Ernest Borgnine called his last film ‘a wonderful piece of work’

Ernest Borgnine stars in "The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez."
(Newport Beach Film Festival)

In his last project, Ernest Borgnine played a grumpy old man, bitter for never achieving fame ... the polar opposite of the actor’s long-enduring reality in the Hollywood spotlight.

“The Man Shook the Hand of Vincente Fernadez” premiered at the Newport Beach Film Festival in May, where a grinning Borgnine took home the fest’s Outstanding Achievement in Acting award.

“I gotta tell you, he wrote me a letter that absolutely made me do it,” he said, passing credit to director Elia Petridis. “And it’s so beautiful, so lovely . . . isn’t it?”

PHOTOS: Ernest Borgnine | 1917-2012

Borgnine, who died Sunday at 95, enjoyed a seven-decade-long career, earning an Oscar for his role in 1955’s “Marty” and winning young hearts as the elderly superhero “Merman” on Nickelodeon’s “Spongebob Squarepants.”

He appeared on a “Saturday Night Live” “What Up With That?” segment in 2010, periodically whispering to Morgan Freeman and blowing kisses to the audience.

He spent the final year of his life working, perfecting a character who suffers a stroke, lands in a nursing home staffed by Latin American immigrants and eventually earns celebrity-like recognition among employees for his brush with an idolized Mexican singer.

On stage, after the film’s first official screening, Borgnine kept attention directed to the much younger Petridis.

“It’s just a wonderful piece of work, and I can’t take credit for this,” he said. “It’s his idea, his baby ... and I gotta tell you, he was having a lot of trouble tonight, but he is so happy you like it.”

Acting was Borgnine’s fountain of youth. At the 2011 SAG Awards, he told the Los Angeles Times that retirement was never a priority, not even a desirable outcome.

“Of course, I plan to keep going!” he said, nudging his wife, Tova. “We need the money, right?”

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