My Interview With Ernest Borgnine, Recalling Career, His Connecticut Roots

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Ernest Borginine died Sunday at the age of 95. Here is my interview with the Hamden-born, Connecticut-raised actor in 2010.

 

By FRANK RIZZO

Ernest Borgnine, who turns 94 in January, is having the time of his life.

With a new film out this month (and several others in the can), the Hamden-born, Connecticut-raised actor is finding no lack or work, or awards.

In January, the Oscar-winning actor will receive the prestigious Screen Actors Guild Award. (Betty White won it last, for 2010.) And on Saturday he returns to his home state to talk about his life on stage, screen and television at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield.

"Isn't that something," he says of the SAG Award in a recent phone interview from Los Angeles.

"All good things come to those who wait, I'll tell you," he says with his unmistakable husky voice, energy, regular-Joe speech and easy laugh. "Actually I feel quite humble about the whole thing."

Last year, Borgnine earned an Emmy nomination for the final episode of TV's "ER." Earlier this year, he starred in the Hallmark Channel movie, "The Wishing Well."

And as for his role in the current film "Red"starring Helen Mirren, Bruce Willis, John Malkovich and Morgan Freeman, Borgnine says simply, "Wow. I just saw a screening and I want to tell you, I don't get excited about movies any more but, boy, this is one of the finest pictures I've seen in a long time. My wife says this will make more money than 'The Poseidon Adventure.' "

Younger audiences may know the actor not from the more than 200 TV shows and films he made over 60 years — including such memorable ones as "From Here To Eternity," "Flight of the Phoenix," "Marty, "The Catered Affair," "The Dirty Dozen,""The Wild Bunch,""The Vikings," "Ice Station Zebra" and "Bad Day at Black Rock" — but rather as the sidekick in the '80s TV series "Airwolf." Even younger ones may recognize the voice of aging superhero Mermaid Man in Nickleodeon's "SpongeBob SquarePants."

When his upcoming projects are mentioned — including his appearance in Connecticut where he will reminisce about his career with the center's executive director Jerry Goehring — he says: "It keeps me busy and always thinking. I still have all my marbles even though it may not always sound like it."

He gives another self-deprecating chuckle. He clearly enjoys telling and re-telling the stories of his life, many of them recounted in his 2008 autobiography "Ernie" (Citadel Press).

Growing Up In Connecticut

Borgnine speaks fondly of his Connecticut days, of growing up in Hamden, North Haven and New Haven, the only child of immigrant parents from Capri and Ottiglio, Italy. He was born Ermes Effron Borgnino.

His maternal grandfather was Count Paolo Boselli, the financial advisor to King Victor Emmanuel of Italy.

"I'm a count of no account," he says laughing.

"We had a lot of land around us," he says of growing up in the state in the '20s and early '30s. "We used to go work for the farmers picking peaches and apples and trying to make a buck. I was a Boy Scout, too. We also went to a lot of movies, just about every one we could. I would go with my mother and they would have 'plate day' and 'bowl days.' "

After graduating from Hillhouse High School in 1935, Bognine was at a loss with what to do with his life. Driving around in a produce truck, he saw a poster that said, "Join the Navy and See the World." So he did, and spent the next five years as an apprentice seaman. Two months after he left the Navy in 1941, Pearl Harbor was bombed. He re-enlisted and served for another five years.

 

When he returned from the war in 1945, he was again at a loss about his future.

"My mother saw that I was unhappym" Bornine says. "I didn't feel like I wanted to go back working at the factory. That was locking myself in.

"My mother said, 'Why don't you become 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?' When she said it, it was as if I saw the golden light. 'Ma, that's what I'm going to do.' "

Beginning Acting

He said he wanted to go to Yale School of Drama, "but I had to have two years of undergrad courses, which consisted of taking courses in everything I hated. That ain't for me."

Instead, thanks to the G.I. Bill, he enrolled at the Randall School of Dramatic Art in Hartford, run by Mrs. Wilburn Randall. "It was located right above where the Greyhound buses were. I was 28. I took dance classes. Martha Graham classes. You should have seen me in a tutu."

He studied there for four months before moving on to the Barter Theater in Virginia, where he got an education working on stage and off in the theater. He remained there and on tour with the company for four years.

His mother saw him only one time on the stage before she died in 1947, "but she said, 'Stay with it.' "

But he wasn't always sure. "I kind of wondered sometime if I did the right thing. Was I doing something I really wanted or was I fulfilling my mother's wishes?"

He eventually made his Broadway bow as a replacement cast member in the long-running hit"Harvey"on Broadway in 1949. Then he started doing some TV shows (he was King Neptune in the kid's show "Captain Video and His Video Rangers" in 1951). A stab at being an extra in a film shooting in New York got him cast in a featured role in his first movie, which led to several others. He was offered a contract as a Columbia studio player for $150 a week. "My God, that was like found money in those days."

He left for Los Angeles to play a gangster in "The Mob," but he was still not sure about his path in life. But he was learning all the time, "and that's what continues to this day."

His big break came in "From Here to Eternity," as the sadistic "Fatso" Judson. The 1953 film starred Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerrand Montgomery Clift and won eight Oscars, including best picture, director, supporting actor (Frank Sinatra) and supporting actress (Donna Reed) . "Everyone treated me fine and I became good friends with Montgomery Clift."

He seemed destined to play heavies in films such as "Johnny Guitar," "Demetrius and the Gladiators" and "Bad Day at Black Rock."

The actor remembers the first day of filming "Bad Day" in 1955. He played the villain opposite Spencer Tracy. "He was a role model for me," says Borgnine. "He was just mesmerizing. After my first scene with him, he came up to me and said, 'I like working with you, kid. I like the way you look people right in the eye. That's the way to do it.' "

He also remembers working at that time — again as a villain — in "Vera Cruz" with Gary Cooper, who confessed to him one day in the back of the car on the way to filming, 'You know, I sure wish I could act like you. They just got me saying, 'Yep.' "

Then Came 'Marty'

Even Cooper could not have imagined Borgnine's next against-type role, that of the gentle, lonely butcher in "Marty" that showed his range and won him an Oscar. "I never expected to win. Never."

Indeed, in an article published in The Hartford Courant before the 1956 ceremony, he cautioned his Connecticut relatives, "Don't put too much faith in my getting the award. The competition's pretty stiff."

He bested Frank Sinatra, James Dean, James Cagney and his idol Spencer Tracy for his role in a film that was shot in 18 days and for which he earned $5,000. (Later it cost him $500,000 to get out of his 10-year contract with the studio.)

"We tried to make Paddy Cheyefsky [the screenwriter] do a sequel, but he said 'definitely no.'

A major change in Borgnine's career came when he accepted the role of Commander Quinton McHale in a television show that would evolve into the popular series "McHale's Navy," which ran from 1962 to 1966.

But he almost didn't take the job.

"My agent called and told me about it and I said, 'That''s nice but I'm a motion picture actor.' The next morning — I Iived in the Valley at the time — a kid comes to the door selling chocolate bars and he asked me if I was in show business. "I said 'James Arness.' And the kids says, 'You're not the guy from 'Gunsmoke.' ' I then say, 'Richard Boone.' He's says, 'You're not the guy from 'Medic' either.' Then I say, 'Ernest Borgnine' and his face is blank.' I called my agent and told him I'll do the television show."

Borgnine was married five times (once famously for 32 days in 1964 to Ethel Merman) but his marriage to Tova Traesnaes, CEO of Tova Cosmetics and 26 years his junior, has lasted 38 years.

"People are just wonderful, I'll tell you," he says. In the late '90s, he bought a customized motor home and traveled around the country. A 1997 reality-show-style documentary, "Ernest Borgnine on the Bus," was made from the experience.

"I'll never forget the time when I stopped at a gas station late one night and a trucker told me it was one of the best stage coaches he ever saw. 'Who owns that?' he asks me. 'Is he in the movies?' 'TV, too,' I say. ' "McHale's Navy." Ernest Borgnine.' 'No kidding, You been driving for him long?' 'Years,' I say. 'What kind of a guy is he?' I say, 'He's a pain in the ass.' " Borgnine roars at the story.

He also gives a big laugh when asked about recent viral YouTube clip of the actor. In the clip, he is a guest on a TV talk show, and when asked about his long life, he whispers in the host's ear — only to be picked up on his mike — "I masturbate a lot."

"That was a faux pas," he says, though he admits to his answer. "Sure, why not," he laughs.

He ends by quoting his mother. "She used to say, 'If you can make one person laugh a day …' I think I've brought a few laughs into people's lives. That's what counts."

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