For hire: Oscar-winning actor, 90 years young

Ernest Borgnine says he welcomes a chance to return to the big screen.

By BOB THOMAS, Associated Press
Published January 26, 2007

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - At a recent reunion of the cast of the 1960s TV comedy McHale's Navy, the actors were appalled at the arrival of their former commandant. A driver helped Ernest Borgnine from the car. The once-exuberant Lt. Cmdr. Quinton McHale was stooped over and walked haltingly, muttering gibberish.

His former ensign, comedian Tim Conway, rushed forward and exclaimed, "Ernie, what has happened to you?"

Suddenly Borgnine straightened up, threw out his massive chest and bellowed, "What's going on here?" followed by his signature high-decibel laugh.

Prankster Borgnine, who turned 90 on Wednesday, shows little evidence of aging. His round, pudgy face is little changed. His only concession to age was abandoning the bus he used to drive around the country, talking with folks along the way.

"I gave up the bus when I was 88," he said. "I figured if I had an accident, I could be sued for plenty. Now I take cruises. I just returned from one that started in Auckland, New Zealand, and visited a lot of islands. I made a couple of speeches and had a great time."

Borgnine is preparing for a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie, but otherwise his film work has been scarce of late.

"I keep telling myself, 'Damn it, you got to go to work,"' he said. "But there aren't many people who want to put Borgnine to work these days. They keep asking, 'Is he still alive?' "

Borgnine talked about his life and times at his spacious aerie near Coldwater Canyon. He bought the 14-room house in 1965 for $110,000 and has expanded it. The value now is in the millions.

A meandering path

The Borgnine story is unique among Hollywood sagas because acting had nothing to do with it for nearly three decades.

He was born in Hamden, Conn., to Italian parents. They divorced when he was 2 and his mother took him to live in Italy. He returned to the United States five years later and joined the Navy in 1935. He was discharged in 1941, then re-enlisted when World War II started.

"I never considered being an actor until I was 28," he said. "When I was home from the Navy after the war, my mother said, 'Have you ever thought of becoming an actor?' "

He joined a drama company in Hartford, Conn., then spent five years at the Barter Theater in Abingdon, Va., learning the actor's trade from the bottom up. He moved to New York where he played a role in Harvey and appeared in television dramas.

A movie called 'Marty'

Hollywood discovered Borgnine as a heavy. He was the vicious soldier who beat Frank Sinatra to a pulp in From Here to Eternity and the outlaw who menaced one-armed Spencer Tracy in Bad Day at Black Rock. Then along came Marty.

Rod Steiger had won plaudits for his role as the shy Bronx butcher in Paddy Chayefsky's original TV drama and was considered ideal for the film version. But he had already signed to play the villain Jud in Oklahoma! Chayefsky and director Delbert Mann scouted other actors, including Borgnine.

"They came to the set of Bad Day at Black Rock and asked if I could read some scenes from Marty," Borgnine said. "So I started reading from the script and all of a sudden I started crying. I gave the performance of my life. I looked over and saw that Paddy and Delbert were crying too. I knew I had won the part."

Marty was an Oscar phenomenon. The low-budget, black-and-white drama competed against such giants as Picnic and Mister Roberts. A publicity campaign that cost more than the movie's budget blanketed the industry. Result: Oscars for best picture and for Borgnine, Mann and Chayefsky. Borgnine's salary for the film: $5,000.

Love, at last

Borgnine spoke frankly about his five wives, including Katy Jurado, the Mexican actress with whom Ernie battled across Europe and America; Ethel Merman, to whom he was married for 32 days; and Tova, the beauty-products tycoon.

"Tova and I have been married for 34 years," Borgnine said proudly. "That's longer than the total of my four other marriages." The thought of it prompted another loud guffaw.

Tova appeared during the interview, and the pair posed for some lovey-dovey photographs. She has sold her company to a competitor, for which she is now the spokeswoman. She is indeed the ideal representative: perfect skin, coiffeur, attire.

Asked about today's movies, Borgnine responded: "I don't like 'em. Oh, there are some good ones that come along. I liked the two pictures that Clint Eastwood made. The Queen is very good. I liked Bobby. But the majority . . ." His voice trailed off.

"I just want to do more work. Every time I step in front of a camera I feel young again. I really do. It keeps your mind active and it keeps you going."