With his perspective, Borgnine...says modern filmmaking has suffered from too much focus on making money. "Take a look at those old pictures. Even if they're B or C quality, they still have a certain something that catches you. You don't find that today. Today, it's either guns, sex or guns and sex and everybody's killed at the end and everybody's having a ball."
Have to agree. Long gone are the low budget thoughtful films.
"For Ernest Borgnine, career has been an eternity"
January 28th, 2011
January 28th, 2011
Ernest Borgnine isn't making a big deal about his 94th birthday.
A phone call from a cousin in Italy, to whom he responds in vigorous Italian, fine. Birthday presents arriving from near and far, fine. But big plans for the evening, at the suggestion of his children? No way.
"It's just an ordinary day. Why make such a big fuss? I have to go out and get drunk or something? Do you mind if I just stay home? That's exactly what I'm doing," he says, punctuating his statement with a hearty laugh.
This is no curmudgeon. Belly laughs are frequent during a 45-minute conversation at the hilltop home of the actor, who will receive the Life Achievement Award at The 17th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards on Sunday (TNT and TBS, 8 ET/5 PT). He lights up as Tova, his wife of nearly 40 years, stops by to say hello.
Borgnine credits his mother for suggesting that he try acting when he was looking for work after 10 years in the Navy. "She said, 'Have you ever thought of becoming an actor? You always like to make a damn fool of yourself in front of people. Why don't you give it a try?' "
The Connecticut native talks about a varied career of more than 60 years, of acting at Virginia's Barter Theatre for $30 a week, of working with Helen Hayes on Broadway, with Gary Cooper and Spencer Tracy in film and, for a much younger generation, in SpongeBob SquarePants on TV. He and Frank Sinatra signed their Christmas cards Fatso and Maggio, their respective characters in 1953's From Here to Eternity, a breakout role for Borgnine.
It's a snapshot of cinema history when Borgnine talks about looking at Burt Lancaster and fellow nominee Jimmy Cagney as Grace Kelly announced his name as the winner of the 1955 best-actor Oscar for playing the lonely butcher in Marty.
"Jerry Lewis had bet me a buck ninety-eight that I'd win. I'd gone home and taken 198 pennies and put them in a red sock, and as I went up there, they all wondered what I passed to Jerry Lewis," says the actor, pointing to the Oscar on a shelf in the living room.
After initially resisting series TV, ego pushed Borgnine into a medium most film actors wouldn't touch in the early '60s. A kid selling candy couldn't identify the actor but was familiar with Gunsmoke's James Arness and Have Gun Will Travel's Richard Boone. That persuaded him to enlist in McHale's Navy.
"I called my agent. He said, 'What made up your mind?' I said, 'None of your damn business.' " (Don't get Borgnine started on agents. He says one cost him the lead in 1968 film The Shoes of the Fishermen. "Agents. Let's not get into that.")
The TV move helped make him a household name, and it didn't seem to hurt a movie career that continued with The Dirty Dozen, The Wild Bunch and The Poseidon Adventure.
However, Borgnine's story isn't just one of old Hollywood. He's in the upcoming comedy Night Club, and he appeared in last year's RED with Bruce Willis. He's hoping for a sequel. "This time, I want a gun. If you can handle a gun on The Wild Bunch, you can handle anything," he says.
Borgnine's secret for a long career? He's not another pretty face. "I was a character actor. Do I look like a good-looking man? No," he says, flashing that famous gap-toothed smile. "But, see, I keep working when the rest of the boys are retired."
The five-times-married father of three isn't finicky about scripts, either. "I read it. If I don't fall asleep, it's pretty good."
He gets a kick out of those who wonder about his age, relating a suggestion Tova made to British film officials a few years ago. "She said, 'Why don't you invite my husband to speak?' And they waited a long time and they said, 'Is he coherent?' " he says, putting on a British accent. He eventually spoke and received a standing ovation.
With his perspective, Borgnine, a Turner Classic Movies fan, says modern filmmaking has suffered from too much focus on making money. "Take a look at those old pictures. Even if they're B or C quality, they still have a certain something that catches you. You don't find that today. Today, it's either guns, sex or guns and sex and everybody's killed at the end and everybody's having a ball."
Something is missing in the acting trade, too. "You don't see any more Gary Coopers or Spencer Tracys." (He is a fan of Robert Downey Jr.)
Overall, he's not complaining.
"It's been a long and successful (career), successful in many ways. There's been a lot of heartaches and a lot of tears and worrying about jobs and everything else," he says. "But we made it and here we are."