TCM: PRIVATE SCREENINGS—Interview With Ernest Borgnine

Along with discussing TCM's upcoming "31 Days of Oscar" and reminiscing on Arlene Dahl, Robert Osborne and I talked about Ernest Borgnine, with whom he recently taped an interview for TCM's "Private Screenings", which will premiere on Monday, January 26, 2009, 5:00PM (PT), followed by a four-film tribute. Borgnine, a venerable 92-year-old, is the oldest living Academy Award®-winning actor, now that Charlton Heston has passed away. Osborne and I exchanged a few comments regarding this Hollywood legend and then a few hours later I was offered the chance to share a few minutes with Ernie as well.

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Robert Osborne: [Ernie] may be matched with Olivia DeHaviland because she's 92 as well. Jennifer Jones, I believe, is a couple of years younger. I must say that—knowing both of them—Borgnine and Olivia, is that they are both examples of how great it can be to live that long if you have good genes. They're both pistols. They both have great recall. He was absolutely charming to talk to and he had such wonderful stories. He's got that gleam in his eye. He's ready for more mischief! And he can't wait to work again and have fun on a film set. You don't think of people in their nineties being able to be that viable working in the world but Ernest Borgnine certainly is.

Michael Guillén: What excites me about an actor like Ernest Borgnine is the expansive body of his career, which allows a person to enter the body of work at various junctures. Myself, I first began watching Borgnine through the television series McHale's Navy and only later looped back to appreciate his Academy Award®-winning turn in Marty—which is likewise scheduled in this year's 31 Days programming as part of the "course" on Urban Ethnic Cultures—and forward to appreciate such disaster epics as 1972's The Poseidon Adventure.

Osborne: The other wonderful thing about Ernie is all the wonderful people he's worked with; all those giants from Spencer Tracy, Frank Sinatra—who he adored—to Burt Lancaster and Montgomery Clift. The list of people with whom he's worked—Angela Lansbury, Bette Davis—is just extraordinary. He's got wonderful stories about them. He's also got a positive outlook about his life and his career and he saw his work and those people as a great pleasure and privilege to work with and be around. It's so refreshing to talk to someone who doesn't have a cynical view of working in Hollywood. He's taken great pride in being an actor.

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After setting it up that I could call him "Ernie" if he could call me "Mike", Ernest Borgnine and I briefly touched upon his marriages, his career, and a thoroughly idiosyncratic selection of films from his extensive filmography.

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Michael Guillén: Ernie, it's such a great honor to talk with you today. I was just talking to Robert Osborne a little bit earlier this morning and I was telling him that one of the most remarkable aspects of your career is precisely its longevity. You've been around for a long time!

Ernest Borgnine: [Laughs.] And I plan to go on a little further.

Guillén: Because you have such a great body of work, a person can access your career at any point along the timeline and move back and forth to sample its breadth. I started watching you as a kid with your television portrayal of Lieutenant Commander Quinton McHale in McHale's Navy. Then when I got older and became more of a film aficionado, I went back and watched your well-deserved and not-to-be-missed Oscar®-winning performance in Marty. Since then I've watched you in many other films. I'm confident that in the upcoming "Private Screenings" broadcast of your interview with Robert Osborne, that Robert will have touched upon and discussed with you the films being profiled that evening: Marty, From Here to Eternity, The Last Command and Torpedo Run. So I was wondering if we could talk instead about some of your other films that are favorites of mine?

Borgnine: Yeah!

Guillén: Before we get into those, however, there are a few personal things I'm curious about and I've been told that I'm free to ask you anything. I understand you were married to Ethel Merman for a month?

Borgnine: 32 days. [Laughs.]

Guillén: During that short period of time, did she sing in the shower?

Borgnine: No, because I never saw her take a shower. Ethel and I started out on a wedding trip and—by way of Hawaii—we went to a number of places. From the very first day that we stopped in Hawaii, a fellow walked up to me and he said, "McHale! My God, you're McHale!" He introduced himself and then I said, "Listen, I'd like to introduce you to my wife Ethel Merman." He didn't know Ethel from Shinola. So I said, "She's an all-time great from the Broadway stage." "Oh yes," he said, "now I remember." Ethel got pissed about that because she wanted to know why nobody knew her.

That happened all the way along the trip. People knew and recognized me but no one knew and recognized her. "What is this?" she said, "What's coming off here?" By the time we finally got home, she was ready to skin me alive while I was wondering what the Hell I had done wrong? We went to a welcome home party at a lawyer friend's and there she berated me in front of everyone until I finally walked off. I went home and thought, "To Hell with that." The next day I told her, "You better call your agency, or your man, and I'll call mine and we'll just call it quits right now." She said, "What do you mean?" I said, "I'm horrified. I'm miserable. No more. I'm sorry." Three years later I was in a little town in Iowa, stuck in the mud over there, and they had a little storefront set up like a museum with WWII outfits and things like that. My friend who was with me said, "Hey look, there's a book by your former wife." I said, "Let's take a look at it." But when she mentioned Ernest Borgnine, it was a blank page. So at least she didn't have anything bad to say about me. [Laughs.]

Guillén: Hopefully, then, your subsequent marriage to Katy Jurado went more smoothly?

Borgnine: Katy was my second wife. Ethel was my third. I had two children with my fourth wife [Donna Rancourt] and now I'm in my fifth marriage [to Tova Traesnaes], which this coming February 24 will be 37 years of wedded bliss.

Guillén: Congratulations! Practice makes perfect, eh?

Borgnine: That's true, yeah.

Guillén: You were often cast as a bad guy. You played a lot of villains in westerns and army films. One of my favorite performances of yours is as Bart Lonergan in Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar (1954). Any stories about Joan Crawford?

Borgnine: Joan was the type of a person that looked all right but don't cross her, y'know? She didn't especially care for Mercedes McCambridge. It was written in the script that Joan's character Vienna didn't like Mercedes' character Emma; but, evidently Joan didn't like Mercedes personally. At the time she was the favorite of Nicholas Ray and she took it out on Nicholas Ray, not Mercedes McCambridge. Am I making myself clear? She called Mercedes McCambridge a fishwife and every other name that she could call her. There was no ruse about it either. The time came when Mercedes McCambridge had the gun on Joan in the saloon and she's supposed to shoot her and Mercedes McCambridge couldn't lift that gun in order to fire and that's when Joan really let go: "You so-and-so!" [Laughs.]

Guillén: But you got along okay with Crawford?

Borgnine: Oh yeah, we came out of it fine. We had a ball. She thought I was great.

Guillén: Another film of your's I love is Bad Day At Black Rock (1955) where you play a racist accessory to murder Coley Trimble. A great film! What was it like working with Spencer Tracy?

Borgnine: Tracy. I'll never forget Tracy. It was the first time I'd ever worked with him and I was scared stiff. My God, here was the man who was an idol—no doubt about it—and not only mine but everybody else's idol. There was a scene that had taken place where I had shoved him off a sandbar and everything else, then he comes riding back into town in this jeep and that's where I was to say my first line in the first scene I had anything to do with him. Robert Ryan came up and said, "Do you mind if I watch this scene?" I said, "No, not at all, not at all." A couple of other fellows walked in wanting to know if they could watch the scene and I said, "Yes, of course, by all means." Their presence—plus the fact that I was working across from Spencer Tracy—was enough to have me blubbering. But what are you gonna do? The cameras started shooting. Tracy got out of the car. I looked up and all I could see were two Academy Awards coming at me. I forgot my name, my line, everything until somebody got up in front of me and I said, "Well, if it ain't the All-American road hog." He talked about how he had tried to get out of my way. Spencer Tracy walked through the hotel door, the scene passed, and that was it. "Print it. Bring the camera over here." Everybody was saying, "Good, kid." Spencer walked out and he said, "Hey, when you're working, you look a man right in the eye, don't ya?" I said, "That's the way to work it, isn't it?" Tracy said, "It's certainly the way I like to work and we're going to get along fine." I'll never forget that beginning with Spencer Tracy.

Guillén: How about Ice Station Zebra (1968) where you play double agent Vaslov? This was yet another large ensemble film on which you collaborated. Patrick McGoohan recently passed away. Any thoughts on Patrick?

Borgnine: Yeah. He was a good man. Kind of crazy, but by golly, he did it right.

Guillén: Ice Station Zebra was filmed about the time McGoohan was doing The Prisoner on TV?

Borgnine: He had just done it and everybody was hot for it, y'know? But when we were shooting Ice Station Zebra, he seemed a little high. He kept doing odd little things; but, hey, the filmmakers liked it and they kept it in and that was it. I never forgot Patrick's name and when I saw it last week in the obituary, I thought, "What a shame." Because he was a fine actor.

Guillén: How was it working with Rock Hudson?

Borgnine: Rock Hudson was fun. He was delightful, very quiet, unassuming, and he had his little boys around him every now and then; but, that was about it. Working with him was just another nice actor to work with. Hey, listen, he did his job and he did it well and that's got it covered.

Guillén: Exactly. Joan Crawford, Spencer Tracy, Rock Hudson—you've worked with just about everybody, haven't you?

Borgnine: Just about, yeah.

Guillén: Is there anyone you haven't worked with that you wish you could have worked with?

Borgnine: There have been so many people, character actors, that I've worked with that don't mean anything to anyone anymore; but, they were the ones who made the films. They were the ones who made the actors look good. Looking back, I ask, "Where are those people today?" There's nobody around. It's very rarely that you find a good character actor anymore. I've been asked, "Well, who would play you?" I can't think of anyone who could play me; can you? Where are the Gary Coopers of today? And the Jimmy Stewarts?

Guillén: You went through a period of being cast in big-budget disaster films, of which The Poseidon Adventure is one of my favorites. I loved your character Mike Rogo in that film and his abiding love for his wife Linda, played by Stella Stevens. What was it like working on that film?

Borgnine: It was wonderful working with all those people. The only one who was a little untowards was Shelley Winters. Of course you expected it from her, y'know? She'd go around complaining, "Why is this? Why is that?" She'd be picking up things and we'd have to yell at her, "Put those things down! The ship is turned over, gosh darn it!" [Laughs.] She was going around picking up whenever the crew had left, y'know? At one point we were going to play a couple that were getting a divorce after 50 years of marriage because finally our kids had grown up. We were on our way to Italy on a cruise and were going to get a divorce when we got back. But things got so bad between her and me. She'd call up and say, "Ernie, I had a terrible night last night." It wasn't terrible at all; she didn't get to bed until about four in the morning, y'know?—out drinking and everything else—so then she'd say, "Would you help me with my lines?" So I'd say, "Sure." I'd help her with her lines and by the time we got to doing the scene, she'd have all her lines down pat and I couldn't remember mine! But I'm good-natured to those who have done wrong. I don't hold any grudges or anything else. I just said, "Damn, it's not your scene so cut it out."

Guillén: That's one of the compliments Robert paid you this morning when we were talking. He greatly respects the fact that you acknowledge all the people you've worked with in Hollywood and throughout the world and that you bear no cynicism nor bitterness towards anyone.

Borgnine: Naw. I have to say that—after paying half a million dollars to this one guy who screwed me up pretty good—I met him one day. He opened up the door, saw me, and he blanched and said, "What are you going to do?" I told him, "I'm not going to do anything; come on out and at least go to lunch." He said, "You mean you're not mad at me?" I said, "What do I gotta be mad for? It's water under the dam, that's all."

Guillén: Another one of my favorite roles of yours was as the cabbie in John Carpenter's Escape From New York (1981). What can you tell me about that film?

Borgnine: The thing was that when John Carpenter said to me that he wanted me to play a cabbie, I said, "Hell, John, I could play that with my eyes closed." I said, "How about me playing the warden?" He said, "No, we have Lee Van Cleef playing that part." I said, "Oh Hell, okay, I'll play the cabbie." So we went to see the picture after it was all over with and Harry Dean Stanton and I were watching the film and there was not a word, not a comment, nothing, until the poor cabbie dies in the crash. Somebody shoots me and then I'm dead. And everyone in the audience went, "Awwwwwww……" That's when we realized everyone loved the cabbie! Of course the film went on to include some wild chases. It's a great film. I loved it.

Guillén: It's a film that's a lot of fun.

Borgnine: Yeah, it's a lot of fun. It was wonderful making it and, of course, Carpenter was a sweetheart among sweethearts; he couldn't do enough for you.

Guillén: Well, Ernie, we need to wrap up but I want to thank you so much for taking a walk down memory lane with me today. God bless you. I look forward to seeing you in your next films.

Borgnine: I hope we can sit down one day and have a cup of coffee or do something together.

Guillén: Sounds great to me.

Borgnine: And listen, the best to you in 2009. God bless ya. Thank you, Mike, bye-bye.

Cross-published on The Evening Class.

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