Shining A Spotlight
On Ernest Borgnine
The Former Character Actor Who Also Took Several Turns As A Leading Man Dishes On How He Was Nearly Type-Cast As A Bad Guy And A Few Lessons He Learned From His Mother
Photo of Ernest Borngine as Commander Quentin McHale from the television program McHale's Navy.
By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine
Aug. 18, 2014 — Some call it the “dog days of summer,” but at Turner Classic Movies they call August the “Summer Under the Stars” where each day is dedicated to a different Hollywood icon. On Saturday, Aug. 23, the burly, gap-toothed actor Ernest Borgnine gets the star treatment with the screening of seven of his films, including his Oscar turn in Marty (1955) and Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 western classic The Wild Bunch.
Borgnine, who died in 2012 at the age of 95, sat down to talk with us about his eclectic career in his dressing room trailer while filming a small independent film in Kenosha, Wisc. in 1998.
After toiling in various factory jobs after serving in the Navy during World War II, his mother suggested that young Ernie, with his forceful personality, could channel that energy into acting.
Borgnine started as a screen heavy when he played Sgt. Fatso Judson in “From Here to Eternity” in 1953. Two years later, he broke out of the mold, portraying the sensitive New York butcher Marty Piletti in “Marty.”
“Well, playing a heavy always paid me well,” he said. “It all started with From Here to Eternity. Then I got into being a bad guy, killing Lee Marvin with a pitchfork. One thing led to another. Finally when I did Marty, somebody asked, Marty? To be played by Ernest Borgnine? He’s a killer!”
Regarding his film, The Wild Bunch, we needed to clear the air regarding the scene where William Holden and the men are in a brothel and Borgnine is the lone gang member sitting outside whittling on a piece of wood. Some say the scene – purposely placed there by director Sam Peckinpah – signaled to audiences that his character was actually a closeted homosexual.
“Oh my Gold almighty!,” Borgnine roared. “Ain’t that something? I always tell people this. I’d already finished up in the brothel! How stupid could people be? No, it was just like this. The man was done and he was out there waiting for the rest of the guys to come out. Period. That’s it, you know.”
Away from the big screen, Borgnine is probably best remembered as the skipper of PT 73 in the 1960s sitcom, McHale’s Navy. Years later he made a cameo in the Tom Arnold big screen adaptation. “I was in it,” he said. “They paid me well for it, and I can’t say another word about it. In the TV series, I had chemistry with those guys that spewed forth a sense of comedy. I’m sorry to say in the film they made, there was just nothing there.”
Borgnine never stopped working at a breakneck pace well into his 90s. “My mother told me as a young man. ‘You know Ernie, if you can make one person laugh in the span of 24 hours, you have accomplished a great deal.’ And that’s what I try to do, make somebody laugh in the span of 24 hours. That’s it. If you can do that, it keeps you young, keeps you happy, and hey, what more can you ask out of life?”
David Fantle & Tom Johnson have interviewed more than 250 celebrities, mostly from Hollywood’s Golden Age. They are co-authors of the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 years of celebrity profiles from vaudeville to movies to TV. Reach them at www.reeltoreal.com.
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