Mr. Experience

Times Staff Writer

Ernest Borgnine isn’t happy that the young whippersnappers running Hollywood these days have turned their backs on veteran actors and filmmakers.

“They forgot them,” he says. “It’s a shame, isn’t it? They just sit in a chair and just melt away. I would love to see these people [in films]. I don’t know how Karl Malden is right now, but I bet you money he could put out a heck of a good picture. He’s 95 or something like that. Everything is youth oriented and shoot’em-up and more sex. This is what sells today. I say: These older people know what it’s all about. They know things. It’s all ingested within them.”

At 91, Borgnine certainly isn’t wasting away in a chair -- or dwelling on the past. He’s in great shape, robust, hearty -- still beefy. In fact, he probably could still play Fatso Judson, the brutal sergeant who kills Angelo (Frank Sinatra) in the 1953 Oscar-winning best film “From Here to Eternity.”

And, yes, he’s keeping busy. He earned a Golden Globe nomination for the 2007 telemovie “A Grandpa for Christmas,” making him the oldest performer to receive such a nomination. He recently finished an indie film, “Another Harvest Moon,” and his autobiography, simply called “Ernie,” was just published. On Friday, he’ll appear at the American Cinematheque’s Aero Theatre to kick off a tribute to him. Among the films being screened are “Marty,” for which he won the Oscar for best lead actor; “A Catered Affair”; “The Vikings”; “The Dirty Dozen”; and “Emperor of the North Pole” (also known as “Emperor of the North”).

How does he keep so young?

“See the books around,” says Borgnine, pointing to various stacks in the comfortable den of the Beverly Hills house he’s owned for 43 years. The past 35 he’s shared it with his fifth wife, Tova, who has a successful cosmetics line on the shopping channel QVC.


“I do an awful lot of reading,” he continues. “It keeps me busy. I try to keep my mind going always. That is the thing that counts. You can have your body not feeling so good, but if your mind is working you got it made. That is the way I figured it out.”

Borgnine keeps working, he says, because he left big agencies for a smaller one. “I have a little gal . . . she goes out there and hunts for me. We don’t take everything. But she comes up with some pretty good little stuff. Of course I’m still working. That’s what keeps me young.”

It took him a long time to write his autobiography, he admits, because “I was lazy. I always said to myself, ‘Who the hell wants to know about me?’ ”

It was his longtime publicist Harry Flynn who convinced Borgnine to talk about his life and colorful career. “I said, ‘Harry. Get off my back.’ Finally, I said OK.”

Flynn bought Borgnine a tape recorder to chronicle his humble beginnings as the son of poor Italian immigrants through to his acting career: the tough-guy roles in such films as “From Here to Eternity,” his turn as a lovelorn lonely butcher in “Marty,” his role in the TV sitcom “McHale’s Navy” and his latest efforts, including providing the voice of Mermaid Man on “SpongeBob SquarePants.”

“I just told the truth and nothing phony about it,” Borgnine says about his autobiography. “If people like it, great; if people don’t, too bad. I am sorry to say the last of my ex-wives expired last week. Tova is very healthy. There were times we thought [the marriage] can’t go, but we made it, by golly. We are more in love today than we have ever been.”

His fifth marriage is a far cry from his third marriage in 1964 to singer Ethel Merman. That one lasted just 32 days. When the late Merman published her autobiography years ago, the chapter devoted to Borgnine was a blank page. Borgnine, though, goes into more details about their ill-fated union.

“Before we were married, everything was wonderful. I would go to New York to see her and she’d come out here to see me. It was kind of one of those wonderful kind of things. So, finally, one day I said, ‘Why don’t we get married so we don’t have to go back and forth all the time?’ She thought about it and said, ‘That’s a good idea.’ But it was like day and night.”

Merman, he says, got incensed and extremely jealous on their honeymoon in Hawaii and Tokyo when he got much more attention from fans than she did.

“It was a shame, really,” he says, “because she could sing. But I’m telling you she could drive a person crazy.”

Then Borgnine lets out a hearty, loud laugh -- one of those infectious laughs that seems to come from the tips of his toes and roars out of his widely smiling mouth. A laugh that says it’s good to be 91.




After all these years

Though he’s made more than his share of clinkers, Ernest Borgnine has appeared in numerous classic and cult films, including “From Here to Eternity,” “Marty,” “The Wild Bunch” and “The Poseidon Adventure.” The Oscar-winning actor offers his thoughts about several of his films.

“Marty” (1955)

“Hecht-Hill-Lancaster [the film’s production company] wanted to lose money because they were making so much money from their other pictures. They wanted to shoot half of it and then put it on the shelf and take a tax loss. Their tax man said, ‘You can’t do that. You have to finish it and show it one time and then take your tax loss.’ I made the whole thing for $5,000. I would have done it for nothing because it was my first starring role, so I made it. Then, bam, everything happened. They never expected it to be a hit.”

“The Wild Bunch” (1969)

“It was one of the best without a doubt. Director Sam Peckinpah wasn’t that kind of a character people made him out to be. Sure he took his occasional snort, I’m sure, and, of course, he drank. And if he didn’t like you, you were gone. I remember one day we were coming back from having lunch. We had just finished all the stuff leading up to the fight at the end. He had his head down and I said, ‘What are you thinking, Sam?’ He said, ‘I’m worried stiff.’ I said, ‘About what? You have a heck of a picture so far.’ He said, ‘I’m worried about all of this shooting [the shootout at the finale].’ I told him, ‘Sam, let it all hang out. . . .’ He looked up at me and said, ‘This is what I’m going to do.’ We had never seen anything like it before. It was amazing.”

“The Flight of the Phoenix” (1965)

“That was with my dear old friend [director] Bob Aldrich. It was one of those wonderful pictures where people got together and just did something. Everybody was working for one thing, the good of the film. This is what is so wonderful about those days. I doubt very much if you have it today.”

“The Poseidon Adventure” (1972)

“I have been on cruises where they show ‘The Poseidon Adventure’ and [the passengers] say, ‘Is this really necessary?’ Audiences love it. It was hard work. . . . You walked through a shower as you walked on the set -- you were absolutely soaking wet.”

-- Susan King


On screen and book signing

What: Film series

Where: Aero Theatre, 1328 Montana Ave., Santa Monica

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday to Sunday

Price: $10

Info: (323) 466-3456


What: Signing his autobiography

Where: Vroman’s Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena

When: 7 tonight

Price: Free

Info: (626) 449-5320