Ernest Borgnine Interview: A Last Look at the Life of a Hollywood Legend
Image attributed to Marc Parker
With a career spanning more than six decades, actor Ernest Borgnine is known for his wide variety of roles in film and television. He is well known for his role as Quinton McHale in the 1962-66 ABC comedy series McHale’s Navy.
Borgnine’s breakthrough part came in the 1953 film From Here to Eternity in which he played Staff Sergeant James R. “Fatso” Judson and co-starred with some of Hollywood’s heaviest hitters including Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr, Frank Sinatra, Donna Reed and Jack Warden. In 1955, he took home the Best Actor Oscar for Marty, a touching story about two lonely people who have almost resigned themselves to never being truly loved.
“Well, I wasn’t interested in it at all because of the fact I’d spent ten years in the Navy. My agent called me up, and said, ‘You know there’s a TV show here we’d like you to be in. It’s called McHale’s Navy, and you’d be the skipper. You like the water. It has a PT boat, and it sounds very interesting.’ I said, ‘No. I’m a motion picture actor now.’ I stuck my nose up in the air. I said, ‘I really don’t want to do it because of the fact that I’m a motion picture actor.’ He said, ‘If you change your mind, let me know.'”
Other film appearances include Johnny Guitar, The Bounty Hunter, Bad Day at Black Rock, The Catered Affair, The Best Things in Life Are Free, The Rabbit Trap, Barabbas, The Dirty Dozen, Ice Station Zebra, The Wild Bunch, Bunny O’Hare, The Poseidon Adventure, Emperor of the North, Ravagers, All Quiet on the Western Front, Escape from New York, All Dogs Go to Heaven 2, The Genesis Code, Red and Another Harvest Moon.
In addition to McHale’s Navy on television, Borgnine appeared in The Lone Wolf, Waterfront, Fireside Theatre, The O. Henry Playhouse, The Danny Thomas Show, Zane Grey Theater, Laramie, Wagon Train, Little House on the Prairie, Future Cop, The Love Boat, Matt Houston, Airwolf, Murder, She Wrote, Jake and the Fatman, The Single Guy, Touched by an Angel, ER and SpongeBob Squarepants.
Borgnine’s biography, Ernie, was published in July 2008. On October 2, 2010, the actor appeared as himself in a sketch on Saturday Night Live.
For his contribution to the motion picture industry, Borgnine received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and was honored with the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award at the 17th annual SAG Awards held January 30, 2011.
On February 24, 2012, the actor celebrated the 39th anniversary of marriage to cosmetics maker Tova Traenaes.
According to Borgnine’s longtime spokesman, Harry Flynn, the actor passed away at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles on July 8, 2012. He was 95.
Ernest Borgnine: Hi Melissa, how are you?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Good, thanks, Ernie.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How are you today?
Ernest Borgnine: Well, I’ll tell you, any better would be in a pine box (laughs). No, I’m feeling pretty good.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Happy Belated Birthday to you!
Ernest Borgnine: Thank you very much.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you do anything special?
Ernest Borgnine: I took the kids and we went for pizza. We had a pizza rally or whatever the hell you want to call it. But, we had good fun, and that’s what it’s all about. They wanted to give me a big party, and I said, “No. I’m saving that for when I reach 100!”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): There you go! I spoke to a friend of yours, Marty Allen, who sends his greetings.
Ernest Borgnine: You’ve got to be kidding! Marty Allen, my God! How is he?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): He is very well and funny.
Ernest Borgnine: He must’ve been. You’re still laughing (laughs). He’s a marvelous guy. God bless him. You can’t say too much about that man. He’s also the man who put my wife and I together thirty-nine years ago.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): He actually mentioned that to me. It must’ve worked because it has lasted thirty-nine years.
Ernest Borgnine: It worked. That’s right. Boy, I tell you, I was so disgusted that I was ready to pick up with men instead of women. I’d been through some terrible ones, and I said that I was going to take up with men. Marty said, “No. This is a nice lady and you’re going to love her.” Well, to say the least (laughs). For thirty-nine years, we’ve been living just wonderfully.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Congratulations on the happy marriage! Ernie, I read that your mother suggested acting to you. Why did she think that would be a good career choice?
Ernest Borgnine: I don’t know, and I still try to figure it out to this day. My mother was a countess in Italy. Her father was a count. She loved the theatre and movies. One day after I had gotten out of the service, she said, “Have you ever thought of becoming an actor? You’ve always liked to make a damn fool of yourself in front of people. Why don’t you give it a try?”
I said, “Hey, mom, that’s what I’m going to be.” To make a long story short, ten years later they were handing me an Oscar (laughs). So, don’t say anything back to me because I’m liable to do it, and you never know what’s going to happen (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you ever take acting lessons?
Ernest Borgnine: Never. I went to an acting school, and you should have seen me in a tutu. Boy, I really looked good (laughs). We were acting with this modern dance and everything else. Can you imagine after ten years in the Navy me doing a modern dance? That was really something (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Was your first Hollywood break in From Here to Eternity in 1953?
Ernest Borgnine: I guess that’s what probably broke the mold. It led up to bigger and better things. But, before that, it was touch and go for a long time. They talk about overnight success … my foot! There’s no such thing as an overnight success! You’re either in or you’re out. You work hard for a number of years trying to get to be the best you possibly can. Fortune smiled upon me and I was lucky.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How was it working with Frank Sinatra?
Ernest Borgnine: Couldn’t have been better. He was a beautiful man. The first time I ever met Frank, he said something that broke the mold. We were doing this scene and ready for the first shot. He looked up at me, and said, “My God, he’s ten feet tall.” He didn’t say it that way, though (laughs). There were a couple of expletives. It broke the ice, you know? I loved it. We got to know each other really well, and for years we were together.
Every time I sent Frank a card, I’d put “From Fatso,” and he’d write back to me, “From Maggio.” He was quite a guy. I loved him. He did so many things that people didn’t know about, but it just made him more popular to me. He could do no wrong as far as I was concerned.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): While filming Bad Day at Black Rock, was that the first time you met Spencer Tracy?
Ernest Borgnine: Yes, it was. As a matter of fact, when we were going to do the very first scene as he’s walking toward me, I forgot every line I ever knew! All I saw were these two Academy Awards coming toward me! The first thing you know, we did the scene, and it was over with.
Spencer came out and looked at me, and said, “You know something? I like you. You look a person right in the face when you talk to them. Right in the eyes.” I said, “Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do, sir?” He said, “That’s it exactly. You just keep it that way.” The next year I beat him out for an Academy Award for Marty (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It must’ve been an awesome experience to win the Oscar for Best Actor. How did you feel when Grace Kelly called your name?
Ernest Borgnine: I was looking out over the audience, and I saw Burt Lancaster, Jimmy Cagney, and a whole bunch of actors around me. Suddenly, my wife is hitting me in the ribs. She is saying, “She called your name! She called your name!” I said, “What?” She said, “Yes, she called your name! You won!” I couldn’t believe it because that was the last thing I had on my mind.
I never figured I would win because I thought Spencer Tracy would win easily or James Dean for East of Eden or certainly Frank Sinatra. I just couldn’t believe I had won it. I went up there without anything to say. So, I did two things. I thanked my peers, my mother and father … and I took that Oscar and went home (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Marty also won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1955. Why do you think it was chosen?
Ernest Borgnine: I think because so many people identified themselves with the thing. People still come up to me and ask, “What do you feel like doing tonight?” That was a catchphrase after that film. It was one of those wonderful one of a kind sort of things that goes along for years, and they never forget. So many people identified themselves with the character because of the fact that he couldn’t find a girl.
That was me. I couldn’t find a girl. I ended up with five ex-wives (laughs). But, I found out one thing. There’s a hell of a lot of people making an awful lot of money just from divorces. I’m talking about lawyers, you know? Oh boy! They took advantage of me, especially with Ethel Merman. But, you chalk it up to life. That’s life, and that’s the way it goes.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Were you only married to Ethel Merman for a month?
Ernest Borgnine: I was married to her for thirty-two days. I’m not proud of it because I married her for love. But, when nobody recognized her, and everybody recognized me wherever we went, she was angry. She was ready to hit the first person she saw. It just seemed like … well, you can’t blame her.
In a way, Ethel was a big star in her own right. When I’d introduce her, people would look at her a moment and say, “Yeah, sure. How are you, Ernie?” It was just one of those things. You like to be recognized. That’s all.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I’ve also interviewed Tim Conway who co-starred with you on McHale’s Navy.
Ernest Borgnine: Now, there’s a funny guy, too! I love him and think he’s just one of God’s great creatures.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Tim said that he never auditioned for the part of Ensign Charles Parker.
Ernest Borgnine: Well, if he did, I didn’t know about it. The very first time I ever saw Tim was when we were doing the first show. He was coming in on a boat and holding the rope up front. You know, holding the rope in the bow of the boat. When the boat stopped suddenly, he kept right on coming right on into the water (laughs). He went right into the drink, and I said, “Oh my God, this is my executive officer!” Believe me, Tim made McHale’s Navy and was just wonderful. God bless him.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How did you get interested in the role of Quinton McHale?
Ernest Borgnine: Well, I wasn’t interested in it at all because of the fact I’d spent ten years in the Navy. My agent called me up, and said, “You know there’s a TV show here we’d like you to be in. It’s called McHale’s Navy, and you’d be the skipper. You like the water. It has a PT boat, and it sounds very interesting.” I said, “No. I’m a motion picture actor now.” I stuck my nose up in the air. I said, “I really don’t want to do it because of the fact that I’m a motion picture actor.” He said, “If you change your mind, let me know.”
The next morning as God would have it, some fellow comes to my door selling chocolate bars from a school in the Valley. I started digging for the money to buy them,and he said, “Gee, you look awful familiar. What’s your name?” I said, “My name is James Arness.” The kid said, “No. He does Gunsmoke.” I said, “Really? Okay. I’m only kidding. My name is Richard Boone.” He said, “No. He does Have Gun Will Travel.” I thought, “Son of a gun. This kid really knows them all. I’ll tell him my real name now, and I’m sure he’ll know me.” So, I said, “My name is really Ernest Borgnine.” Zilch. Nothing. The kid had no expression.
I put down the chocolate bars, called my agent, and asked, “Is that part still open?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “I’ll do it.” He asked, “What changed your mind?” I answered, “None of your damn business!” Some people said to me, “You won an Academy Award in motion pictures, so what are you doing in television?” I would reply, “Well, it’s the same thing. We’re shooting in front of a camera on film. There’s no difference. What the heck if it’s one way or another if you’re still working?”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Let’s talk about The Poseidon Adventure and some of your co-stars like Shelley Winters.
Ernest Borgnine: You don’t want to know about Shelley Winters (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Now, more than ever (laughs).
Ernest Borgnine: There’s a name for her. God bless her. But, she was a first class bitch. If ever there was one that could create excitement around the whole place, she could do it. Oh my God. Then, of course, there was Gene Hackman. He had just won the Academy Award for The French Connection. Apparently in that film, they just made up the lines as they went along, you know? We were given scripts for The Poseidon Adventure, but evidently he didn’t look at his script. He thought he was still doing French Connection.
We had a rehearsal, and it came Gene’s time to speak, and there was nothing coming from him. He turned to me and asked, “Are we supposed to know these lines?” I answered, “That’s the general idea.” That’s the last time I ever spoke to him (laughs). Don’t get me wrong. He’s a nice fellow, a really wonderful guy. We had a great bunch that worked hard. Working in that fire, heat and smoke would make you glad to come back out into the smog of Los Angeles at the end of the day, believe me.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Ernie, what role would you consider the most challenging?
Ernest Borgnine: I think one of the hardest films I’ve ever made was the one called Emperor of the North Pole with Lee Marvin. That was on board a train. We worked morning, noon and night on that sucker. When people see it these days, they say, “My God, I didn’t realize how hard you people worked!”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you have a favorite female lead?
Ernest Borgnine: Of course. Bette Davis was a great one. I made two pictures with her. It was wonderful. The first one was called The Catered Affair. She knew her lines, your lines and everything else. Bette was just marvelous to get along with. People have said that she was hard, but I didn’t find her hard. I never had any trouble with people in any way, shape or form. I can get along with the Devil himself. I’ve always found my fellow actors to be wonderful people.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Has there been a role that you wanted, but another actor was chosen for the part?
Ernest Borgnine: I didn’t audition for it, but I wanted to play Pancho Villa in Viva Villa! The director had given it to someone else. I asked if I could read for it. He looked over at the bunch of people standing there, and said, “Sure, let him read.” So, I read, and he threw the script down. I found out later he had already cast the part, but I think he wanted me. He was angry with himself because he had already chosen Wallace Beery.
Wallace was one of my idols, though. He could do no wrong as far as I was concerned. A lot of people won’t remember him, but he was a fine character actor and did a film with Marie Dressler called Min and Bill. Wallace won an Oscar to boot, and was one of the few who ever got it as a character actor.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you working on a film now, Ernie?
Ernest Borgnine: No. I just finished one called The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez. It’s a story of a man who wants to be a better actor, and he’s studying all the time. His family doesn’t understand why he wants to study because they tell him he’s too old. One day he happens to fall sick and finds himself in one of those retirement homes. All of the people there talk about Vicente Fernandez. He says, “Vicente Fernandez. I know that name. Heck, I shook his hand one time.” They ask, “You shook the hand of Vicente Fernandez?”
This man actually existed. Vicente Fernandez was the Frank Sinatra of Mexico. We tried to get him for this picture. This film was written by a young man, and is the first picture of his career. He took what little money he had, and we made this picture for peanuts really. But, son of a gun, it seems like we’ve got something. Now, we’re looking for people to look at it and see if we can possibly get it on the road. It’s called The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez, and I’m the guy who shook the hand (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I wish you well with that venture.
Ernest Borgnine: Yes, people who have seen it say, “My goodness, you have to get something out of this.” I hope it’s not a cold (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are there days when you think of retiring?
Ernest Borgnine: Not at all. Hell, I’m still going. I just turned 95. I’ve got something coming up that I can’t talk about. We’ve got a picture coming up, and I’m hoping against hope they find something before that. I can’t tell you what the film is, but it’s going to be a goodie. But, I keep going. That’s what keeps me young and healthy.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Marty Allen says that he keeps going because he enjoys it.
Ernest Borgnine: Absolutely. Why stop? You’ll go crazy if you stop. That’s what it’s all about. Tim Conway is the same way. He’s just going all the time. Marty gets on these ships with his lovely wife, and they just have a ball.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you and Tova enjoy traveling?
Ernest Borgnine: We travel enough. We just enjoy staying home (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are your children in show business?
Ernest Borgnine: My son is in the other end in back of the camera. I had a daughter that was an agent for a while, but then she thought better of it and became something else. She works hard at her own craft now.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I heard that you’ve had your share of problems with agents over the years.
Ernest Borgnine: Oh, my goodness! They tell you they want you. Then, the agent says, “You have to have six other people. You can’t have Mr. Borgnine unless you take six other people.” They say, “But, we don’t want six other people. We just want Ernest Borgnine.” The agent says, “You can’t have him.” That’s an agent for you. That’s lousy business in my estimation.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It was great to meet you at the George Lindsey UNA Film Festival in March.
Ernest Borgnine: Oh, yes, It was a pleasure to meet you. They honored us with a theater and dedicated it to George and myself.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): George Lindsey was a television icon and a great friend. What comes to mind when you think of him?
Ernest Borgnine: He was the most kind and generous man I’ve ever known.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Ernie, it is such an honor and a pleasure to speak with you.
Ernest Borgnine: Melissa, give ’em hell! Bye, dear.
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