Oscar winner Ernest Borgnine has created an array of memorable characters over the years, from the cruel, vicious Sgt. Fatso Judson in 1953’s “From Here to Eternity” to the sweet, lonely butcher in 1955’s “Marty” to the carefree con artist in the 1962-66 ABC comedy “McHale’s Navy.” And now a new generation knows Borgnine as the friendly, pasta-loving doorman Manny on NBC’s hit comedy “The Single Guy.”
Born in Hamden, Conn., 79 years ago, Borgnine began acting after serving in the Navy during World War II. Making his film debut in 1951’s “Whistle at Eaton Falls,” Borgnine won the best actor Oscar for “Marty.” Over the years, he appeared in such acclaimed films as “Bad Day at Black Rock,” “Jubal,” “Flight of the Phoenix,” “The Dirty Dozen,” “The Wild Bunch” and “The Poseidon Adventure.”
During his hiatus from “The Single Guy,” he filmed the Ethan Hawke-Uma Thurman movie “The Eighth Day” and traveled to Mexico to make a cameo appearance in the feature version of “McHale’s Navy.” Last month, he made his 25th annual appearance as a clown in a circus parade in Milwaukee.
When he’s not working, Borgnine travels the country in his custom-made bus, the Sunbum. The gregarious actor recently sat down in his Beverly Hills house to talk about his career, life on “The Single Guy” and what drives him to cruise down the nation’s highways.
Question: You look like you’re having fun on “The Single Guy.”
Answer: It’s fun. It’s fun in a way. The only thing I dread is Friday night [tapings]. It’s nice after it’s over with, but the idea of these last-minute changes and everything else and trying to keep words in your head. . . . At 79, going on 80, it becomes a little bit of a problem. We go sometimes until 2 or 3 in the morning. But I don’t blame Brad Hall, the producer. He is a stickler for doing it right. God bless him, he wants it the way he wants it.
Q: You just finished a cameo in the “McHale’s Navy” movie starring Tom Arnold. Are you reprising your role of Lt. Cmdr. Quinton McHale?
A: No, I played an admiral, his father. I have been upped!
Q: “McHale’s Navy” went off the air 30 years ago. Did you ever think you’d be doing a movie version three decades later?
A: I never thought I’d be doing it. In the ‘80s, I went up one time to a producer in the big black building at Universal and I said, “Listen, I have got an idea for a beautiful show on ‘McHale’s Navy.’ ” At least I thought it was beautiful. I gave him my idea. He thought it was the biggest thing since cut bread. He started making phone calls and this and that. We shook hands and I never heard another word. [He laughs.] That was the end of that.
Q: Do you think the new movie captures the spirit of the original?
A: They may have. I got a couple of glimpses of it. I liked what I saw. I guess Tom Arnold did a very good job. I did all my work in about four days and that was the end of that. It was fun. Many of the actors, they thought I was a legend. They said, “Oh my God, we are working with a legend!” [He laughs.]
I said the same thing years before about Spencer Tracy on “Bad Day at Black Rock.” And there they were saying it about me. I don’t know. It just doesn’t make sense. I mean, I haven’t done anything that anybody else hasn’t done and yet they keep saying, “You are a legend,” and this and that. It’s wonderful if I brought a little bit of happiness and pleasure to people. I don’t consider myself anything like that. I consider myself a working stiff who enjoys his work.
Q: But you have done all of these great films like “Marty,” “Bad Day at Black Rock,” “Johnny Guitar” and “The Wild Bunch.” You killed Frank Sinatra in “From Here to Eternity”!
A: As a matter of fact, when Frank Sinatra Jr. saw the picture for the first time, he looked at it and said, “Dad, when I meet that man, I am going to kill him.” And his father said, “No. When you meet that man you put your arms around him and kiss him. He helped me win an Academy Award!”
Q: Wasn’t the Fatso Judson role in “Eternity” your first big movie break?
A: I was starving along with a bunch of other actors in New York. Well, as it happened, I had read the book about two years before that and I said, “Oh, man, I know I will play the part of Fatso Judson.” Why? I have no idea. But I said, “I know there is a God above and I am going to play that part.”
One day my buddy came by and he had gotten himself a job at the post office. I said, “Boy, I need a job badly. Let me come with you to the post office tomorrow and see if I can deliver mail.”
That night, as luck itself would have, the telephone rang and someone said, “Ernest Borgnine? How soon can you get out to Hollywood? We want you for the part of Fatso Judson.” I nearly dropped the phone. Well, I went and I got the part.
Q: Prior to “Marty,” you were primarily known as a villain. How did you get the part of the gentle, lonely Bronx butcher?
A: [Director] Bob Aldrich was the fellow [who said I could do it]. At a party, he was asked, “Who would you picture for the part of Marty?” He said, “I know of only one guy: Ernest Borgnine.” They scoffed. “He’s just a bad guy. Are you kidding?” He said, “I bet you money he can do it.”
He had seen me [while filming “Vera Cruz” together]. When I go away on location, not only to keep my own spirits up, but everybody else’s, I become a clown. I love to keep other people happy because when I go behind my door at night, I want to remember that happiness instead of being glum and gloomy at the end of the day. Bob Aldrich evidentially saw the difference between the two, you know? I could play a bad guy and I could play that crazy fellow and he put two and two together. His prediction came true.
Q: Did you have any idea that “Marty” would become a classic?
A: We had no idea at all. We made the picture in 18 shooting days and I got nothing for it except $5,000 and a promise to put me under contract if everything was all right. I remember [producer] Harold Hecht saying to me, “We want you for a picture called ‘Marty.’ ” I looked at him and said, “Do you have faith in me, sir?” And he said, “Of course I do. Otherwise I wouldn’t ask you.” I said, “That’s all I wanted to know. I will give you 110%.” As it turned out, everything came out like gangbusters.
Q: How long have you been traveling around the country on your bus?
A: My wife calls it Architectural Digest on wheels. I got my own washer and dryer. I have everything that you possibly would want. I have been as far up as Stover, Vt. I have been all through Canada. I wanted to do this for a number of years. I think I have been at it now for six or seven years. I find it terribly relaxing. It’s like driving a big car. You see everything. The minute you get out of the cities, it’s wonderful. You become part of America. People ought to get to know this country first before going to Europe, believe me. I have been all over Europe and they don’t have anything over there we don’t have.
* “The Single Guy” can be seen Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. on NBC.