Posted: 01/28/2009


“Call me Ernie”: A chat with Ernest Borgnine

by Alan Rode

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The incredible career of Ernest Borgnine just keeps rolling along. At age 92, he recently completed his 200th feature film, published his autobiography, ERNIE and sat down with Robert Osborne for an extended conversation on TCM’s Private Screenings airing this month.

In terms of successful longevity, it is mind-boggling to realize Borgnine won his Best Actor Oscar for Marty 54 years ago and starred in television’s McHale’s Navy when LBJ was running against Barry Goldwater for President. The versatile actor has played every imaginable role from Hu Chang in China Corsair (1951) to Mermaid Man in Sponge Bob Square Pants and shows no signs of slowing down.

Writer Alan K. Rode recently caught up with the irrepressible Borgnine for a brief chat about some of his career highlights.

AKR: Mr. Borgnine…

EB: I’m Ernie and you’re Alan.

AKR: Ernie: your incredibly prolific career bespeaks an actor who was unconcerned about stardom or even specific roles. Has it always been about simply letting the work come to you?

EB: That’s the way it’s been, yeah. Things just happened and there it was. Like how Marty came along. I wanted to play Jud in Oklahoma, I wanted it badly and Rod Steiger got it instead. I was down there (in Mexico) making a picture called Vera Cruz with Burt Lancaster and Gary Cooper. My old friend, Delbert Mann came down with a script under his arm and Bob Aldrich (director of Vera Cruz) asked if he could take a look at it. See, the reason Mann was down there was to take a look around, see how he could shoot outdoors and get a few pointers from Bob Aldrich. Aldrich read the Marty script and a couple weeks later at a party, Bob was asked who he thought could play that role. Aldrich said, “You know, I can only think of one fella and that’s Ernie Borgnine.” “Oh c’mon, he’s a killer; he kills people for a living”. “No, no, don’t get yourself wrong, this guy can do it”. Harold Hecht (Hecht, Hill and Lancaster Productions) called me in and said, “We’ve got a part for you in picture called Marty”. I said, “I’d be very happy to play any part you want”. “No, you don’t realize”, he said, “We’re asking you to play the lead.” And I looked at him and said, “Do you have faith in me sir?” And he said, “Hell, I wouldn’t ask you if it wasn’t so.” So, I told him, “I’ll give you 120%!” So we went ahead with the film. But the film was supposed be for a tax loss. They were only supposed to make half of it and then shelve it and forget about it. But their tax man said that they couldn’t do that. Make the picture, show it once and then take your tax loss. So they said alright and put of all of $263,000 or whatever it cost into the picture. I only made $5000 for the picture. The first thing you know when they screened the picture, they said, “Holy Mackerel, what have we done here!”’ They ended up with everything you can imagine. My first Academy Award, one for Joe La Shelle, the director of photography, the producer, the director… everybody won an Oscar!

AKR: Do people involved with making a film ever know whether it is going to be good or not? Did you have a sense that Marty was going to be something special while you were making it?

EB: No, nobody does. I question the fact that anybody knows when they’re making something that it will be any good. I don’t give a damn even it’s Gone with the Wind. You make the film and that’s it, period. If there’s an awful a lot of talk about it, as there would be with Gone with the Wind, fine, but nobody ever figured Marty to be anything. As a matter of fact, Walter Seltzer-God bless him, he’s still alive, believe it or not-, put the film under his arm and he went and took it to all of the bootblacks and manicurists and everything you could possibly find and showed it to them: “Oh my goodness, oh what a wonderful film!” Little by little, the word of mouth got started until it happened to hit Toots Shor in New York. And Joe Di Maggio who used to hang out at Toots Shor’s went to see it. “Oh my goodness, what a picture!” Well, the first thing you know, there are lines around the corner, because the word of mouth had really started. And to top it all off, everyone took it to their heart.

AKR: Your third picture, The Mob, a film noir produced by Columbia in 1951 had you appearing in a strong supporting role as a gangster. Did your work in this picture help obtain your breakthrough role as Fatso Judson in From Here to Eternity in 1953?

It could have. Max Arnow, the casting director… As a matter of fact, as you probably know, they (Columbia) offered me a contract. I told them that I couldn’t take it because my wife didn’t want to move to California. Harry Cohn said, “What! Is she Jewish?” And I said, “Yes, she is Jewish”. And Harry said, “Goddamn Jews are all alike!” (Laughs)

AKR: Harry would know.

EB: Close to home. Anyway, Max Arnow had took me aside and said, “Don’t worry; I’ll give you a call. One of these days we’ll find something for you.” And that was it. And what I did in The Mob, Max Arnow remembered it and when the time came along, he called me one day and said, “They want you for the part of Fatso Judson.” I said, “Oh my God!” I’d read the book (From Here to Eternity) and thought now they were going to make a musical out of it with Frank Sinatra! (Laughs). But when I got there, oh my! This was one of the greatest thrills in my life. There were a couple of people that came through to the sound stage where we were working. I was talking to Montgomery Clift and suddenly I was engulfed in these big arms! And the guy says, “You’re the son of a bitch I wrote about when I wrote From Here to Eternity” And I looked up and it was James Jones, the writer. And I said, “Oh my God!”

AKR: It probably doesn’t get any better than that.

EB: Talk about doing something right! It was really a thrill.

AKR: As a young East Coast stage actor with a couple of films under his belt: did you have to pinch yourself a couple of times while standing on the Eternity set alongside Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr Frank Sinatra, Donna Reed et al and being directed by Fred Zinneman?

EB: Pinch myself was hardly the word. (Laughs) I was scared like you would not believe! We were getting ready to shoot. They were rehearsing the scene where everybody was dancing and Fatso Judson is up there playing the piano. Suddenly, Frank says “C’mon Fatso, stop playing, you’re lousing us up” And then I slowly stood up, very slowly and Frank looked at me and said, “Jesus Christ, he’s ten feet tall!” (Laughs). It broke me up and not only me, but him. We were both frightened to death! God bless him that is the sweetest man in world, Frank Sinatra.

AKR: In your memoir, ERNIE, you noted how you had absolutely no clue that you would win the Best Actor Oscar. What did you say when Grace Kelly handed you that statuette?

EB: I had nothing prepared. Just: “Thank You, Mom”, my Mother had passed on. My father was back home in New Haven, Connecticut with my sister and brother-in-law. So I said, “Pop, we got it, and I thank my Mother and Father…” and I thanked the Academy. That was it and I walked off.”

AKR: You also wrote about being under contract to Hecht, Hill and Lancaster. I got the distinct impression that HHL didn’t know what the hell to do with you and your time as a contracted actor wasn’t too happy?

EB: Well, they knew what to do alright. They were palming me off. They were getting directors, writers and scripts for themselves by palming me off saying, “This guy will do it for you and we’ll make a picture.” They were paying me, I think it was $37,000 a film, and they were taking the rest of it, you know,$100,000 or taking a script, or taking a director or this or that. I found out about it, that they were palming me off like that.

AKR: HHL was loaning you out, getting paid big money and you were getting lowballed by what they chose to give you?

EB: $37,000 and that was it. This wasn’t fair. The thing that really took the icing off the cake was the picture they made with Burt Lancaster where he played a kind of a Walter Winchell character.

AKR: Sweet Smell of Success.

EB: Yes. And I had to go to New York to get my script from the headwaiter at the 21 Club! And I said, “Why do I have to go there?” “That’s where the script is waiting for you; do you want to go or don’t you?’ So I said, “Okay, I’ll go”. Well, I then had a personal manager and everything else. So we went back to New York, read the script and found out that I only had about seven or eight lines in the whole show. (Note: Borgnine was cast in the role of Lieutenant Harry Kello that ended up being played by Emile Meyer) And I said, “This is kind of crazy, why are they doing this to me?’ Here I just won an Academy Award… why do this? So, I went home and they put me on suspension. I told my agent that I was going to find a job at the five and dime. So he said, “Oh, you can’t do that”. I told him, “Why not? They put me on suspension; I can do anything I want.” I am an Academy Award winner. Let everyone find out how they are giving me seven lines!” Anyway, they refused to let me do that so I found my way out by paying Messer’s Hecht and Lancaster a half a million dollars.

AKR: So you bought your way out?

EB: Bought my way out.

AKR: And the rest, as they say, was history.

EB: Harold Hecht passed me by in a car one day. I was going up to lunch at M*G*M. I got up to the car, opened the door and said, “Hi Harold, how are you?” And he blanched, because he thought for sure I was going to beat the hell out of him, you know. He looked at me and said, “You’re not mad?” I said, “No, its water over the dam. You know it’s a way of living. You got paid. What’s there left to do? You want me to take it out of your hide? I don’t want to do that.” So, we parted friends. Never saw him again. Died an early death, unfortunately.

AKR: One of my favorite films of yours, Pay or Die (1960) seldom gets played or receives any recognition. Your riveting performance in a true story of Lieutenant Joseph Petrosino battling the Black Hand in turn of the century New York City was inspirational.

EB: A real man.

AKR: The romance angle with you and Zohra Lampert was especially touching, almost Marty-like.

EB: As a matter of fact… Zohra, God bless her, was having trouble. When she tried to cry, it came out as a smile, a laugh. She couldn’t seem to cry. She was presented to the director, Dick Wilson as an ingénue who came with great credits. But she couldn’t do it. We were shooting her part first and the director got all flustered and said let’s knock it off for the day. I said, “Wait a minute, hold it. Doing it upstage for me, turn the camera around and shoot me before it is too late”. The director, “No, you’re angry” and this and that… “You can’t do it”. I said, “Turn the camera around and I’ll show you whether I can do it or not”. Well, he turned the camera around and said, “Okay, go ahead.” So, I did the scene. The next day, our director of photography… his name is on the tip of my tongue.

AKR: Lucien Ballard.

EB: Yeah, that was the one. Anyway he told me yesterday after shooting that scene that he couldn’t believe his eyes. Now, he had to go see this on film. He came back and said, “You son of a bitch!” (Laughs) He couldn’t believe I was so loving after being so mad just before. Little did I realize that Zohra was really a fine actress, but she just couldn’t cry.

AKR: I grew up watching McHale’s Navy and, in fact, I probably joined the Navy because of it!

EB: (Laughs) I got a call once from the Secretary of the Navy at the Pentagon. I said, “This is a distinct honor. To what to I owe this privilege?” He said, “My boys tell me you’re the best recruiter we’ve ever had!” (Laughs)

AKR: Did working with a group of very funny guys like Tim Conway, Joe Flynn, Bob Hastings and Carl Ballantine make it hard to get through a scene without breaking up or was it simply a job of work?

EB: Oh boy! In the beginning, we had trouble because… it was hard! (Laughs). We’d throw in some of our own lines and it was hard to keep a straight face. After awhile, we got used to it. Bang, bang, bang, it would come and we would give it hell.
It was just marvelous, just wonderful working together. When you’ve got an ensemble that works like that, you can’t go wrong. People loved McHale’s Navy. To this very day, I get letters. Some of them say, “I used to rush home from school to watch McHale’s Navy. One woman wrote to me, “I know where my children are when they come home from school. They’re right by the television watching McHale’s Navy!”

AKR: You recently completed your 200th feature film at age 92. Is getting steady acting work your recipe for a long and healthy life or is it having four wives before finally finding the right woman?

EB: (Laughs) The distinction between the two is hard to do… that’s really funny. I really wish I could answer that one for you. On my 200th film (Wishing Well), I worked with the granddaughter of a man that I had worked with over 40 years ago, Alan Ladd. It was his granddaughter (Jordan Ladd) that I was working with in my 200th film. He’s probably up there scratching his head saying, “That son of a gun; is he still at it?”

Alan Rode Alan K. Rode, is the author of Charles McGraw, Biography of a Film Noir Tough Guy

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