and told me I was going to receive this, I didn't know what to say. The best thing to do is always shut up, right? [Laughs] But I felt so humbled because my peers were honoring me. They've already done it a number of times, and it's a great thing to receive this. What else can I say?
DS: How was it being on a show like Captain Video and His Space Rangers before you hit it big with From Here to Eternity?
EB: Lord, I'll tell you... [Laughs] That came in handy in those days. It was a long time between shows. In my biography, Ernie, there’s a line that reads, "I don't want to set the world on fire. I just want to keep my nuts warm!" That's my motto, and that's what I've done. I've always tried to keep myself active and going. In those live television days, if you made $125 a week, man, you were doing good. I was playing “Nargola” through a goldfish bowl with fish swimming by. I'd make noises with my mouth. But when you look back upon it, it was a living. And in those days, a living was a living, believe me. I'd still be walking down Tenth Avenue saying to myself, "Dummy, why did you get into this business?" But my mother wanted me to, so here I am! That’s why I used to take everything that came along, and I loved it because it meant food on the table.
DS: Your role in Marty was maybe the first time a regular looking guy got the lead role in a romantic drama, let alone a Best Acting Oscar for it. Marty really changed the definition of what we'd consider a “leading man movie star,” let alone one who was dealing with the problems of being single, which viewers who don’t look like Brad Pitt can certainly still identify with.
EB: I became a movie star? That's a good one! As far as I'm concerned, I'm still evolving toward that. I'm an ordinary guy just going along and minding his own business. That's the way I've always looked at life. There's always someone who's President. I'm just one of the lower guys down there who's voting for these people. I'm the same way with this business. I still figure myself as a lonely kind of a character who's trying to make his way into Hollywood. So when people say, "You're a movie star," I respond, "A star of what?" I think publicists make up that label. In those days, they had actors like Joanne Crawford, Gary Cooper, and all of those wonderful people. They were stars, in my estimation. I'm still trying to achieve that.
DS: Marty was a milestone in so many ways, especially in how it showed how screen acting was changing from its stylized, "movie star"-ish nature to the kind of more naturalistic performances we were also seeing from the likes of Marlon Brando, James Dean, and Montgomery Clift...
EB: I didn't look upon all of that stuff as much as they do today. I saw Marty as a piece of work that was part of my life. His loneliness was why I found the character so appealing and so easy to do. It was part of my life. I never thought about how the character would affect other people, as far as humanity was concerned and everything else. I just played me. Then along came all of those people like you who look upon my performance in a different way. But I always thought, "Hey, this is me." And that was it.
DS: So I take it you weren't a "method" guy?
EB: A Yale student asked me what my “method” was and I said, "Method? Method of what?" And when he said, "Your style," I told him, "My boy, there's only one style. That's your style. And it only comes from two places--your head and your heart. And if you can't give it from there, you're not evolving as an actor.” He didn't understand what I meant until I told him that it was your heart that gives your head expression, which is acting. We do that in our everyday conversation, like I’m “acting” with you right now. But that student couldn’t get over it because I didn't have a "method." Method? If they call snatching a tablecloth off a table a method, then that's good. But that's not my kind of deal.
DS: A lot of actors who came up with you served in the armed forces. Do you think that created a bond between you and people like Lee Marvin?
EB: It did because we all served together. It was a nice form of being buddies. I didn't know Lee had been in the Marines, and when he told me he received the Navy Cross and all that sort of bit, I was quite aghast because the only thing I'd gotten was a Good Conduct medal! Speaking of Lee, he was a great guy. A lot of people took him for a roustabout, but he was a sharpie who really knew his business. It was wonderful to work with him because even Lee had come up the same way I did--the hard way.
DS: They’ll be showing one of your early movies with Lee on Turner Classic Movies to celebrate your award with 1955’s Bad Day At Back Rock. It was really one of the first Hollywood movies to deal with racism--in this case, the murder of a Japanese farmer. Did you have the sense you were making a statement with the movie at the time?
EB: That's hard to answer because I never looked at the movie that way. I saw it as a piece of work to do. Yes, I saw the racial part of Black Rock, but the bad guys got caught, didn't they? And as far as I'm concerned, that's what counts at the end. If there's a moral to that, I say, by golly, let it be. I knew we had treated the Japanese badly, and they had treated us pretty badly as well. But sixty some-odd years later, and how many people remember Pearl Harbor? And how many people take their hats off on December 7th for the boys who didn't make it? Not many of us, unfortunately. But let bygones be bygones. I mean, what do you do? Turn the other side of the face and then get slapped again? And we're still being slapped. I don't know how people look at it this way, but I don't want our people to go over there every day and get killed. I think it's terrible. I say bring them home. It's time to bring them home and forget about it.
DS: One of my favorite roles of yours opposite Lee, not to mention one of the screen's ultimate bad guys, is your turn as Shack, the engineer from hell in Emperor of the North. I always wondered how someone didn't get seriously hurt in your character’s big bust-up with Lee’s hobo at the end.
EB: That was a hard picture to make, especially because we were on a moving train going 25 to 30 miles an hour. And even though the camera crew was with us, Lee and I still had to hold onto ourselves while having that big fight. I came off of Poseidon Adventure on a weekend and flew up to Portland, Oregon to meet up with Bob Aldrich, whom I’d worked with before on movies like The Flight of the Phoenix and The Dirty Dozen. He had only one direction for me while we were standing there looking at that train. He wanted me to run between the engine and the caboose. That sounded okay until he said, as I turned away to get dressed, “Oh, one thing. Shack’s been on this train for thirty years, and you've never looked down while you were running on top of the train!" I pulled a Jack Elam and told Rob, "The hell I'm not looking down!" Man, I tell ya. I used to go around pounding the nails on those train roofs in every day so I wouldn't stumble. I was taking my life in my own hands. When I saw the picture, I was surprised that that was me. My God, I couldn't believe it. I'd go home and say to my wife Tova and ask, "Honey, am I really that bad of a fella? Am I really that kind of person who'd kill?" She'd say, "No, no, where did you get that kind of idea?" It was because I didn't know where I got this unholy character who was so vicious and terrible. Shack says, "Nobody rides on my train unless they got a ticket, and they don't sell tickets for my train!" That's what went through my mind when I played him.
DS: You mentioned The Poseidon Adventure, which is one of my favorite films, and the true beginning of the disaster movie craze. I don't mean to harp on danger, but it was rare that you saw that kind of cast being subjected to stunts of Irwin Allen’s magnitude...
EB: The only thing that frightened me was when I remembered having been aboard a ship that went over 52 degrees during a hurricane off Florida. We were on a yacht that had been turned over to the Navy for a dollar by old man Murphy, the guy who made the kind of beds that came out of the wall. We had a three-inch-fifty on board--a wide gun because we went too slow to drop things off the stern. We also had six thirty-caliber air-cooled Browning machine guns, and those were our implements to go to World War II with. If a submariner had seen this, he would've laughed at us. Our engines had quit during the storm, and we were going sideways. Then a wave came over, hit the keel, and righted the side. I remember hanging on, saying, "Please God, please let us live." Suddenly the engines came back on again and we were safe. I'll tell ya, when we started tilting and kept on tilting on the set of The Poseidon Adventure, my hair stood up on end. It was frightening because I remembered what the heck I'd gone through in the Navy.
DS: You have the distinction of being an 'A'-list actor who’s also as busy being in cult movies like The Vikings, The Devil's Rain, and The Black Hole. You could say there are definitely two sides to your career...
EB: I know. Thank God! Isn't that wonderful? When I played Ragnor in The Vikings, I was out of this world, especially when I had that character's face on. I loved doing those kinds of things. I was watching a pirate movie this morning that brought back so many memories of The Vikings. I also would've loved to have done Captain Horatio Hornblower. My God, I could've played that part! But Gregory Peck got it instead. I'm the adventurous type of guy. I’ve tried to play parts like that all my life.
DS: What did it take to get along with a legendary tough guy like Sam Peckinpah?
EB: Sam Peckinpah, in my estimation, was pretty much a genius. I think people didn't really understand him. They'd say, "Oh, he's a drunk. He's this. He's that." But he wasn't. Not at all. Sam enjoyed a drink just like anybody else, I suppose, but he was a fellow who also thought a lot. He'd do stuff that other people wouldn't do, like setting that whole trend with the bullets going through people. Whenever I talked with Sam, it was always about something to boost him up. One day we were coming back from lunch while we were shooting The Wild Bunch. I saw Sam was walking with his head down and I asked him what was the matter. He says, "I'm worried about this scene coming up. All this killing and everything else." I told him he had a great picture going on. I told him to give it hell and blast away. He looked up at me and said, "Okay. Yeah. That's a good idea. Thank you." And he walked away. And man, did he let go! There was blood all over the place! That was Sam. He wasn't that kind of person you could go up to and bull around. He loved to joke, smoke, have a good time, and watch people having a good time. But he was a great thinker. God bless him. I value the times I spent with Sam. He was a great guy.
DS: When you get on a set now--most recently with Red--do you ever feel a sense of awe from other actors that Ernest Borgnine is in the house?
EB: Oh, that! I still can't get over that. The only reason I wanted to do that movie was because I remembered seeing Bruce Willis on Moonlighting when they first did it. He came on like gangbusters and I said, "This boy's going to make it big." I said the same thing about James Dean when I saw him on television in New York. Every now and then on Red, Bruce would come up to me. He wouldn't say anything, but he'd put his arm around me and squeeze me. For a while, I thought he wanted to go steady with me! But he's a sweetheart of a man. He does his work quietly and it's done. But he kept me over one day in Toronto. Why? Because Bruce wanted me there long enough to throw me a birthday party. God bless him.
DS: With your accomplishments, do people even bother to direct you any more? And do you even want direction?
EB: I want direction, absolutely. I'm not that good an actor, as I say. So I try to understand what the author wants, and give the words as much as I possibly can. I always say to myself that I bring as much to the director as possible, and if he doesn't like what I do, he can cut out parts of it or all of it. It doesn't make a difference. And while I don't get that much direction, I do love hearing "That's exactly what we wanted." It's like when I did E.R. Nobody told me what to do, and I just did it. Bam! The first thing you know, I'm up for a Golden Globe! And why? It's because I took my own initiative. I felt what was inside of my character and it came through my head. And that was it. Do it! So when I burst into tears about my wife dying, everyone said, "Oh my God, how beautiful." Well, that's nice. That's what it's supposed to be, about a man who suffers because his wife dies. Yet that's life.
DS: You and Eli Wallach are the only two actors of your age who still work consistently. This might be old hat, but what's the key to your longevity?
EB: [Laughs] A good agent! I try to work as much as possible, and I try to keep reading books, magazines, and things like that so I can envision what I'd do if I was one of these people in the stories. You kind of evaluate for yourself if you could do something, and you marvel at the people who could do things you couldn't possibly have done. Cary Grant, for instance, did things I couldn't possibly do, and yet gave the parts the kind of love that I would have. Take An Affair To Remember. Beautiful thing. The look on Cary’s face when he finally meets Deborah Kerr on the Empire State Building. When people look at a scene like that, they say, "God, if that could only happen to me."
DS: I’d say there’s an affection that your directors have that shines through in your characters. Take Cabbie in Escape From New York...
EB: I met with John Carpenter at the Smokehouse restaurant in Burbank. He asked me to do this role and I said, "John, it's a good part. I could do it with my eyes closed. But what I'd like to do is to play the warden, which John told me he’d already cast with Lee Van Cleef. So I told him I'd play Cabbie. John never said a word to me on the set. He was always polite and worried if I could run all that distance and everything else. We got along fine, and I did things that he loved. I remember going to see the picture at the Screen Actors Guild with Tova. Everything went fine until the audience suddenly realized that the poor taxi cab driver had died and everyone went, "Aaawww." That was the only thing that was said about the picture. And I said, "Oh my God! I made that kind of an impression?" But that's what it's all about.
DS: You've been around for so long that it seems there's a movie that every generation will grasp as “their” Ernest Borgnine film...
EB: If people look at it that way, it's fine. It's like how I remember watching Wallace Beery's pictures when I was a boy. He was salt of the earth to me. Victor McLaglen and Edmund Gwenn were other ones. All of these wonderful old character actors. They were stalwarts who brought up the rear. You knew doggone right well that it was going to be a good picture as long as they were in it. So when people say, "You know it's going to be a good picture if Ernest Borgnine's in it," then, well, I’m complimented beyond words.
Watch a tribute to Ernest Borgnine on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) on Saturday, January 29th at 8:00 p.m. Then watch Ernest receive his Life Achievement Award on TNT and TBS at the 17th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards, airing live on Sunday, January 30th at 5:00 p.m.
Special thanks to Nancy Bishop and 'Venice Magazine'