Ernest Borgnine: 1917–2012
Before his death in July, the legendary actor talked with C&I.
ILLUSTRATION BY JONATHAN TWINGLEY
In 2011, at age 94, Ernest Borgnine received a Life Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild honoring a packed and memorable six-decade career. When he died this year at age 95, he was still a working actor.
An Oscar-winning star of more than 120 films, including some of the most re-watchable westerns in movie history, Borgnine had an equally thick and varied portfolio of TV roles. Older viewers remember him in everything from early Zane Grey Theater episodes to McHale’s Navy. And while a whole new generation doesn’t know McHale from McDonald’s, they recognize him as the voice of Mermaid Man on the animated hit SpongeBob SquarePants.
All in all, Borgnine had, in his own delightfully unaffected words, “quite a run.”
“I’ve died onscreen almost thirty times,” he quipped in his autobiography Ernie (Citadel Press, 2008). “I’ve been shot, stabbed, kicked, punched through barroom doors by Spencer Tracy and Gary Cooper; pushed in front of moving subway trains, devoured by rats and a giant mutated fish; blown up in spaceships, melted down into a Technicolor puddle, jumped into a snake pit, and I perished from thirst in the Sahara Desert. I bounced around a capsized ocean liner, beat Frank Sinatra to death, impaled Lee Marvin with a pitchfork, and had my way with Raquel Welch.”
When he died on July 8 of renal failure in Los Angeles with his wife and children at his side, he was still building on a body of work that included movie milestones like Marty, From Here to Eternity, The Poseidon Adventure (the original one), The Dirty Dozen, Escape from New York (remember “Cabbie”?), The Wild Bunch (his favorite), and scores of other movies in which this national treasure strutted his stuff. At age 90, Borgnine became the oldest living actor to be nominated for a Golden Globe Award.
In the subsequent years, he penned his book, had a cool role as Henry the charismatic records keeper in Bruce Willis’ Red, did a celebrity cameo on Saturday Night Live, and wrapped a starring role in the dramedy western The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez (which premiered in April at the Newport Beach Film Festival and earned him the festival’s award for Outstanding Achievement in Acting). Up until virtually the last, he continued taking meetings for future projects.
C&I was fortunate to have had a recent interview with the iconic actor. From his Beverly Hills home, he regaled us with behind-the-scenes Hollywood anecdotes, including car rides with Gary Cooper, knife fights with Montgomery Clift, and repartee with John Wayne. The Hollywood veteran threw in a little advice, too — like how to do a horse scene at full tilt down a steep, snowy mountain when you’re a young actor with next to no riding experience: Basically, saddle up and hope for the best.
In this man’s career and life, it was a winning philosophy.
Cowboys & Indians: You’ve had one of the longest, most multifaceted careers in Hollywood. How does a guy with Italian roots who grew up in North Haven, Connecticut, get inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers and play the part so well?
Ernest Borgnine: Easy. When you’re a struggling actor in your 30s and a famous movie director shooting a western in Lone Pine, California, with Randolph Scott and Lee Marvin asks you if you can ride a horse, you don’t hesitate. You say, “You bet I can, sir.” Then you jump on that thing and act like you know what you’re doing and hope you live to tell the tale.
C&I: Was that your first experience on a horse — a do-or-die movie scene?