In Memoriam: Ernest Borgnine 1917-2012

He was born during the Great War and died this weekend, but in between, Ernest Borgnine became a legend in the film and television age, and remained one right up to the end. Continuing to work even at the arguably overripe age of 95, Borgnine was seemingly unstoppable. His list of credits would be the envy of almost anybody in the business, from the sheer volume of his output to many of the historic, even canonical titles it includes: From Here to Eternity; Johnny Guitar; Bad Day at Black Rock; The Wild Bunch and dozens upon dozens of others, particularly his Oscar-winning turn in 1955’s sentimental favorite, Marty.

I had the good fortune of interviewing Borgnine a couple of times and as you might expect, he had an endless supply of stories. I didn’t, however, have an endless supply of time, but I did manage to get more from him than I would have been able to use in the features I was writing at the time, so here are some of my favorite excerpts from our discussions. Kudos to the people at Hallmark Channel for setting up the interviews:

On getting his Academy Award-winning role in Marty

“The thing that got me Marty was my old buddy Bob Aldrich. He was the director of about 88 pictures that I made with him. Anyway, we were out making a thing called Vera Cruz. That was with all kinds of people — Burt Lancaster, Gary Cooper and all the rest of them. Bob was there, and Delbert Mann came down to get some information as to how to shoot outside and everything else, because he’d always been inside of a television studio. So he came down to get some pointers, and Bob Aldrich says, ‘What do you got there? What are you going to shoot?’ He says, ‘A thing called Marty.’ And the guy said, ‘Oh, gee, can I read it?’ And he said, ‘Sure, by all means.’ So a couple of weeks later, at a party, somebody asked him — I believe it was Harold Hecht — ‘Who, in your mind, could play the part of Marty when Delbert does it?’ And he said, ‘You know, I know of only one fellow — Ernie Borgnine.’ And he said, ‘Aw, come on. Ernie Borgnine? He’s a killer! He goes around killing people, sticking pitchforks in Lee Marvin!’ He says, ‘No, no, no — the guy’s an actor.’

Well, anyway, they called me and they said, ‘OK, we want you to be in this picture.’ And I said, ‘I’m glad to do anything for you,’ you know? And he said, ‘You don’t understand. We want you to star.’ And I looked at him and I said, ‘Do you have faith in me?’ And he said, ‘I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t,’ and he got mad. I said, ‘That’s all right. That’s all I wanted to know. I’ll give you 120 percent.’”

On winning his Academy Award …

“Jerry Lewis had bet me a buck ninety-eight that I’d win. And I said, ‘No, I won’t. I can’t possibly. I’m up against Frank Sinatra, Man With the Golden Arm. Spencer Tracy, Bad Day at Black Rock. James Dean in East of Eden. And who else was it? [Marlon Brando, On the Waterfront.] I said, ‘How could I possibly win with a little, tiny picture like that?’ They called my name. … I was sitting there, and I was looking around, and there was Burt Lancaster over on the side, there, and a couple of other actors that I knew, and they called my name. Grace Kelly called my name. … Gee, that’s nice, you know? And my wife is punching me in the side, saying, ‘They called your name! They called your name!’ ‘Huh? Oh!’”

On working in the studio system in his early years …

“I was under contract one time to Harold Hecht and Burt Lancaster. I lasted about four or five months, and I found out that they were selling me down the road in order for them to get scripts; in order for them to find directors. They were taking advantage of my success. I thanked them because they gave me the part, but they were throwing anything and everything at me, and I was getting $37,500 a picture. And I said, ‘Well, gee, fellas — thanks a lot.’ They threw a picture at me — Three … of Success. I think I had about 15 lines in the whole thing. And I’d just won an Academy Award. And believe me, I had to get the script from the head waiter at 21 in New York — I had to fly to New York to have the head waiter give me the script. So I reread the script, and this agent of mine said, ‘No, I won’t allow you to do it.’ So naturally, I went on suspension. I had a brilliant idea. I wanted to go in a five-and-dime and sell things, you know. Get a job at the five-and-dime. They said, ‘You can’t do that — you’re a star!’ I said, listen, you’ve got to show these people for what they really are. … So it cost me a cool half million dollars to get out of my contract. … I was out for about three or four months, I think, until we made a deal. They said, ‘OK, you go your way, we’ll go ours,’ but I had to pay that half million dollars.”

On his philosophy of life and his autobiography …

“It’s all going to be in my book — a book that I’m writing. It’ll be out maybe sometime this year. … I have a title, and the title is, I Didn’t Want to Set the World on Fire, I Just Wanted to Keep My Nuts Warm. And it all came from a story that took place on 10th Ave., one time. I was walking along, commiserating my life and saying, ‘Why did you ever become an actor?’ So, suddenly I smelled hot chestnuts — some vendor’s up there selling hot chestnuts. It reminded me of my mother, when she would cut the chestnuts and put them on the stove. The whole house would permeate with that wonderful smell. I walked a little closer — not to buy any, because I didn’t have any money to buy a chestnut — and I saw a sign on this vendor’s cart that became my philosophy of life, and the title of my book.”

On working with some of film’s most legendary talents …

“I remember the first time I worked with Spencer Tracy [in Bad Day at Black Rock]. He was supposed to come in, and I had done the scene where I’d knocked him off the road, you know. And of course, he was one-armed in that picture, and everything else. And now he’s getting out of the jeep and getting across. Just before we started the scene, Walter Brennan came by and said, ‘Would you mind very much if I watched this scene? I understand you’re a pretty fair country actor.’ ‘No! No, of course! Fine!’ Oh, golly! So we started the scene. And he comes in with the jeep, and he started coming toward me. I forgot every line, including my name and everything else, and all I could see were these Oscars coming right to me. And I said, ‘Oh, my God, what am I thinking?’ And suddenly it blossomed out of me, ‘Well if it ain’t old man Macreedy’ … We went and did our scene and everything else, we finished it, went through the door, they said, ‘Cut! Print!’ Walter Brennan went by and made the big ‘OK,’ and Spencer Tracy came out and said, ‘You know, I like the way you act.’”

On Bette Davis …

“I remember one time, I didn’t want to do Catered Affair, because I said I’m not old enough. I said, ‘I need the grey hair.’ ‘Oh, don’t worry, we’ll put grey hair on you.’ ‘But — ’ ‘Ah, you’re going to do it. Don’t worry about it.’ Well, you saw what happened. I made it with Bette Davis. She looked at me and I looked at her — ‘Yes, ma’am.’ I even showed her a picture that I had sent away for while I was in the Navy, believe it or not. She said, ‘Do you still have it?’ ‘Sure have.’ So I brought it in to show her. And she said, ‘I was never that young.’ What a gal.”

On whether he favored comedic or dramatic roles …

“I love it all. Especially comedy. When you hear that audience laugh, there’s nothing like it. Believe it or not, I did The Odd Couple with Don Rickles on the stage. And we knocked ’em dead. We really did. Because we played it from the heart — we didn’t play it for laughs. The laughs were already there. The comics play it for laughs, and that’s no good. You’ve got to play it with all honesty, deep in the heart and from the head. Then you’ve got it made. But comics are different — they want a laugh. You’ll get the laugh if you play it honestly.”

On television versus film …

“People thought I was crazy when I went into McHale’s Navy. They said, ‘You won an Academy Award! You should be doing motion pictures!’ And I said, ‘Well, listen, it’s all motion pictures, isn’t it? What I’m doing is television, and that’s motion pictures now. What’s the difference? It’s all entertainment.’ And they couldn’t get it at the time.”

On any of the few roles he didn’t get to play in his lifetime …

“I always wanted to do one thing. I wanted to play Pancho Villa, the great bandit and everything else that he was in Mexico. But I wanted to play him the way that he really was. Here was a man that didn’t know how to write his name until he happened to be in jail one time, and a young man taught him how to do it on a typewriter. Can you imagine? And this young man and he — they were both came dressed up as a professor and a scholar, and they came along and they walked out of the prison. That’s how he escaped. He was a womanizer, but he was not a drinker. He didn’t get drunk and everything else, like Wallace Beery played him. Here was a man that was truly a patriot. But hey, listen — I had a chance, one time, I almost got it done when Elia Kazan had me read for him as one of the owners of the big  farms down there in Mexico. He was making a picture with Marlon Brando called Viva Zapata. And there was a part there of Pancho Villa. And I took this script home, and I saw it, my eyes opened up and I said, ‘Oh, my God. I’m going to ask him if I can read Pancho Villa. Maybe he hasn’t cast it.’ So the next morning, I went in and I said, ‘Sir, one question.’ He said, ‘What is it?’ And he was smoking that stogey, you know. And I said, ‘Can I read Pancho Villa for you?’ And he looked over at a bunch of fellows sitting at a table over there, and they nodded their heads, ‘Go ahead.’ So I read this for him, and I gave him all of the ‘Ho hos’ and the ‘Ha has.’ And he slammed the script down, and said, ‘All right, now read me the goll-danged landowner.’ He’d already cast it, and he’d made a mistake. He would have liked to have had me, I think.”

On why he never felt tempted to direct …

“I like to get myself in front of a camera instead of behind the camera, because I watched Peckinpah one time. We were in Albuquerque making a picture. What the heck was it called? Oh — The Convoy. We were supposed to be in this place for five days. Thirty-five days later, we were still there. And the producers said, ‘Please, Sam — what are we doing here so long? Come on, you’ve got to move it, you know? Why are we here so long?’ He looked up and he said, ‘I don’t like people looking over my shoulder.’ And they went away. And three days later, we finished.”

On continuing to work in his advanced years …

“I feel like I want to work all the time. I’ll have people come up to me and say, ‘You mean, you’re still alive??’

On the secret of his longevity and vitality …

“What can I possibly tell you that’s a real secret about Ernie Borgnine? Listen — like I said to the guy who kept telling me, ‘Jesus — you look marvelous!’ … I got tired of listening to it, and I said what I usually say: ‘I masturbate a lot.’”

On what he looked forward to most in his years on our planet …

“The most? Peace. Peace on this Earth. I think we’re about ready for it, and if it happens in my lifetime, I’d sure like to see it before I leave, because we need it so much.”

Update: TCM will air an entire daylong marathon of Borgnine classics Thursday, July 26 beginning at 6am ET.

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Photo: Courtesy of United Artists/Entertainment Pictures/ZUMAPRESS.com

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