Ernest Borgnine: One of Hollywood’s Best
It was an afternoon last week and the latest earthquake had just hit California, but it didn’t seem to bother the 91-year-old actor who is on the verge of having appeared in 200 movies. He actually laughed about the whole thing. In 1955, Ernest Borgnine won the Oscar for best actor in Marty. Today more than 50 years later, he finally has penned his memoirs titled Ernie. Whether it was the hit TV show McHale’s Navy, From Here To Eternity with Frank Sinatra, or the original Poseidon Adventures, Borgnine has entertained millions. He is one of the last actors left from the beginning era of Hollywood where it was less about the money, the fame, and more about the work.
Listen to the Ernest Borgnine CYInterview:
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Chris Yandek: Thanks for joining me today. How are you doing?
Ernest Borgnine: “Are you kidding? It’s my pleasure. And I tell you, we just had a – boy this is the day of all days. We just had a cake naturally for the day. I feel like a pregnant mother you know? (Laughs) The book is coming out. We just had an earthquake and I was in the middle of an interview at the time and the woman says, ‘Can you hold on? Well, no…no, better yet I will call you back. (Laughs)”
CY: I was just about to call you and I was saying to myself oh shit, I hope that earthquake didn’t tear his house apart.
EB: “(Laughs) I am sitting here rocking like I am a boy on a ship. You know what I mean.”
CY: Yes. Definitely.
EB: “I am saying to myself oh my God it’s an earthquake. Well, what are you gonna do?”
CY: Was there any particular reason why you choose to write the book now?
EB: “They’ve been asking me for years to do this. Finally Harry Flynn, my publicist, he said, ‘God dang it. Everyone wants to know the stories you got to tell and everything else. Come on. We’re gonna sit down here and put it in machines and that’s it.’ So we started out and that was about two and a half, three years ago I guess and one thing led to another and we started putting it down on paper and the first thing you know here it is. I just got word that Amazon has upped it to five stars. Not too shabby, huh?”
CY: This isn’t too shabby at all. Many would ask, does he have a secret to how long he’s lived or done anything in particular?
EB: “If you weren’t on the radio or whatever it is that you’re on I’d tell you, but just good clean living if you know what I mean? (Laughs)”
CY: Nothing else but good clean living?
EB: “Good clean living. Lots of divorces, but no good clean living. (Laughs) Ah. What the heck.”
CY: Four to be exact, four to be exact. Last time I checked.
EB: “Yeah, but now we’re going to be going on to our 36th wedding anniversary believe it or not.”
CY: Yeah. You and Tova are doing very well.”
EB: “Tova. God bless her.”
CY: How is your health currently?
EB: “My health is good except for I got kind of a stiff knee, my left knee. I had it changed about nine years ago. Now they got to go in there and do it again. I said well, ok. We set it up for November. After that I am going back to making pictures.”
CY: Is there anything in particular you still get out of making a movie today?
EB: “Yes. Listen, I read the script and if it’s any good, if it makes any sense because today’s work, I don’t know it just doesn’t make sense, a lot of it. It’s just guns and sex and more guns and more sex. You say to yourself, when the hell are you gonna get down to the nitty-gritty and do something good so people can be entertained? I mean if they call this entertainment.”
CY: Are there any challenges or difficulties today when you’re making a movie?
EB: “Difficulties? I want to tell you something. Three quarters of these producers don’t even know who I am. The other quarter think I am dead. (Laughs) But I got them fooled.”
CY: I would say obviously that I wasn’t sure you were still alive. I was like 91 years old? Can he really do this? Can he really talk to me? 91 years old to write a book. Well, I am glad you’re still here.
EB: “Why not? What the heck? Listen, as long as I am cohesive and people understand me what the hell? That’s what it’s all about. Isn’t it?”
CY: Definitely so. You talked about Marty in the book and how it almost wasn’t made. How do you think your career would’ve been different if Marty was not finished besides not winning the Oscar?
EB: “Good question. Good Question. I’ll tell you. I don’t know. It seemed that my mother who said to me, ‘Why don’t you take a crack at it? You know? You’re always wanting to make a damn fool of yourself in front of people.’ She only saw me on the stage one time and that one time was enough to say to her by golly I think you can do it and I hope you stick with it and so I stuck with it you know? Here I am and you wonder how the heck these things have fallen into place? Like along came Marty. Marty was supposed to be a picture, believe it or not, that wasn’t supposed to be finished. They just wanted to make it for a tax loss because Hecht and Lancaster were making so much money with the other pictures that they needed something to write off. So they made Marty. When we came back from the first ten days of shooting in the Bronx there were no sets. We shot the whole bloody thing in 14 days believe it or not. But there were no sets and they said oh my God! Well, their tax man had come to them and said to them in the meantime, ‘Wait a minute. You gotta finish this picture, show it one time, then you can take a tax loss.’ So they went and finished the picture. I made the picture for $5000 believe it or not. Hell I’d made it for nothing.”
CY: That is in the book.
EB: “That is in the book. That’s right. Believe me. It’s one of those crazy kind of things you say to yourself well, how the heck did it happen? Suddenly bam, here we are ten years later after my mother said, ‘Well why don’t you become an actor?’ After ten years in the service. Ten years later I got an Academy Award. Now you figure it out. Somebody up there is watching me.”
CY: When you look back on it 50 years ago, has your personal view changed about winning the Oscar?
EB: “No. Not really. I am very proud of having won that Oscar because I know what I put into it. I know that the people who voted for me voted because they thought I was the best at that time. It’s a wonderful thing to look up there and see that you achieved something that your peers gave to you and appreciation for your work. That’s most of all what I think about when I see the Oscar. I think it’s wonderful that people thought well of me you know?”
CY: I agree with that. A lot of people remember you from McHale’s Navy but was it as fun to do as it was to watch?
EB: “Oh sure, my heavens yes. We did McHale’s Navy and sometimes we’d do it in a day and a half. It was just so good and boom we were working away. I kept telling the boys, listen we gotta slow it down fellas because If we don’t do that they’ll have us doing it in a day. You know? If they can get more in for your time, oh golly. You don’t know how these studios work man. If they know they can get it out of you in a day and a half they’ll try to get it in a day. It’s just one of those things, but we had a wonderful time. We used to have fun with the people who came by to watch us shoot and they would bring these trams by. That was the first time Universal was having all the trams go by with all the people that were interested in people shooting the pictures and we’d jump out of the bushes like crazy guys and they loved it. It was wonderful and believe me it was a lot of fun. It really was a lot of fun.”
CY: There is a story in the book about how some regular individuals just wanting to beat you up because they thought you really killed Frank Sinatra in real life in the movie you did with him. Why do you think they thought you really killed Sinatra? Was it that believable back then?
EB: “I guess it was to him. By golly they were mad at me. Did you read where the cop said, ‘I caught the son of a bitch who killed Frank Sinatra? (Laughs)”
EB: “And gave me a ticket. So you could imagine. For a long time a lot of people said that. Every now and then I’d get a thing, you shouldn’t have done that to Frank Sinatra. He won an Academy Award didn’t he?”
CY: Yeah. That movie was very important to him From Here To Eternity because his career was on the down then.
EB: “You better believe it. He was on the uppers. He was doing gigs at that time believe it or not after work at night he was doing gigs for $50 a night. He wouldn’t say anything to anybody but by golly that’s why he worked so hard on this one. When he won the Academy Award, by God he had it right by the short hair. He was very proud and I know it because he worked hard for that. He deserved it.”
CY: What would you say is the one thing you are most disappointed about in the direction the movie business is going and Hollywood in general?
EB: “I hate to hesitate to find anything wrong because believe me they don’t direct anymore like they used to. The old timers used to come out on the set, watch you as you performed. It was all inside the camera by the time they said cut. Nowadays everybody looks into this little television set and as long as you’re staying in the confines of this little television set boom you’re home free. There is an awful lot of directors that don’t look for looks anymore or the give and take of a couple of actors together. They don’t bother with that stuff anymore. It’s just how soon can they crank out, how soon can they get it going, and is it altogether, and boom that’s it. I hate the dickens today because it’s an altogether different way of making pictures than we made in my time.”
CY: Is there too much relying on sex, violence, less dialogue, more effects? Is that where it is right now and we’re not concentrating enough on the acting?
EB: “You know? That’s it exactly. I think dialogue has an awful lot to do with it, but as long as you can give a lot of shooting, killing, flames, and flamethrowers, and everything else it takes up time. Schwarzenegger doesn’t say too much in his pictures does he or does Stallone? Because they don’t have to with all those gun shots going off and things going off and the going from here to there. Hey! It’s easy. Hell. I could do it.”
CY: You’ve been with your current wife Tova for over 30 years now. You talk about all the relationships in the book, but what do you think it was for you personally that kept trying to find the right woman to spend the rest of your life with even though it took five times?
EB: “Because I wanted a home. I wanted a family. I came from a family where we sat down and ate together every night. We had breakfast in the morning. My father used to leave before breakfast, but at least we were there with our mother. It was family oriented and when you sat down at night by golly there was pop and mom and sister and myself. We sat down, talked, and did things together you know? There was no such thing as television or anything else. We had a radio we listened, an old Atwater with a big goose horn. Those were wonderful times. Then we had people who came over to the house that would start talking about the old country and what they did in the old country, what happened. We kids were just fascinated with these stories they told because it was so wonderful. This is the kind of upbringing we had instead of sitting in front of a damn television set all day long and never answering to anybody else unless somebody spoke up from a television set. It’s an altogether different way of living today that you wonder how it really affects the family? I know how it affects the family because I have my own son who has his children and also my daughter. It’s one of those things. Everybody eats in their own way and off they go. You know? It’s not family oriented anymore.”
CY: It’s not family oriented anymore. You’ve been here for every major World War, every major social change in this country, have we gone forward more than we’ve gone backward? How far have we come do you think seeing everything that you have and all the technological advances we’ve had?
EB: “You’re asking me a question people can’t answer. How far have we come? I don’t think we’ve come far at all. All we think about how the next guy is fixed and what are we going to do to get at him? I think it’s silly. My personal achievement in life would be to bring peace to everyone so that we can go from country to country. One fellow one time went without a passport and he said, ‘I don’t need a passport. I am a citizen of the world’. A lot of people thought he was a nut. But you know something? He was far ahead of his time because this man wanted nothing but peace. Listen, we’re all in this world for something. So why can’t I go from one place to another to another to another and be your brother or possibly your sister or whatever? Why can’t we enjoy the fruits of life together instead of railing against these people? Oh my goodness! You can’t dig down in the earth because it’s going to destroy it or you can’t do this, you can’t do that. You know? There’s so many people walking around like a chicken with their heads cut off. That it isn’t funny anymore. It isn’t. I got a damn good mind to write a book about all the feelings that I have inside about all these things that happened in our life that we’re making happen and letting it happen when it shouldn’t be happening. Sorry I went on a soapbox, but that’s the way I feel.”
CY: I agree with you in many ways. Looking back at Hollywood, do you still follow anybody in the industry today or is there anybody you’re a fan of?
EB: “Oh sure. I love Gary Sinise. I love Robert Downey Jr., they’re a few old boys. Heck there is a lot of them and there are some wonderful women there too. Believe me. There are some out there that are really good. Will they really let them work? Will they really let them achieve something? Look at Robert Downey Jr., came out in that Iron Man. I haven’t seen it yet, but if we’re going to put funnies in theater then lets be funny about it and not have the funny man blow up the world just cause that’s whatever he wants to do, Batman and things like that. You kind of wonder about the whole God damn thing of whether they’re out there to make a fast buck and the hell with everything. The pictures have come out on Friday, by the time Monday comes around it’s oh my God they made 300 million dollars. Well, that’s fine, but how much more can they make after that? It just goes out for a weekend and bam they’re done. Then they send them over to Europe and see what they can get out of them over there. It’s crazy. I don’t know. It just doesn’t make sense. Everything is out for the almighty dollar and to hell with the rest of it you know?”
CY: I agree with you. It’s become very commercialized and less about the art. Talking about the press, you talk about it in the book and you say the majority of it wasn’t true back when they were writing stuff about you. Would you say the press coverage is worse today than it was in your time or was it about the same?
EB: “Today it’s terrible. They put you in front of a camera on a satellite dish and you can make at least 40 different states in about three hours and there you are. At one time they used to put you on a plane and you’d go from state to state to place to place and appear and maybe you’d get on television. You were there in front of people and you’re talking about things. Very…very seldom do you have people coming in and talking about their pictures unless they go on Letterman or something like that and then what do they have to prove? Nothing. It’s not like it used to be. You used to sell pictures at one time that were pictures.”
CY: If you could work with one person again from your entire career, who would it be?
EB: “Oh golly. Suddenly it took on every face that I’ve ever known (Laughs).”
CY: Well, let me ask you then. Is there anyone in particular you miss the most?
EB: “Yeah. Bill Holden was really a great…great guy. Of course in my book you’ll find Gary Cooper and a whole bunch of wonderful actors that I worked with. Spencer Tracy. That’s why I say when you asked me that question a whole conglomeration of faces came by me. Who the hell can you possibly pick you know? Because they were all so marvelous, so wonderful, so giving. They were the kind of fellas that knew they made their work. They had nothing to prove so they did it for the good of the picture. That’s the way they always worked, for the good of the picture. Today it’s not like that at all. Don’t get in my way kid or I’ll slap you around because you’re standing in my light. (Laughs)”
CY: Is there anything in particular you’d like to say or any way you’d like to be remembered when it’s all said and done?
EB: “Yeah. Let’s have peace and I mean peace. Wouldn’t it be wonderful? I’d like to be remembered as my mother once said, ‘If you can make one person in the world happy or make them laugh in the span of 24 hours, you’ve achieved a great deal.’ I think this is what I’ve gone by all my life and this is what I still go by. I feel that if we all made ourselves happy in one day and somewhere along the line you’ve brought a little fun into some person’s life wouldn’t it be wonderful to say hey, today I talked to this fella and he made me happy, he made me feel good. That’s what it’s all about. At least me.”
CY: Thank you so much for your time today and I wish you the best in the future.
EB: “God bless you and thank you very much. Believe me. It’s been a pleasure.”
You can find more out about Ernie and Ernest Borgnine’s book tour at the following link:
A special thanks to Ernest Borgnine’s entire team for their help on this interview.
Fans interested in autograph requests should send self addressed stamped envelopes to Mr. Borgnine:
c/o Tovern Productions, 3055 Lake Glen Drive, Beverly Hills CA 90210
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