Q & A: Ernest Borgnine
The man who once played "Marty" and "McHale"—and who has a new movie opening this weekend—will be honored this month at Sacred Heart University.
Indulge us as we share a few words on the importance of being Ernest Borgnine. Over the course of his 60-year career the Hamden-born actor, now 93, has made roughly 200 movies—and played key roles in a greater number of pop-culturally significant ones than you probably realized. He’s the brutal Sgt. ‘Fatso’ Judson in 1953’s From Here to Eternity, lonely butcher Marty in the multi-Oscar-winning film of the same name, menacing thug Coley Trimble in the post-World War II drama Bad Day at Black Rock, Dutch Engstrom in director Sam Peckinpah’s groundbreaking 1969 Western The Wild Bunch. Then there’s Johnny Guitar, The Dirty Dozen, The Poseidon Adventure, Willard, Escape from New York—not to mention some notable turns on the small screen, including the starring role in the 1962-66 comedy series “McHale’s Navy” and an Emmy-nominated 2009 guest shot in the final episode of “ER.” On Oct. 30, Borgnine will appear at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield’s Edgerton Center for the Performing Arts, to be celebrated in its “American Legends Series.” For info, call (203) 371-7908 or visit edgertoncenter.org.
You have a part in the new film, RED. Why did you want to do it?
First of all, it gave me a chance to work with Bruce Willis. I never had worked with him before. I remember him from the TV show Moonlighting. I said at the time, "Boy, this kid's gonna make it," because he came on like gangbusters and has been going like that ever since. I worked with him in Toronto, and every now and then on the set, he'd come over and kind of put his arm around me and squeeze me, just one guy to another. And I said to myself, "I wonder if he wants to go steady." He's just a sweetheart of a man and all man, believe me. He's just wonderful.
Tell me a little more about the movie.
I'm in it for just a minute; I don't know what the rest of the show is all about. I play the part of an FBI man who holds all the secrets of the entire plot. You've gotta come to me if you want any classified information. And to see my character, you have to enter a huge safe. It was frightening to look at that safe and realize that if anything happened, the doors could close and I'd be in there forever. It's a wonderful scene that established Bruce and I together; we understood each other. I've gotta go see the movie now!
Are you going to the premiere?
Yes, and then I'm going to Pennsylvania with Tova [his wife] for a while, then the Connecticut event at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield. I'm looking forward to that, but why they want me is beyond my comprehension.
So, you don't feel like an American legend?
Not by any means. As a matter of fact, I was looking at a magazine just now that was sent to me by the Navy—those are the fellows that are really the heroes. I always say I'm glad I served, they took care of me and made a man of me, but I don't consider myself any kind of hero. I'm just one of the boys and that's it.
You remind me of Bruce Willis, in a way. You started your career later than most actors, and so did he.
Yes, I started when I was 28 years old. The idea came from my mother; one day, I came home . . . I was ready to go back into the service; I figured I'd do another 10 years, get a pension. At least I'd have something coming in in my old age. She said, "Have you ever thought about 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?" I looked up and saw that golden light, and I said "Mom, that's what I'm gonna be! Ten years later, Grace Kelly was handing me an Oscar. I consider myself the luckiest guy in the world, because I was up against Frank Sinatra, James Dean, Jimmy Cagney and Spencer Tracy. I never thought I'd win.
I was always really glad you won for Marty, because to me, it's the kind of movie that should win Oscars more often, just an intimate little story.
Oh, yeah. Today all you see is explosions and people carrying guns, more explosions and sex. And they call it entertainment. People have gotten used to it—without the guns they won't go. Marty was all about the man who wrote it, Paddy Chayefsky. I looked at him and said, "You're an actor, why don't you play this role?" He told me, "If I were any kind of an actor, don't you think I would?"
In a number of your movies, you played the tough guy.
I took anything and everything that came along for the simple reason that I was working. I got a lot of flak for "killing Frank Sinatra" in From Here to Eternity. But after all, he won an Academy Award. It's much easier to play tough guys—you're taking it out on your fellow actors rather than going home and beating your wife.
I've heard about another movie that you're in that's making the film festival rounds, Another Harvest Moon.
It's about a bunch of people at the end of their lives, in a hospital. At the end, my character passes away, I just refuse to take any more medicine; I've had it. In the meantime, it's about people holding hands and loving each other, having fun until the ultimate comes. It's a good picture, but the kind of movie that only older people like to see. The young people of today don't want that; they want action. Unfortunately, this movie features people in beds and wheelchairs.
Where does your vitality come from? Here you are, at 93, seemingly as energetic as ever and working hard.
No idea. I had two aunts who lived to 97. They wanted to go; they were hurting and life wasn't successful for them anymore. They came to the point in their lives where they lost interest and gave up. I've made up my mind that I'm going to make it to 113, then I'll tell them all to go to hell. As we speak, I'm washing clothes, believe it or not. It's something to do; I'm keeping busy, that's what counts. I still want to live a few more years; I really do. I say to myself, "I can't quit now; I'm ahead of the game."
You're getting the Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award in January.
How about that? It's from my peers—if they think I did my work as well as possible, I gotta say that's what it's all about. You gotta earn it. It's been a wonderful experience for me, thanks to my mother saying what she said—otherwise, I probably would have spent my life in the Navy. I still do all kinds of publicity for them. I was given the Lone Sailor Award, only the 14th one ever given away; those aren't handed out for nothing. It's a passion with me—the Navy did so much for me, now I can give something in return. I've been instrumental in helping to save as many destroyers as we can, they're a lost breed. A few of the old destroyers we've served on have been converted into museums.
What haven't you done that you would like to do?
I still love to bring entertainment to people, that above all. I've come to the age now where people look back at you and say, "He's given up; he's had it." I still like to bring good pictures to the people, that's what counts in my estimation. I know that's a far-fetched dream, because "good pictures" don't often make money, as far as a lot of Hollywood people are concerned. If you can create something that will make a lot of money for these producers, then they're "with" you, y'know? I'd like to keep working, but I realize the handwriting's on the wall. If something comes along, fine; if it doesn't, I'll still go along saying "hi" to everybody I meet.
Have you seen the little park at the corner of Putnam and Dixwell in Hamden that's dedicated to you?
I worked over in that neighborhood at Acme Wire Co. for two or three months, just before World War II. I went up to this place—my dad worked there at the time—and the boss asked, "Did you just come out of the service?" I said, "Yes, sir." "What's your name?" "Ernest Borgnine." "We have a Borgnine who works here." "Yes, that's my father." And the man said, "Why didn't you say so, I would have hired you right away!" I felt I should get the job on my own. I worked for 50 cents an hour, as an inspector. The older guys who worked there liked me in a way, but also disliked me because I was so fast in setting up equipment, and everything else. One day they told me, "Why don't you ask the boss for a nickel raise?" When I did he said, "What are you trying to do, break me?"
I understand they also have a booth dedicated to you at the restaurant Tortilla Flats in New York City.
They called me up one day and said, "Would you mind very much sending us a letter, because we have a big spot in the restaurant for you and one for Elvis Presley." I thought that was very nice, so I sent letters and a few mementos. Every year they have a "Ernest Borgnine Lookalike Contest," and so far, three women have won. It's very funny. I walked in one time, and everyone shut up like a clam: "Oh my God, he's here!" They've made a little museum out of it, with pictures of me and every letter I ever sent them. They also have a Marty reading every year. It's a way of making money, you can't take it away from them.
What would you most like people to know about you?
I'd like people to know I'm a good guy, not the kind of person depicted on some of the shows I've done. I'm the kind of guy who likes to say "hello" and be a nice fella.That's all there is to it. I like to get out there and meet people. That's me. You'd be surprised at the letters I get from people in prison, asking for photos. I don't know what they've done, but I always say, I hope you'll do better. I answer all my fan mail. It's only recently that I've hesitated because I'm getting tired. So many people write to me, especially from Europe. They send me things all the time. There's one person in Japan who's fallen in love with me. They're lovely people—they write the nicest letters in the world and what more can you say than "Hey, I like you, too!"
What do you think you'll be remembered for?
I'd like to be remembered as a guy who brought a smile to people's faces. This to me is very important, because we live in a day and age when not very many people are smiling any more. You think, "If I can help along the way—I might not have the money for it, 'cause I'm still a working stiff—but I still have the spirit to say, 'Hi, neighbor, how are ya!'" That's what counts. I've had people come to my gate from France, England and Germany. They come over and take photos; I'm happy to pose. I've even had people show at 9 p.m. and have had to say, "I'm already in bed; I'm sorry!"
How would you evaluate yourself as an actor?
I'm still learning. I'll watch the old-timers on Turner Classic Movies. You're not that good that you can't learn a little every daym and every day I'm a little bit better. Unfortunately, I don't know how many people will see the results, because I don't get as much chance to work these days.
You graduated from Hillhouse High School in New Haven in 1935. After World War II, you considered attending the Yale School of Drama.
And having served during the war, they'd pay me for it under the G.I. Bill. I went to talk to a Yale professor, Professor Cole, and he told me that it would require that I have two years of undergraduate study. He mentioned that I'd need geometry, trigonometry and calculus—all the subjects I hated! I said, "I don't want to be a mathematician or a scientist, I just want to act!" A couple of years later, Mr. Cole was passing through Virginia, and saw me in a show at the Barter Theatre. He came backstage and told me, "Young man, do you realize what you've done tonight? You were absolutely marvelous!" I said, "Thank you, Professor Cole." He said, "You know my name?" I said, "Remember that guy who you told he had to take two years of undergraduate study to enter Yale School of Drama?" He said, "Well you can't win 'em all."Q & A: Ernest Borgnine