Before his death in July, the legendary actor talked with C&I.
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?
Borgnine: No. My first experience on a horse was getting bucked off a pony when I was a kid and thinking, The hell with this stuff. Who needs it? That was about the extent of my experience when I arrived on the set in Lone Pine to act in my first western, The Stranger Wore a Gun, back in the early 1950s. André de Toth, the director, who only had one good eye, said to me, “You ride, don’t you?” “Sure I ride,” I said. Then he pointed to a little hill and told me to ride up there and when he gave the signal to come charging down to the bottom, pull out my gun, and say, “Take cover, men!” And that was it. OK. Fine.
So I start up that little hill and everybody’s slipping and sliding around because it had just snowed. I made my way to the top and turned the horse around. I looked down and suddenly went green. The wrangler turned to me and said, “Ernie, what’s the matter?” Well, from the top, it sure didn’t look like a little hill anymore. It looked like a vertical ice shelf. Talk about do-or-die — it was more like do-and-die. It was terrifying. Anyway, the wrangler kind of got the picture and said, “Don’t worry. You’ll be fine. Just give him his head and he’ll take you right down to where you want to go.” OK. Fine.
Then de Toth gave the signal, and down that hill I went — bam, ba-da-bam, ba-da-bam-bam-bam! — and I’m telling you, I had that horse’s head in my lap the whole way. But, by God, he did it. He took me right down to where I needed to go, and I pulled out my gun and said, “Take cover, men!” and then I walked out of the frame and basically fainted. A few minutes later Randolph Scott came up to me grinning, handed me his spurs, and said, “Here, kid. You just earned them.” All the while, Lee Marvin is standing there grinning at me, shaking his head and going, “Tsk, tsk, tsk.” [Laughs.]
C&I: Did the riding initiation get any easier with each western?
Borgnine: Sure, over time. I certainly had a lot of wonderful actors to watch and emulate because I basically just learned on the job. My teachers were some of the best movie actors and western stars out there — Bill Holden, Glenn Ford, Ben Johnson. My God, talk about horsemen. These guys were the best. They just made it look so easy, like the horse was a part of them. When you watch a movie, you can always tell the difference between the pros and the guys bouncing on top of a horse like a sack of flour.
C&I: Who were your own western heroes or role models?
Borgnine: Wallace Beery was everything to me when I was a kid. And then when I got into this business, I’d have to say Gary Cooper was a huge role model. What a gentleman. I remember we were in a car together on the Vera Cruz movie set down in Mexico. I was going to get in the front with the driver to give him his privacy, but he said, “No, no, come back here with me.” So we’re sitting there talking and he says to me, “Y’know, I sure wish I could act like you.” Can you believe that? I said to him, “You’re Gary Cooper. You’ve got two Oscars in your house and you wish you could act like me?” He said, “Aw, I just got them for saying ‘yup.’ ” What a sweetheart of a man and an incredible talent he was. As unassuming as anything, but I learned a ton just by watching him.
C&I: What was the best lesson you learned from watching Gary Cooper?
Borgnine: Just being honest, y’know? Being natural. Listening — I mean really listening — and responding in kind instead of just reciting lines and forgetting that you’re portraying an actual person. It sounds basic, and maybe it is, but it’s deceivingly hard and I think a lot of actors never really get it. Another thing younger actors do in today’s movies that drives me nuts is they mumble. Talk about a bad acting habit. I’ll act with these kids who mumble and ask one of the crew members, “What the hell’s he saying?” And he’ll say, “Don’t ask me. They’ll just fix it all in the dubbing room.” I’m sorry, that’s not acting. Take a look at Gary Cooper in High Noon or The Westerner. Did he mumble a single word?
C&I: Or take a look at Ernest Borgnine & Co. in The Wild Bunch. Not much mumbling going on there either. More than 40 years since it was released in 1969, The Wild Bunch remains a powerful film.
Borgnine: Well, thank you. I’m very proud of that picture. It’s a classic — a western of westerns. Making that movie was hard work, no question. But when you look back at it and see what you achieved, my God. Believe it or not, I only have 15 lines in that movie.
C&I: That close-up “smile” shot in The Wild Bunch during the train robbery, where you tap your gun on the roof, the guards notice you, and you flash that famous beaming Borgnine grin, is one of those great defining moments — the spark in the face of all that grimness and futility. Was the smile your idea?
Borgnine: I’m very happy to say that it was. But I give Sam [Peckinpah, director] the credit because he’d give you free rein to do that kind of stuff. And, hey, of course I was smiling. I mean, I had ’em by the balls. I knew it. And they knew it. [Laughs.]
C&I: You’ve been in some of the most brutal fight scenes recorded on film. You’ve been hurled through a screen door by Spencer Tracy in Bad Day at Black Rock, pitched off a train in Emperor of the North by your friend Lee Marvin, and you’ve slugged it out with Rod Taylor in one of the most underappreciated fight scenes on celluloid in the western Chuka. Were these scenes as taxing as they look?
Borgnine: You forgot that vicious knife fight with Montgomery Clift in From Here to Eternity. I was black-and-blue from the head down on that one, and what you see in the movie was only about one-tenth of what we shot. In Chuka, we had a couple of stand-ins who were gonna do the fight scene, and I said, “Wait a second. Hold it a minute. This doesn’t look real.” So Taylor and I worked out a fight and — bam-bam-bam — we did it. It was brutal but pretty darn real-looking. And I’ll tell you, it felt pretty darn real-looking too. I’m still hurting from that one.
C&I: How does such a sweet guy get cast as so many bad guys?
Borgnine: I used to ask my wife the same thing. I’d watch myself trying to choke Lee Marvin to death in Emperor of the North — where I play this murderous railway conductor named Shack, one of the meanest, most sadistic guys you’d ever dream up, just a maniac — and I’d say to her, “How the heck is this guy coming out of me? Am I really that bad?” And she’d say, “No, you’re a good person. It’s all an act.”
But originally that’s how they typecast me — as the bad guy. My first movie roles, before Marty came along, were all these mean and nasty sons a’ bitches. That’s how I started out and so those were the roles I kept getting. And when you get typecast in Hollywood, that’s it. You’re that guy. That’s what made everyone crazy when I was picked to play Marty. The consensus was, “Borgnine to play Marty? Are you kidding me? He’s a killer.”
C&I: How did you land the ultimately Oscar-winning role of a shy, lovable New York-Italian butcher named Marty, the nicest guy anyone could ever meet?
Borgnine: It was [director Robert] Bob Aldrich who really got me into the running for that thing. We’d worked together and he said, “He’s not a killer. He’s an actor for God’s sake.” On his recommendation, I got a chance to read for the part with the screenwriter, Paddy Chayefsky, and the movie’s director, Delbert Mann. They came up to Lone Pine where I was shooting Bad Day at Black Rock playing another mean son of a bitch in a cowboy hat. Well, on our first read-through, Chayefsky suddenly says to me, “Stop this thing! Stop it right now!” I say, “What’s the matter?” He says, “You’re doing this with a Western twang.” I say, “Oh, God, just a minute.” I kick off my boots, take off my cowboy hat, and say, “OK, let’s try that again.” And we did that scene between Marty and his mother one more time, and that’s when I got tears out of his eyes.
C&I: Did it feel like the role of a lifetime when you read for the part?
Borgnine: Well, first of all, I never dreamed I’d win an Oscar for it. In fact, when we made the picture it was just supposed to be a tax write-off. We filmed that thing in 14 days. Then it came out, got that crazy buzz behind it, struck a nerve with the public, and the rest is history. But before all that, what hit me when I read Marty was that it was essentially about me when I was a young man. I read it and I thought, God almighty, I’m reliving my life here.
C&I: You mean Ernest Borgnine was actually shy at one point in his life?
Borgnine: Very shy. I was that guy who was afraid to go up and ask for a dance. I remember my aunt once asking me to go find out what time it was at the New Haven [Connecticut] railroad station. She said, “Just run in, check the time, and come back so I can set my watch.” I couldn’t even do that. I was too embarrassed. Then I became an actor. Go figure.
C&I: You spent 10 years in the Navy before becoming an actor. You were a gunner’s mate and honorary chief petty officer. What made you decide to switch to acting?
Borgnine: I was sitting at the kitchen table one day with my mother. I was feeling pretty down and thinking of heading back into the service and doing another 10 years. And she looked at me and said, “Have you ever thought of becoming an actor? You always like to make a damn fool of yourself in front of people. Why don’t you give it a try?” And that’s really when the light bulb went on. I had no idea where to start, who to see, what to do, how to go about being an actor. But right then and there I decided that’s what I was going to be.
C&I: What was your first step?
Borgnine: I met with some guy at the Yale School of Drama, which, after all, was in my hometown of New Haven. He said they’d take me but I’d have to do two years of undergraduate study. I said, “Now wait a minute. I don’t want to be a mathematician or a scientist. I want to be an actor.” Cut to 25 years later: I was invited back to talk to the Yale School of Drama and they asked me, “What method do you use, sir?” And I said, “What do you mean, method?” [Laughs.] They couldn’t believe it, but what the hell? I don’t snatch tablecloths off tables and do crazy things. I just try to be as honest as I can. And that’s what’s kept me working in this business.
C&I: You were sort of a late bloomer — at least by Hollywood standards — having broken into the business in your mid-30s. In hindsight, was that a good thing?
Borgnine: Yes, excellent. That’s why I think everybody, every man, should spend time in the service — to know what the hell his fellow man is about. There are a lot of people who go along in life and forget that there are other people around them. They’re so entirely focused on themselves and becoming a star that they’re just miniscule as far as I’m concerned. No way — you’ve gotta prove yourself first. Anyway, I’m very happy that I joined the service and spent 10 years in that lovely Navy. It made a man out of me.
C&I: Did it add a dimension to some of your biggest future roles?
Borgnine: You better believe it. I did everything in McHale’s Navy I couldn’t do in the Navy. It’s funny, we had this Navy guy who came over as our consultant on the show, and after the first day he said, “What the hell’s going on here?” I said, “Sir, this is McHale’s Navy, not The Navy.” He said, “Oh. Well, don’t call us; we’ll call you.” Two years later, I get a call to go to the Pentagon in Washington [D.C.]. And I’m sitting there with the Secretary of the Navy having a very nice lunch and he tells me, “You’re the best recruiter we’ve ever had.” [Laughs.]
C&I: Are you at all surprised at the way things turned out? Starring in more than 100 pictures, winning just about every major drama award, and still being in demand at your age?
Borgnine: I’m oversurprised. Really. Every time I go on the set and start to work, I’m surprised as hell I’m still there. And, y’know what? Every time I do it, it’s just like the very first time — that thrilling sensation comes over me that’s just beyond comprehension. And, hey, listen, I’ve been lucky.
C&I: If a young actor asked how to have a great 60-year run, what advice would you give?
Borgnine: Some things you can’t plan for. All you can do is work hard, be honest, and be kind to your fellow man. And know what the hell it’s all about. Otherwise, I’m not sure. You’ve just gotta keep going. Spencer Tracy may have put it best when he said, “Just say your lines and don’t bump into the furniture.”
C&I: You’ve shared camera time with three generations of Hollywood legends. Is there anyone you love who you missed working with?
Borgnine: Well, here’s a good story to include in Cowboys & Indians. I remember running into John Wayne with our wives in The Polo Lounge at The Beverly Hills Hotel [in Los Angeles]. The girls started talking and he and I sat down and had a drink together. Eventually, he looks at me and he says, “God damn it, Ernie, we’ve known each other forever. How come we’ve never worked together?” Well, I’d had a few drinks by then and I say, “I don’t know, John. Maybe it’s because you’re afraid to work with good actors.” [Laughs — and laughs.]
C&I: The Duke’s reaction?
Borgnine: This is where I always like to say, “After I picked myself off the floor ... .” But, no, he was just a class act all the way. And, again, so unassuming. He was right behind me the day he was nominated for a best actor Oscar for True Grit. And I slapped him on the leg and said, “Duke, you’re gonna win this thing.” And he just shook his head and shrugged it off. Then Jimmy Stewart came over and said [Borgnine affects a perfect Jimmy Stewart voice], “No, no, John, I think Ernie’s right. I think you’re gonna win.” And then he won. He just couldn’t believe it. The rest of us weren’t too surprised.
C&I: I’m guessing you scoff at the word retirement ...
Borgnine: Well, you know, retirement — what is that? If you’re lucky enough to enjoy your work, retirement’s gotta be the most overrated word in the book. I watch these people looking forward to retiring and saying, “Hot damn, I’m retired!” Guess what? Two weeks later they’re bored out of their skulls. Golf and whatever else can only take up so much time. And, before you know it, it’s either the wine bottle or the easy chair and they’re dead in no time at all. To be doing what you love and have people still appreciating your work — why retire from that?
C&I: In other words, hanging up the saddle just ain’t in the cards?
Borgnine: No way. Get me a stepladder and let’s go.
From the October 2012 issue.