Oscar-winner Ernest Borgnine makes no secret about his age, but a quick look at his recent schedule makes it easy to wonder if no one has bothered to tell the Connecticut native that he was born Ermes Effron Borgnino in 1917. As he reminded me during the conversation we had by phone from Los Angeles last Tuesday, that makes him 94.
Last year, he was featured in RED with Bruce Willis and Dame Helen Mirren and even made a stop by Saturday Night Live, although Kenan Thompson didn't give him a chance to talk during "What Up with That?" Children who are too young to remember him as the sadistic Fatso Judson in From Here to Eternity, a leader of The Dirty Dozen, the title character in Marty, Lt. Commander McHale or outlaw Dutch Engstrom from The Wild Bunch, adore him as the over-the-hill superhero Mermaid Man from Spongebob Squarepants.
Thankfully, the youth of America won't have to know about his work in the amusingly regrettable The Devil's Rain, yet.
Borgnine has easily a half dozen films that are either completed or are getting ready to shoot. He spoke to me primarily about portraying a retired World War II Marine in Another Harvest Moon. While Borgnine might not be headed to a nursing home, his character Frank is recovering from a stroke and is struggling with diabetes and other ailments.
The once physically active man can't adjust to playing cards with his neighbors (Anne Meara, Doris Roberts and Piper Laurie) or his memories of battle in the Good War. Another Harvest Moon earned Borgnine a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2009 Rhode Island International Film Festival. The movie is now hitting theaters across the nation today.
He's earned another Lifetime Achievement award from the Screen Actors Guild. From listening to him talk, it's obvious that the burly, jovial actor had to use all the talent he has to be convincing as a fellow at the end of his rope.
My nephews are really excited that I'm talking with Mermaid Man.
EVILLLLL! The kids scream and holler when I do that. To see their faces light up when they hear it from the distance and you can hear them say, "Oh, my God! It's him!" (laughs loudly) It's amazing.
You were in the Navy for 10 years. Is that correct?
That's correct, Dan.
What was it like to play a Marine in a new film?
You never knew that it was a Marine. I tell you that the armed services are the armed services, any way you look at it, whether it was Marines or Navy or Army. You're still a grunt in there if you know I mean.
In an earlier interview with you, you said that working on this film was one of your first exposures to nursing homes.
That's right. Guess what?
I started a new (film in a nursing home) on Thursday, and it's called The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez. It's in another home. It's the damnedest thing you've ever read your life. It's going to be a really good. I just couldn't wait to start it. It's written by a guy named Elia Petridis. It's his first time around, and it's a thing that he wrote. I tell you you've never met such a wonderful man in
all your life.
He's just like Delbert Mann was when he worked with me in Marty. That was his first picture, too. We worked together on television years and years before, and then all of the sudden we're working together on a picture called Marty.
Here I am working with another director who it's his first time around, and he's got one called The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez. How about that? And it's going to be in a home (laughs). I tell you we're going to make a western one way or another.
You've said that you missed making westerns.
I think they're marvelous. People don't know what they're missing out on with westerns. Believe me. Girl gets boy, boy gets girl, and they both end up on horseback and everything else.
As a kid I always looked forward on a Saturday just to watch them.
At the same time, one of your greatest movies, The Wild Bunch, takes a lot of those western ideas and turns them on their head.
Yeah, it really did. They really caught the shots on that one. It was the first time you saw people with bullets flying through them. They said, "Holy mackerel! This is for real." That director (Sam Peckinpah), he was the greatest.
If The Wild Bunch showed how all brutal violence can be, Another Harvest Moon demonstrates that people who've lived through that kind of violence can't escape from it easily. The character you play is still haunted by World War II.
Sure, absolutely. There's an awful lot of people who were still haunted by World War II. There's an awful lot of boys coming back from this (current) war itself that will never be good citizens again simply because of the fact that their spirit is broken, and they've lost their compunction for living.
And some of them just don't care, and an awful lot of things happen to people in war. An awful lot of people don't like to talk about war. And I don't blame them because it's a terrible thing.
I was never in battle personally. But I'll tell you one thing: It makes you think an awful lot. I pity those poor people today who have to go through what we go through, simply because there's no one at home who thinks, hey, we're still at war. To us, hey, it's a lark. We're thinking more about the depression than the people who are being killed overseas. It's terrible, and it's a shame. It really is.
Was it tough to play someone who's had a stroke because your health has been fairly good over the last few years?
I tell you, as far as I was concerned, one of the reasons I took this picture is because I said I've never had a stroke. I wondered what it means. I don't do anything like go to hospitals and check out things like that or what have you. I just did it on my own for what was right in that part.
It came out quite well. So, I'm very happy with it. I tell you, it must be a terrible shock to people who have to go through something like that and live through that.
This film has an unusually strong cast, with Anne Meara, Cybill Shepard and Doris Roberts. It's rare to see that many good people in a modest film like this.
Exactly. I think it's because it's a thing that we like to do. It was a good script, and it won a prize.
It was something different. It makes you think about how we treat people who are in the hospital and what we do about them and how we get along with them, the boredom they go through and the reactions they must have. It's just amazing. I guess that's how pictures are made, too.
They were wonderful. I knew Cybill Shepard when she had her own show (Moonlighting) and that wonderful Bruce Willis her, you know. It made a big star out of Bruce Willis and everything else, and she became a big star, too, for a long time.
I tell you, it's just wonderful people. You say to yourself, my goodness. Richard Schiff, there's another one. He gave a beautiful performance, I thought. Everybody who was in it did just marvelous.
We made it on a bunch of peanuts. We didn't get the kind of money here you get in Los Angeles. We did it because we thought it was something good. It's been going around, making the rounds for two and a half, three years almost, and it's getting better all the time. People who have seen this are liking it more and more. And they got a great review in Variety.
You've usually played blue collar roles, but your mother was an Italian countess. It's kind of ironic.
Why do you think?
Most of your characters are blue collar and have to scrape for everything they have. Even the good guys like Marty have to work hard and scrape for everything that they get.
That's right, and that's exactly what happened in my family. We had to work hard to get what we had. I remember the Depression days of 1929 and 1930 and 1933. It was a rough time, and we didn't live high on the hog simply because my mother was a countess. She was still poor. I knew what it was all about.
Believe me, I still think the people of today are getting away with murder even though they call it a depression. It's still not half the depression we had in my day.
They'd better be careful with what they do politically because we had somebody that was pretty good. We had a Roosevelt in there that made things happen. He backed the WPA, the Work Progress Administration, that put people to work. And they put people to doing things, and even if it was cleaning out a forest, they were working, and they were being paid. And they were being honest about it.
It led to people doing things that made a good impression later on, even in the things that happened in the acting field, where they brought all the people together, working and writing scripts. All this work began with the WPA.
Believe me, it was a wonderful thing, but I don't see anything like that happening this time at all. People are going from post to post trying to find a job and what have you. I pity the poor people of today. I really do because they don't stand a chance. There's nobody really looking out for them, and what are you going to do?
You have yet another movie set in a nursing home, don't you?
Yes (laughs). This one's called Nightclub. They made that on a shoestring. I like to give something back. It's one of those kind of things. I took short money, but you're giving something back, that's what counts. And if it does good, then we can go and make a buck somewhere.
As I mentioned before, The Wild Bunch is one my favorites. You and William Holden play these tough, mean thieves. But at the end of the movie, we love you.
Sure. That's it. That's the kind of persons that they were. You didn't care whether you liked us or not. It's just this idea that we were a bunch of crooks, but in the long run we had a lot of heart. And by the time we finished, you knew exactly what that heart meant when they wanted to save their own buddy (Jaime Sanchez). It was that kind of a picture. It was a wonderful picture.
What kind of movie has been tougher for you to make a small film like Marty or a big movie like The Wild Bunch or The Dirty Dozen
Good question. The Dirty Dozen took an awful lot of people and everything else, and again, it was directed by a wonderful guy, Bob Aldrich. You have to look at yourself and
say look at the director and look at what they had to work with. Look at what they did with The Wild Bunch. Look at Sam Peckinpah and everything else. Two wonderful guys; two beautiful people, just giving it their all. That was the outcome. You can still talk about it even today, even 40 years later.
Another movie you're in that I adore is From Here to Eternity.
(starts laughing) I tell you I've got to be the meanest son of a bitch that ever walked in two shoes. I guess it worked out that way because for a long time I had this short hair. I did a U-turn on Ventura Boulevard, and I suddenly got stopped by the cops. He said, "You can't do that." And when he saw my card, he said, "Whoa. I've got the son of a bitch that killed Frank Sinatra."
One thing that's really interesting is that in real life both you and Sinatra were Italian, but your character was prejudiced against Italians.
Yeah. The greatest compliment I ever had in my life was one day, I was talking to Montgomery Clift. We were sitting all by ourselves in an empty studio, and we saw a door open. And a man and a woman walked in. We paid no attention. We went right on talking.
And suddenly I was engulfed in these huge arms. And the voice said, "You're the son of a bitch I've wrote about when I wrote that book."
And it was James Jones himself. And he said to me, "Keep at it, kid. I love what you're doing." I said, "Thank you very much."
There's a line in there in From Here to Eternity that absolutely absolved "Fatso" Judson. When (Clift and I) had that knife fight, I'm laying there, and he stays over the top of me. And he's looking down at me, and I said to him, "You've killed me. Why did you want to kill me?" Which would have absolved him. He was just doing his job. Right?
I'm saying that line for seven weeks because I didn't want anybody to think as I'm walking down the street, "Oh, you killed me. Why did you want to kill me?" There's always wise guys like that.
And so I studied it and studied it and tried to do it the right way, and I did it. OK.
Now, I'm watching the picture, and I'm all by myself. I'm thinking here comes the absolvment, and everything's going to be fine.
And the bastards had cut it!
And I said, "What the hell!" And then suddenly I realized they left me the bastard, the guy who was supposed to be the bad guy. And I said, "Holy mackerel. You couldn't ask for better."
And from then I did nothing but kill people until Marty came along.
Did people have trouble believing that you could be lovable as Marty?
That was me. I was Marty. Believe me, when they went to cast the picture, Bob Aldrich, who had read the script. They said to him, "Who on earth should play the part?" They couldn't get Rod Steiger, who had played that part on TV because he was doing Oklahoma!. He said,"I know of only one fellow: Ernie Borgnine."
"Ernie Borgnine? He's a killer for god's sake. What's the matter with you?"
He said, "No, he's an actor. He knows how to do it." They came up to me, and I realized they wanted me for the part all right. But they were only going to make half the picture and shelve it because they wanted to take a tax loss. Believe it or not.
So, when the time came, and we were shooting it in New York with no sets or anything else. And the taxman said, "No, you've got to finish shooting the picture, show it one night and then you can take a tax loss."
I made the whole picture for $5,000 and the promise for a seven-year contract with Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, which cost me half a million to get out of it (laughs). It goes on and on you know. Where else can I have found something that would get me nominated and get me an Academy Award, the British Academy Award and the Golden Globe? I tell you I won all kinds of awards that year.
I saw you recently in The Devil's Rain.
Have you really? I've played them all.
How difficult was it to make you look like a goat?
Well, it took four hours of makeup. I tell you it wasn't the easiest thing to eat with. You had that whole thing in your mouth and in your face. But we did it and it worked out. And I tell you, when I go to these autograph sessions, the people are just wild about it. They say, "I loved it. It was great."
And it was all made, believe it or not, with mafia money. I was owed about $25,000, but damned if I'm going to go ask for it.
Your best known role is still in McHale's Navy. How did it compare to when you were on active duty?
Well, I'll tell you. It's not the Navy; it's McHale's Navy. There was this gentleman who was our technical adviser. He was a lieutenant in the service. He said, "What are we shooting here?"
I said, "We're shooting McHale's Navy."
He said, "But it's not the Navy."
"It's not the Navy; it's McHale's Navy."
He said, "Don't call us. We'll call you."
One day I got a note from the front office and it said that you got a call from the Pentagon in Washington. I said, "Oh, my God. What have I done now?"
Sure enough, it was the Secretary of the Navy. And he called me in, and we had a lovely, lovely luncheon in his quarters there at the Pentagon. And I'm sitting there with a beer and everything else we had, and I had to find out.
I said, "Sir, why are we doing all this?"
He said, "It's because you're the best damn recruiter we ever had. We got more people into the reserve and the Navy because of McHale's Navy." That was wonderful.
You've just won the Screen Actors Guild lifetime achievement award. How did it feel when you were told you were going to win it?
Well, I couldn't say anything about it for a month. I had to give all kinds of interviews and take all kinds of pictures. I've never been through so much hell in my life. It was worth it because of the fact it was given to me by my peers. You couldn't ask for better than that. For a guy like me who had spent 10 years in the Service, who came out and just on my mother's say so -- she said, "Have you ever thought about being an actor? You're always making a darn fool of yourself in front of people. You want to give it a try."
And then, I became an actor. And can you imagine me getting a lifetime achievement award because of that? I have an awful lot of memories of what I had to go through. I could write another book. I've got one out now called Ernie. But I tell you, I might just write another book.
Unlike a lot of other people who receive awards like this, you still have an active career.
Absolutely. Like I said, I'm staring one Thursday. And I've got the lead in the damn thing.
You're also fresh off a hit with RED.
Who's a wonderful guy to work with? Bruce Willis. Son of a gun, the first time I ever saw him was on that Cybill Shepard show, and I said, by golly, I'd like to work with him. He's a go getter, and sure enough, he became a big star. I don't know what the hell has happened to him since RED. He suddenly disappeared off the face of the earth. I hope to goodness he's all right. I hope to goodness we get to do a sequel because I told him I want to carry a big gun.
Do you still do a lot of your own housework?
Absolutely. You've got to keep a nice house and everything else, so I do my own housework. I make my own bed. I do my own laundry. I do everything. I think it's wonderful because of the fact that my mother taught me. She said you never know if something might happen to your wife and you have to care for her.
So, I've never forgotten it. It doesn't make me a sissy in any way because I think I can hold my own. I'm just proud of the fact that I'm able to do so at 94.
All images, © 2011 Panorama Entertainment, used by permission