Ernest Borgnine

Photo: Ernest Borgnine

Interviewed by Clyde Jeavons

The highlight of the NFT's tribute to Ernest Borgnine, Ernest appeared on 21 May to discuss his long and distinguished career. Having made his mark as a heavy in From Here to Eternity, Johnny Guitar and Bad Day at Black Rock, he then won an Oscar and several other Best Actor awards (Cannes included) for Marty, a part which proved that he was considerably more than just a 'baddie'. Over the years he's worked with many distinguished directors, but he's perhaps best known as a favourite actor of Robert Aldrich and Sam Peckinpah. He'd be remarkable for his longevity alone, had he not also given us so many memorable characters.


Clyde Jeavons: Please welcome Ernest Borgnine.

Ernest Borgnine: What you see is what you get. This is it. Thank you so much for coming, I'm so honoured. Thank you, every one of you, God bless and I hope you enjoy it.

CJ: Ernie, I was going to say welcome to the NFT, but I think you have been welcomed , well and truly.

EB: I certainly have been.

CJ: We've just had the pleasure of being reminded of some of the highlights of such a sustained, high-calibre career spanning fifty years. However, is it fair to say that until the age of thirty you had had no desire to be an actor? You spent ten happy years in the navy, so what triggered this surprising decision, why didn't you stay in the navy if you were so happy there?

EB: Well, after World War II we wanted no more part in war. I didn't even want to be a boy-scout. I went home and said that I was through with the navy and so now, what do we do? So I went home to mother, and after a few weeks of patting on the back and, 'You did good,' and everything else, one day she said, 'Well?' like mothers do, which meant, 'Alright, you gonna get a job or what?'

So I said, 'OK' and packed my lunch and off I went. I'd stand in front of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company and the Newhaven Corset Company and the Newhaven Clock Shop and everything else - I came from Newhaven, Connecticut originally. I'd see these young-old men going into these factories and I said to myself, 'Me? Locked up in those factories? That's like going to jail every day.' It's not that I'm afraid of hard work, I'm not, but believe me, after ten years in the service, you're out there and full of air and ready to go and I just couldn't see it.

So I'd take my lunch and go to a movie or a park and feed the squirrels and then I'd go home. One day my mother said to me, 'What's the matter, Ernie?' and I said, 'Mom, for two cents I'd go back into the service and do my other ten years and get my pension, at least I'll have something coming in.' And out of a clear blue sky she said, 'Have you ever thought about 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?' And I looked up, and I saw those golden doors open and that light came down! So I said, 'Mom, that's what I'm going to be!'

The next day I went to Yale University, and there was a Professor Cole, and Professor Cole said, 'Yes, I see here by your marks that you'll have to take two years of undergraduate study.' I said, 'What will that consist of, sir?' He said, 'Well, geometry, trigonometry, calculus, algebra...' Everything that I hated I had to redo! So I said, 'Sir, I don't mean to be rude, but I don't want to be a mathematician or a scientist, I want to be an actor.' But he said that that would mean two years of undergraduate study. So I said thank you very much, took my card and off I went. I eventually found a little school, went for about three or four months and at the end of that time the season was over and I had gotten the first decent reviews written by a critic in Connecticut in fourteen years, and I said, 'I quit. I'm going back to the navy, this is worse than the navy. You've got to hurry-up and wait, hurry-up and wait.' The fella said, 'Wait a minute. Come with me, I'm going to a theatre in Abingdon, Virginia called the Barter Theatre of Virginia...'

Am I going on too long?

CJ: No, you're doing fine, making my job a lot easier.


EB: So there was a young man by the name of Robert Porterfield had taken a bunch of hungry actors off Broadway and brought them down into the hinterlands of Virginia and they put on shows for the farmers. If you couldn't afford to pay to see the show you could bring barter - like jams, jellies, butter, ham, milk and the actors used to eat the box-office.

Fred Allen, one of our famous comics at one time, used to say, 'Robert Porterfield knows if he's had a successful season by just weighing his actors at the end of the year'.

While I was there, the first year I went down with my friend and he stayed one day and I stayed five and a half years, I learned my profession. But I didn't learn by doing, I learned by watching. What I used to do was work in the scene docks all day long, building scenery and learning how to light the scenery, I even used to make costumes for the actors and actresses. We did everything. It was the most marvellous thing in the world, because there you started at the bottom and worked up. One day they said, 'We need someone to make an entrance and an exit. You, didn't you say you wanted to be an actor?'


'Right. You're a union leader and it's called State of the Union and you go from stage right to stage left and that's it.'


'Just take your own pick.'

So I got myself a derby and a long cigar and put on what clothes I had and when my time came I went across with my cigar and my fingers stuck in my vest. Now, some critic in the audience looked at me in amazement and said, 'This guy is so natural. He's the funniest thing in the show!' So she wrote a column on me and everybody got excited and said, gee, well maybe this kid could act. So from then on I got started.

One day they said that they were going to do The Glass Menagerie, and the woman that played the mother wanted me to be the man that comes to visit. So I did it all, and when we first started I studied the script and gave it all the ho-ho's and ha-ha's that they did on Broadway. We had the original stage manager come down to direct the show. He asked me how many times I'd seen the show, and I said I'd never seen it. 'You've never seen this show? How can you do all this?'

'I just followed what was in the script.'

'Oh I see. Well now we're going to change the whole thing.' So we changed the whole thing. Well, they came down for the first off-Broadway showing of The Glass Menagerie, and Brooks Atkinson was there, who was the critic of the New York Times, and they had all kinds of critics come down. There I was, and I did the show, and when my time came to get off I walked out and said, 'I've just given the worst performance of my life', not that I'd given many performances. I thought I was terrible. But the house came down, and they applauded like mad. I couldn't believe it. But I had done good.

So I made my way up to the Barter Inn, where we stayed, and who should be standing there but Professor Cole. He said, 'Young man, do you realise what you did tonight?' I said, 'No. I don't'.

'You were absolutely wonderful,' he said, 'You gave it a whole new dimension.'

'Thank you, Professor Cole.'

'You know me?'

'Remember that fella you that you said had to take two years of undergraduate study...'


Killing Frank Sinatra

CJ: One of the many roles you played was The Hospital Attendant in Harvey, and you were spotted doing that, I believe, and chosen to play that on Broadway. How did that come about?

EB: Well, Brock Pemberton, the producer, had done it so long on Broadway that he felt he knew all the lines and he chose me to play the Hospital Attendant. So we did it, and he was all excited and he sent his man over and he said, 'Mr Pemberton wants you to come to Broadway because the Hospital Attendant is going off to make a picture, so they want you for the New York Company'. I said, 'Sir, that's wonderful, but I can't.'

'What do you mean you can't? How much are you making here?'

'Thirty-five dollars a week.'

'We're offering you one hundred and fifty!'

'Thank you very much, but I can't.'


'I'm not ready.' I felt in myself that, somehow or other, I had to learn more. So a year later he called me again, and I had just done fourteen straight shows...

I feel like I'm all me, me, me. I don't like to blow my horn. But that's the way it happened with me, you know...

So we'd just finished fourteen straight shows and I'd played everything from Shakespeare to Shaw - you name it, we did it. I had fourteen solid days of work and then I had to fly to New York to open on Sunday with Joe E Brown, the famous comic, who was doing Harvey. I met the stage manager at the door to the theatre and he showed me this way and that way. I didn't meet anybody in the cast until I came on stage. The first time I met Joe E Brown was on the stage! So we got through it, you know. And, man, I tell you I felt so great. I had done a show on Broadway.

I went over to a restaurant called McGuinness' and I ordered dinner - we had a show that night - and my bubble was this big, you know. And I said, 'Man! I did it. I stepped on a couple of lines, but I did it!' A woman came by who had evidently seen the show and said, 'Oh yeah, there's that jerk that was talking through the laughs.' And my bubble went flermgh. But those things happen, you know. You get better at the part. But that was the only one that I ever quit, to go back to the Barter theatre. The man says, 'But I'm paying you. What do you want?' I said that I felt I owed Mr Porterfield a debt of gratitude. So I had to go back.

So what do you think I went back into? A production of Hamlet. Without knowing it. I played Guildenstern and a courtier. We took the production, that was sponsored by the State Department, to Denmark. It was fabulous! I remember two o' clock in the morning, when we'd finished work and I opened up my windows and looked at the inlet that led to Sweden and shouted, 'Good morning, world!' It was a great experience.

CJ: And it all paid off because you found yourself on saflight to Hollywood. Was that a job offer, or were you going to try your luck?

EB: Actually it all started because of the fact that I had been called in for a test. I don't like watching other people's work, so I asked to be excused and when they needed me, I'd be there. When they explained this thing to me where I was supposed to be interrogating this man, I asked if they'd mind if I sat on the edge of the table and they said, 'Oh, no, no.' So they started to move the camera again, so I said, 'Sir, please, I don't...'

'Oh, no, no. It's perfectly alright. Don't you worry about it.'

So I sat on the edge of the table and the imaginary man was sitting there, I just heard lines, and during the course of events, pow, I smashed him across the face. And he said, 'OK. I'll see you in Hollywood.' And I said, 'Oh, sure.' Because that kind of thing had happened to me before.

A couple of weeks later I went out to make a picture called The Mob with Broderick Crawford and because what I had done had so impressed that test man that he kept pushing my name up for From Here to Eternity. I had read the book two years before and I said, 'Knowing that there's a God above, I'm going to play the part of Fatso Judson.' I had no idea that I would ever play it, but it was nice to think.

I remember one evening, talking to my friend who was then delivering mail while he was being an actor to make ends meet. I asked him if he'd mind me delivering mail with him and he said that he'd pick me up in the morning. That night the telephone rang and someone said, 'How soon can you get out here to Hollywood?' I said, 'What do you need me for?', and they said, 'We want you to play the part of Fatso Judson in From Here to Eternity. Enough said, right?

Q: How much money did you have in your pocket that night?

EB: Nothing. I had about a quarter. I went out there and Frank Sinatra was making 150 dollars a week because he was on his uppers, and he was doing gigs for fifty dollars a night, not very well because he had practically lost his voice. I was making a cool 700 dollars. Can you imagine that? It was beyond a dream. I felt that somebody up there was watching over me, believe me.

CJ: You've described Fatso Judson as the meanest man in the world. But you're a nice guy, so how did you play the meanest man in the world?

EB: Well, I had to think back to who I could portray this thing after. You meet a lot of people in the world - someone in London asked me, 'Where do you get your characters?' I said, 'Sitting on a park bench. You get all kinds of them'. But this character I based on a gentlemen who was our bosun mate aboard the ship. He always smoked a cigar, and when everything was good it was down, when things were bad it was up. You had to watch that up-sign, because then he'd be after you. He was the kind of fella that when he came into the bathroom - we all had stools there, you sat down and did your business - he would stand at the other end and take a whole bunch of paper and set it on fire just before the flush, and you got flushed with fire! So I based it on him.

I thought, I've got to be the meanest man in the world, and if not I might as well go and sell children's underwear somewhere, you know.

CJ: You got this reputation as the man who killed Frank Sinatra, and that came home to roost a couple of times.

EB: It sure did. I recall my wife and I were having pizza one night and it was so good I went down for another one. I made a big u-turn on Ventura Boulevard out there in the valley and the police siren went. So I stopped and thought, dog-gone, I got a hot pizza here and... So I pulled out my drivers license and the guy looked at me, then he called to his partner, 'Hey Joe! Guess what? I caught the son-of-a-bitch who killed Frank Sinatra!'

And he gave me a ticket!

CJ: So you got this reputation and a lot of jobs playing tough guys...

EB: Yes. From there I went into a picture called Demetrius and the Gladiators, because of the short haircut I had. There I played the head of the gladiator school. From then on it seemed like one after another...

CJ: You tried to beat up Spencer Tracy in Bad Day at Black Rock...

EB: That was just before Marty, actually. I had just come back from making a film in Mexico called Vera Cruz with Burt Lancaster and Gary Cooper, amongst others...


CJ: Johnny Guitar was about that time too...

EB: A little bit later. But while I was down there I had to keep my spirits up - you're away from home and you miss your loved ones - so I'd always play the fool, I don't know why. I guess I'm just a clown at heart. Which reminds me, I am the head clown in the Milwaukee parade every year, since 1972! I have a ball!

I had come back from making Vera Cruz and Harold Hecht had stopped me and said, 'We have a picture called Marty and we want you to play a part in it.' So I said, 'Any part you want me to play, I'll be happy to do it.' 'No, no, no,' he says, 'We want you to play the lead.'

'Do you trust me?'

'I wouldn't ask you if I didn't.'

'That's all I wanna know. I'll give you 110%'.

And that was left at that. So I went to make Bad Day at Black Rock in California with Spencer Tracy and Robert Ryan and all these wonderful people. One day, up flew Delbert Mann, the director and Paddy Chayefsky, the writer. They had come in to have me read for them. So I asked for a day off, and as I was leaving Spencer Tracy says, 'Hang on a minute. If anyone leaves early, it's me. I'm the star here!' He was kidding of course. He said, 'What are you leaving for?' and I said, "I have to go down and read". He said, "Read. You don't read any more, you're a star. Out of your mouth to God's ears". Well, to make a long story short he wanted to know what it was all about and I told him, and he said, "Don't worry about it, be yourself, be good. You'll make it. Don't worry about it." Okay. So I went down and no sooner opened the door and there was Paddy Chayefsky seated in the chair and they had been a little airsick from flying up over the mountains to Lonepine and I looked at him and you could just see the wheels turning as he looked at me and said, "This is Marty?" With a three-day growth of beard, a cowboy hat and everything else I just looked awful. Then I turned to my friend Delbert Mann whom I had worked with in live television. You name it we did it all. I said, "Hi Del, how are you. Just a minute and I'll go in and wash up and we'll go and get something cold to drink and we'll talk about this." So OK, I did that and when we got to where we were having a cold drink Delbert said "Ernie, you know I know you're a fine actor". He said this, that and the other thing and then he got to the word "but". I said "Sir. Wait a minute. If you feel that I'm not right for the part I'll help you find somebody because I feel this is a wonderful script." Well, enough said.

We went back in and he said, "All right, let's get started." So we started reading and Paddy Chayefsky was reading all the other parts and I was reading the part of Marty and I immediately forgot all that an actor should know. You know the old Stanislawski and Boloslowski things that you learn in school. The first six lessons in acting, right. I started out and he said, "Wait a minute." I said, "Sir what's the matter?" and he said "You're doing this with a western twang." I said "Oh my God". (Laughter). So I kicked off the boots and I threw out the hat and everything else, waited a moment and we got started. One thing led to another and one thing led to another and we kept on reading and it got better and better. We finally got to the part where my mother says "Put on your blue suit and go down and you know, there's a lot of tomatoes" And I said, "Mum don't you understand? I'm just an ugly, ugly man." I turned away and I started to bawl. I turned back and I looked at Paddy Chayefsky and tears were rolling down his cheeks. I glanced over at Delbert and inwardly I said "God, I've got the part."


I know that somehow or other I talked to this lovely lady yesterday. She was my leading lady in Marty. We made this whole film, mind you, in eighteen days. Eighteen shooting days and we were done. And this lovely lady is here in the audience. May I introduce to you Betsy Blair. Where are you darling?


CJ: Actually I think Betsy is coming a little later. You've been stood up yet again.

EB: Then we'll give her another introduction.

CJ: If you're staying for the screening of Marty, Betsy Blair will definitely be there and will be co-presenting the screening with Ernie just a little later so you won't be disappointed.

You not only got the part that year, you also got the Oscar. In fact you got every award going, I think, for that role, including the British Academy Award.

EB: Yes I did. I'm one of the very few recipients of the British Film Academy Award - which I'm very, very proud of believe me. The night I got the Oscar was very funny. I had occasion to go to the gentlemen's room and while I was there these two men were talking. They said "Okay, so he won the Academy Award and he was good in From Here to Eternity..." But as they walked out the door they said, "But what else can he do?"


I said, "Good Lord. They're talking about me and what else can I do? I do not want to sit and take bows for the rest of my life saying 'I did Marty.'" No - that's not my idea of being an actor. It's only how good you are in your last film. Period. So, next day I went to my agent and I said, "Listen. I don't care what they..." and they were offering $25,000 a week for me to appear on stage in Las Vegas to put on excerpts of Marty and I turned it down. He said, "But why?" I said, "I've already proven I could do it so let's do something else."

My next picture was a musical. I sang. I danced. I played the banjo. I sang with Gordon MacRae and Dan Daley and I had the time of my life.

CJ: The Best Things in Life are Free it was called...

EB: Yes. It was just the most wonderful picture ever. It changed my whole thing completely.

CJ: But Ernie; I think everyone would agree that one of the incredible things about Marty is it's such a natural, totally convincing performance and I think you said to Paddy Chayefsky, "You wrote me"...

EB: That's it.

CJ: To what extent do you think you were really playing yourself?

EB: Actually I played myself because I too had been a wallflower at one time. I didn't know how to dance; I didn't know how to approach another person to say, "Would you mind if we have a dance?" I was always the shy one you know. I was more of a boy scout than I was a man about town. So when the time came I just played myself and it was the easiest thing in the world.

CJ: After that you became a favourite of what you might call the more robust Hollywood directors. Like Richard Fleischer, who directed things like The Vikings of course. And in the audience, by the way, we have another important guest and that's Jack Cardiff who's just won his Special Academy Award


EB: Stand up Jack. God bless you.

[more applause]

Here's a man mind you... we're out in the Fjords of Norway and it's raining - everything you could possibly imagine. And I was supposedly captured and put on this boat by Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh. Really. I had been knocked out and they dragged me on board and they were going to get me out of there and everything else. Its raining cats and dogs and I said, "How is he...." I went to see the picture - you never saw a drop of rain. You'd have sworn it was sun shiny. I don't know how the man did it but there he is.


He's a genius - there's no doubt about it.

Aldrich and Peckinpah

CJ: What became two of the most important directors in your life were Sam Peckinpah and Robert Aldrich. Can we just stay with Robert Aldrich for a moment because he directed a number of the films you were in and we saw a clip from Emperor of the North and so on. Was he like a true mentor to you? You seem to have a great affinity for playing in his films.

EB: Bob Aldrich was the kind of man who would never ask you to do anything he wouldn't do himself. He was a stalwart great big body of man but had the heart of an angel. I'll never forget the very first day when I went up to do Emperor of the North. I had just finished Poseidon Adventure - 18 solid weeks of that - in nothing but smog and fog and rain and you walked in through a shower before you even walked on the set because you had to be wet. And now I said, "We're going to be out in the open - in Oregon of all places. This is beautiful." The first morning it was nothing but fog laid-in by the people with fog machines.

The very first day he saw me he said, "Ernie - you ever worked on a train?" I said, "No Sir, not yet." He said, "There's the engine." "Yes sir". "And that's the caboose" "Yes Sir." And he said, "We will be working from the engine to the caboose and back." "Yes sir." And he said, "That's about it - go ahead and get changed." I said, "Okay." And he said, "Oh, by the way. Remember - you've been on that train for thirty years. You do not look down when you're running on top of the train." So I said "Aha." And so I did a Jack Elam - I had one eye this way and one eye down there.


Every day I went along and pounded all those nails back in because they jiggled loose you know. People would come from the regular train, people would come and watch us and say, "These people are fools. They're absolutely mad. To be running on a train - we don't do it anymore." Crazy but we did it.

CJ: The other big director in your life albeit only on a couple of movies was Sam Peckinpah. You got the part of Dutch in the Wild Bunch. Of course Sam Peckinpah had a reputation for being a ferociously difficult director to work with, particularly if you were behind the camera. But you say he was wonderful with actors.

EB: You didn't stand a chance behind the camera. If you did just one little speck wrong then you were gone. You were out. He had an assistant director he used to fire about forty times a day. And the assistant went, "Okay Sam." and went right on, "All right we'll go up there and we'll do this and we'll..." "But I told you to quit." "Okay Sam." And off he'd go. But he was just the most wonderful man with actors you ever saw in your life. I know, I made a picture called Convoy with him and he spent hours, just hours, drawing things out of people that were just marvellous to see. And he was the kind of a person... Well I'll tell you. He always wore dark glasses and I used to cuss him out. I'd say, "Why do you wear dark glasses? I like to look into people's eyes when I talk." You never saw his eyes. We did a scene one time in the Wild Bunch where we're at this fire and we're saying good night to one another and we're talking about what we're going to do next or what we should do next. And at the end I said, "well okay - I'm going along with you." And I rolled over. I expected to hear "cut" but there was no cut and it went on and it went on and nothing happened and suddenly I heard a strangled kind of a "Hunnnh. Cut." And when the camera... I looked back and there's Sam with tears rolling down his face. I said, "That son of gun. He's got a heart." But he was the most wonderful man.

I'll never forget the day when we had finished just about everything and we were just about to go into the great big fight where the four fellas go in and kill a general and half the troops and everything else. We were coming back from lunch and his head was bowed and I put my arm around his shoulders and I said, "Sam - you ought to be happy as a lark. You just finished a wonderful part of the show here and now we're going to really get into something." He said, "You know, I'm frightened to death." "Of what?" I said, "You're doing great you know." I wanted to buck him up a little bit. He said, "I don't know." "Well," I said, "Sam, give it hell." From then on he gave it hell. I saw him walking around with buckets of blood. Boom, bang - all over the place. And then, of course, the very first question out of the box when we showed this picture for the first time in Jamaica, people said, "Why was this picture made?" They thought it was just awful. That people should see bullets entering one side and coming out the other side, you know. Bam. The first time you ever saw these explosives going off. It was just unaccounted for. He was the first one who ever did it.

CJ: You thought it was a very moral picture in fact.

EB: Absolutely. I did. Because to me, every picture should have some kind of a moral to it. I feel that when we used to watch old pictures, as we still do I'm sure, the bad guys always got it in the end and the good guys always won out. Today it's a little different. Today it seems that the bad guys are getting the good end of it. There was always a moral in our story. There was something that you could walk out of the theatre and say, "Golly, wasn't that a good picture and wasn't this wonderful and how about that." Or you went to see a musical. Where do you see musicals these days? You were humming the tunes. Everything was wonderful. But today you just don't find that. You find these young - because everything is youth oriented these days - God bless them. But half of them couldn't tell you what the name Queen Victoria is. You know. Really. They don't know. All they know is what happened yesterday. And they make them do love scenes where they have no idea what it's really all about. And their idea of pictures today is; boy meets girl, boy jumps into bed with girl. There's a lot of guns - the bigger the better. Explosions like crazy, and cars crashing - cars, buses, everything you can imagine. And they call it entertainment ladies and gentlemen. They call it entertainment. To me, I'm sorry, maybe I'm of the old school but I can't see it. I just can't see it. And I don't know how you people feel...


CJ: We'll find out in question time I guess, now you've made that statement.

Tough guys

CJ: You've said on more than one occasion that you've really enjoyed playing very bad people - tough guy roles and very effectively you've done it

EB: Well it's better than going home and beating your wife isn't it?

CJ: That's right. You've always said that you refused to play real historical villains - real historical bad people like Al Capone I think was offered to you once. You wouldn't play them if they were for real.

EB: True, true. That's right. I was offered an awful lot of money to play Al Capone. I imagine most of you know who Al Capone was - he belonged to the Mafia, he was a killer and he was everything that wasn't good in a person. And made a great living until they finally caught him and put him in jail. On what? He didn't pay his taxes. Not for murder, but he didn't pay his taxes. Well they offered me this money and I thought to myself, "No". When my mother used to say to me, "If you're not good we're going to get Al Capone after you." And I used to be frightened as the Dickens because to me Al Capone was a bad person. So, came the time to do the picture, I said, "I'm sorry - I can't do the picture." "Why not?" I said, "Because I can picture some sixteen-year-old up there with his feet on somebody else's chair in the front, and he's looking up at this Al Capone - at this picture I'm portraying -and he's watching this man get away with murder and everything else and he's said, 'If he can do it so can I.'" Believe me that's my thinking but don't you think it's possible that an awful lot of people - maybe even on the television that we see today - get ideas from the things that are put on? Don't you think so? It's...

CJ: You went on playing tough guys through the seventies and eighties...

EB: Oh I went on playing tough guys, but I always got killed in the end.


CJ: Or beaten up by Lee Marvin, as often as not. You've simply gone on working and working and you've even made a Western after 32 years; so you're back in the saddle.

EB: Can you imagine? They came to me not too long ago and they said, "Listen, we've got a part for you - we want you to play in a Western." "A Western!" I said, "That to me is everything." If you can play in a Western, that's more fun than a barrel of monkeys, honest to goodness. It's just so much fun. You get on the saddle and you first, when you first got the gun, you can't keep it in the holster. You've got to play with it. Put it in you know. Bam. How fast can you draw? I mean it got to a point where it was just heaven because you were a kid again. That's all actors are. Kids portraying adults.

So they offered me this part. I said, "You bet your life I'll take it." And I did it. They had people come from all over - I mean Germany... just to take pictures of Borgnine does it again on a horse. They said, "When you gonna get on the horse?" I said, "Bring the horse." They brought the horse. I said, "Get me a stepladder." I climbed the stepladder and got on the horse. What do you want from me? At eighty-four you don't horse around.

CJ: It's called The Long Ride Home for anybody who hasn't caught up with it yet.


CJ: I'm going to ask you this question because if I don't somebody in the audience will. It's headed, 'Marriages', of which there have been five...

[Tape Change] of the shortest Hollywood marriages on record, and that's saying something, to Ethel Merman. Do you want to say a little bit about your marriages?

EB: Sure, sure. I don't mind. I'll tell you one thing and I'm honest about this. My present wife will tell you that I've never got married to get divorced. Ever. Because I've always figured that you come home, you've got your kids, you're home and, hey, you have your dinner, you play with the kids, you do everything, like an ordinary human being. That's all we are. But somehow or other, my first wife, before we were married, we were living from hand to mouth practically and everything was wonderful. But when I got the Academy Award, she was the one to put on the dark glasses. And it was all right, but after a while it got to the point where you could hardly live with it, you know. So that was it.

My second wife was... you remember that actress that worked with Grace Kelly in High Noon - that Mexican actress?

CJ: Katy Jurado.

EB: Katy Jurado. Beautiful. But a tiger.

My third wife was a Broadway star and I sat there one night enthralled at party at this woman singing. I'd known the name and everything else, but I had never seen her on stage. She was a very very important star on Broadway, did any number of shows, and you'll probably remember her in a picture called It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. We went together for, oh, the better part of a year, and one day we decided we'd get married. And we got married in my backyard and we had pigeons fly out and we had the whole thing. And we went on this honeymoon. Well, we got to Hawaii - "Ernest Borgnine Oh My God...." "I'd like you to meet my wife, Ethel Merman" "Oh, how do you do."

We got to Tokyo - "Ernest Borgnine, Golly!" "This is my wife Ethel Merman." "Oh, how are you."

I saw that she was getting angrier and angrier, madder and madder, and I didn't know what for. People didn't recognise her. Poor soul, you know. She had been known on Broadway, but unless you're in television or Motion Pictures a lot, that's it. They don't know you.

By the time we got home it was hell on earth. And after thirty-two days I said to her, "Madam. Bye."

My fourth wife presented me with two children, who still think I'm the Bank of America. One is living in Minnesota and has three lovely children of her own, and my son has a son of his own and I always look forward to their visits. But it was one of those marriages where - "Let's see what we can get out of them..." - to put it bluntly. So I got a divorce and she took everything. She took it all - the house, the cars... You name it, she got it all. Because that's what they believe in California, you know - the women can't take care of themselves.

Anyway I was going along one day and my friend Marty Allen, God bless him. He's a comic and he has this great big bunch of hair out there. He's still a great comic. He said, "Kid, you've got to come to my birthday party." I said, "Well, Okay, fine.", and he said, "And you've got to bring a girl." I said, "Are you kidding? Listen I'm starting to think about taking up with men." [Laughter] He said, "No no no. You've been married to people who want your balls and everything else. We've got a girl for you." "So Okay, All right." He said, "You've got to pick her up at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel." I said, "All right."

I went to the Beverly Wilshire Hotel and evidently she was zigging while I was zagging and she was in one part of the hotel while I was in the other and we missed each other, and I went back to Chasen's, where the party had been at, and I said, "You see I can't even find my blind date. How do you like that then?" He said, "Don't worry. She's coming. She's telephoned, she's on her way." "Okay".

So she came. She walked through the door and I said, "What a lovely person. What a real nice person. Oh God." And after all the introductions were made she came over and sat next to me. We never saw another person that night. And may I present that lovely person, my wife Tova.


We have been happily married for... well, 'happily' - you know how everybody gets.... We've been happily married for twenty-eight years and I tell you it seems like twenty-eight days.

CJ: You're also Tova's guinea pig, I believe, because Tova has a very successful cosmetics company. She produces rejuvenating skin creams, and if you're anything to go by it ought to be a successful company.

EB: She does. She goes on QVC and she's on television more than I am. But she sells some of the most beautiful skin care creams. No, no, I won't say the word. But all those kinds of things that keep you rejuvenated and looking good, and perfumes like you have never smelt in your life. But that's the woman.

I'll tell you how it got started. She said to me, "Ernie, you see that room in there?" I said, "Honey, that's not a room. They call it a kitchen." She said, "It's a room to me." And she said, "I don't, you know...." I said, "Don't worry about it, I cook and we go out to dinner. And don't worry about it." We've never worried about it.

To this day, we still enjoy and have a ball and, well...What can I say? I love you.


CJ: Ernie, I'm going to put you at the mercy of the audience in a moment, but just one more question. Fifty continuous years, unbroken, of acting, non-stop. Over one hundred and ten feature films for the cinema, many, many more performances on television. I don't know how to phrase it exactly, but how do you think that someone with your special physique and features has been able to sustain being so in demand all those years? How do you get those parts?

EB: Simply because I'm not a leading man. I'm a character actor and the character actors are always working. Absolutely. If you're alive and breathing and a character actor, you're always working. But if you're that good-looking type, you only last about seven to ten years at the most, maybe a little longer. But then the looks start to go and the first thing you know, they say, "Who is that old man over there?" You can be the old man! They can't, you see.

I always figure this way. It's much better to be a character actor, and be working for ever than it is to be a lead man and say, "My, the girls all love me." Big deal.

CJ: Okay. We have time now for some questions from the other part of the house and I see we have one just here.

Acting and directing, Audience Questions

Q: Mr Borgnine, how do you feel when you see yourself on the screen?

EB: I hate myself. I can't imagine anyone crossing the street to see me in a picture. That's a fact.

Q: Please Mr Borgnine...

EB: Ernie's the name. Ernie

Q: Would you have been a more effective bad guy if you'd used the kind of language which is used in scripts today.

EB: No. You know. This is another thing. I refused to use bad words in pictures, unless it's an absolute necessity. I refuse to curse. Why? Why should we leave a legacy of dirty words to children who are growing up and are saying, "What does that mean, mummy and daddy?" Why leave that legacy of dirty words? Writers at one time use to write and you never needed a cuss word, did you? You never heard a cuss word. But when Clark Gable said, "Madam, I don't give a damn," the flood gates opened.

Q: What advice would you give to young actors?

CJ: You've given quite a lot already, but...

EB: Well, no, really. You know something? I always say this; learn how to read, learn how to read. Out loud. And e-nun-ci-ate pro-per-ly. And give it from here and from here. People just read sometimes. You know they just, "Zuck-a-zuck-a-zuck-a-zuck-a-zuck-a..." But you've got to give a little bit more, "Zuck-a-zuck-aaaa." If you know what I mean? I put it bluntly, but this is the way I learnt and I've read out loud and I've done everything. The thing is that a lot of people read a script or newspaper but how many people really delve into that paper to see what is actually written. Boom-boom-boom-boom. They skim and that's it. That's newspaper. Or books - the same thing. But if you break it down as you go along, you'd be surprised what you can find. I know.

I made a picture one time called From Here to Eternity, and I had one line in there that I studied for seven weeks. Seven weeks! On how to say that one line. The line was, "You've killed me. Why d'you want to kill me?." I didn't want to say it like; I walk into a bar and some guy says, "You killed me, why d'you wanna kill me?" Or walk along the street and say, "Oh, you killed me. Why d'you want to kill me?" You know it was one of those kind of things you had to get just exactly right. Well, I went to see the picture, and they had cut it out.

[laughter and applause]

But there was a reason. They cut it out because if they had left it in, I had an excuse for what I had been doing as Fatso Judson. But they left me the dirty guy, and when I died, I died. And you hated me with a passion. I was so happy. At first I said, "My God. After all my trouble." Then I realised - they left me the bad guy. This was what it's all about.

Q: Ernie, could you talk a bit about how you like to work with directors, and what you think is the mark of a great director from the point of view of an actor.

EB: Directors?

CJ: Yes. Your experience with directors.

EB: Well I'll tell you. I ran across a director one time. I was playing a Chinese man. With my eyes drawn back. We'd go on at four o'clock in the morning and they'd pull my eyes back, and we'd go all the way out to location and we did everything and we'd finally come back by seven o'clock at night and they'd finally take off that...And it was terrible because you always saw double you know. And this one fellow, his first name was Ray, I'll never forget. He always wore a coat over his shoulders à la Italian style. You know he thought, "Man I have it." When he went, "Hmmm.", everybody went, "Oh yes. Of course." So one day he thought he'd pull a fast one and he said, "We're going to do the next here. Get this scene..." and the fellow came up to me and he said, "We're going to do this scene." and I said, "But they didn't have it in the schedule." "We're going to do it." "Okay" so he said, "What's the matter with that New York actor? Doesn't he know how to do this?" and I heard and I never said a word. I went over into the corner and within fifteen minutes I had two pages of dialogue in my head. And I came back and did it in one take. And I said afterwards, "Sir, would you rather have New York actors now, or Hollywood." And he never said a word but he knew what I was talking about.

And then of course there are directors that are just, well... Richard Fleischer. Richard Fleischer was just the most beautiful person in the world. I mean, what could you possible say about a man who looked out for his troops, but made sure that everybody was happy.

Bob Aldrich - the same thing. I remember him one time. We were in one hundred and thirty degree heat out in the American desert just outside of Utah. He looked up at the hill - we were down there in the plain in a picture called The Flight of the Phoenix - and he said to the assistant, "Does that fella have enough water up there to drink?" And the assistant says, "Well I think so." "Go up there and check it out." He was that kind of a person. He would never ask you to do anything he wouldn't do himself.

Again, I did a scene for him where I was playing this crazed kind of a person who hated the desert. I blamed my doctor who was travelling with us, and I said, "You're the one, you're the one who...." And I went into this crying scene. And I heard, "Cut" and I looked aver at Bob and tears are coming down his face. Because he felt it too. It was wonderful.

Delmer Daves who always believed that when you were together for eight to ten weeks, you became a family. And these are the kind of people that you love. You never forget them.

Michael Curtiz always wore high heels. He'd always walk like he was about to fall on the floor. But the most wonderful man. Here's a man who did Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, and musicals. American musicals. And he was foreign born. You didn't know from Adam. But he did it. At the end, I'll never forget. He said to me, "You know - you're a good actor. Here I want you to have this." And gave me a beautiful gold clip - a money clip. And he says, "To one of the finest actors I've ever known." Believe me, you remember people like this because they made life worth living. It can get pretty hellish at times, but believe me in the long run, when you've got a director who thinks of his men and of his actors it becomes one great big happy family and you're ready to leave in the morning to go to your other home. That's the way I always put it. You're going to your other home to take off your clothes and put on your costume and go to work. And it's just a pleasure. Just a great pleasure.

Q: My question's about Marty. I remember reading years ago that Marty was part of a tax concession scheme whereby they only needed to make half the movie. Is that true or false?

CJ: Marty was a tax loss. Yup.

EB: That's correct. I didn't know this but they wanted Rod Steiger to play the part. He was doing a part that I wanted in Oklahoma - Jud. And the son of a gun had a better agent than I did and so he got the part. Well along came Marty and they asked me. They asked Bob Aldrich. They said, "Who in your imagination could play this part?" And he'd read this script because Delbert Mann, who had never worked outside of a television studio, came to watch us in Vera Cruz, in Mexico. And he said, "What are you going to do?" and he said, "I'm going to do Marty." He said, "D'you mind if I read the script?" "No. Not at all." He read it and a couple of weeks later at a party they asked him, "Who is your estimation could play the part?" He said, "I know of only one person - Ernest Borgnine" "Ernest Borgnine? Are you kidding? He's a killer. He's a killer. Don't kid yourself."

Now here's where it all came in. Remember how I told you how I liked to make a fool of myself on set and everything else, just to kind of bring up my own spirits while I'm away from home? He used to watch this - I used to play a killer one minute and the next I'm playing a clown. And he couldn't get over that. He liked it. That's why he recommended me, and they said, "Okay, what the heck, we'll give him a chance." Because they only wanted to make half the film and then shelve it. So we got through in New York, and came back from New York and there were no sets made. Everybody wondered why. The tax men in the meantime had said, "No, you can't do that." They'd just passed a law where you have to finish the show, show it one time and then you can take your tax loss. Well I made the film for $5,000 with a $5,000 promise if I signed a seven-year contract with them. So, I said, "Hey, man. I'd do it for nothing." My first leading role. My goodness, I was enthusiastic as can be. And anyway, we came back from New York, nothing done, and finally after a few days they said, "Okay, we're ready." We finished the show, as I said, in eighteen working days. And that was it. When I went to see it one day, with Burt Lancaster and Harold Hecht, as I sais it, he held them up and said, "Why didn't you shoot more?" I said, "They wouldn't let me." That was it. Everybody took it to their heart. It was just one of those wonderful kind of films you can't help - well that's what they said...

CJ: It certainly stands up. One on the end there.

[Awards and applause]

Q: How did you get involved with Gattaca and why were some of your scenes cut out?

EB: Gattaca? You ask about Gattaca? Did you understand Gattaca?


What's his name? Errr...

Tova [from audience]: Danny DeVito.

EB: Danny DeVito called me up. "You've got to do it Ernie. You've got to do it. This is a part they just made for you. We need you, we need you." Well you know a lot of people need me. They just like to use the name, and kind of put it up a little bit. What the heck, why not? So I said, "Danny, okay. I'll do it." So they brought me up there, to location, and we did all these scenes and everything else, and we had a wonderful time. And then out it came, and I never did understand the film. I never could understand the film. But, what the heck. You do it.

So when the time came, they said, "We want you to go out and sell this film for us." "Okay. But I'd like to see the film first." Well, I saw two little tiny scenes I had done with this young man. The rest of it was all on the cutting room floor. And I said, "You want me to go out there and sell to people on this picture I don't understand? And only two scenes in there with me in it? I'm sorry I can't."

I don't know how you even remember that picture.


Q: From Here to Eternity. "Montgomery Clift as Pruitt. How you felt about his performance and do you have any feelings about why he didn't get an Academy Award of some kind for that?

EB: I have no idea why he didn't get an Academy Award. He was certainly deserving. This boy could do everything. I mean everything. He was a wonderful actor. I remember when we did that fight. We did it from one Saturday afternoon about four o'clock in the evening, and we worked until five o'clock Sunday morning. And what went in there - into the film - was one of the best night fights ever since the days of Farnum. William Farnum the actor. But it was so bloody, so bad, that they only used about one eighth of what the fight was all about. But he was a wiry son of a gun. He was good. We did everything. I mean, they had these stunt men that came out and did it. And Fred Zinneman said, "Gentlemen, it's absolutely marvellous. It's wonderful. But it's too professional." So he looked at Marty and I, and he said, "Would you fellows mind doing it?" Hey. Why not? So we did it. And little by little we did it and, as I say, I got to say the line but it never came out. He was the kind of person you could talk to about cabbages and kings and everything that you could imagine. And a brilliant actor. Brilliant. He was so easy to work with.

I'll never forget one day when were talking about cabbages and kings and everything else. It was on a Saturday afternoon - we used to work Saturdays in those days - and we saw two people come in the side door of the sound stage. A great big sound stage. And so we just kept right on talking, and suddenly I was engulfed by these big arms. And I looked around, and the fellow whispered to me. He said, "You're the son of a bitch I wrote about in From Here To Eternity." It was James Jones. You see he knew Monty. And Monty said, "You see, I told you, you son of a gun." He had done great. You see I was wondering - you never know what really happens. I'm the kind of a fellow... I don't like to be patted on the back, but.... "You like it? You understand what I'm trying to say?" And they'd say, "Yes." Well, okay. That's good enough for me.

CJ: Ernie, before we have to close, sadly soon, I have one or two more things to ask you. One is about the bus. We saw a glimpse of your famous bus on the screen. Do we detect here, an effort not only to see the countryside, but see a lot of people, and that's why you enjoy recognition and stardom and that's why you drive around...

EB: I tell you - it is so marvellous. Really. To go around the United States and - not because I'm blowing my horn. I just love to travel and I love to meet people. With this toy that I have - forty feet long - you look in the mirror and you say, "My God. All that's following me." And it's wonderful. It really is. It has a bed... my wife calls it Architectural Digest on wheels. In the back I have a great big picture painted on there of a hobo walking down the road with a top hat and the birds are singing and everything else. And there it is, and people just love it. They don't know who's on there. They couldn't care less. It's a great big bus and they couldn't care less. And when I stop in places and people look, "Mr Borgnine! Oh, oh. What are you doing here" Anything they can do for you. I've had great big strapping truck drivers stop and say, "Sir, may I service you? Anything I can do for you?" "Oh no, I've got it" "Can I have your autograph?" I mean huge men. But it's wonderful because you get to meet people, and I like to be known as a regular guy. That's what life is all about. We're all doing something in this world to bring a little happiness and joy to maybe somebody else as well. And that's what it's all about.

My wife... my mother said to me one day, "You can accomplish a great deal in this world. Because if, in the span of twenty-four hours you make someone happy, you've accomplished a great deal." And so thank God that I had this opportunity to make pictures and television and appear before people like you and make you a little happier. You know. That's what it's all about.


CJ: Finally, and I hate to use the word, you have just had fifty years in the business. You've told us a lot of lovely stories about yourself and the business. Where are the memoirs and are there going to be any?

EB: Well, I've written one in collaboration with another fellow, and I don't know how you people are going to take it, but I'm going to tell you the title of my book when it comes out. It all happened one day while I was walking up Tenth Avenue in New York. I was starving, along with everybody else, and I'm saying to myself, "Dummy. Why did you ever get into this business? Why? I know I can act just as good as Charlton Heston, if not better." But he was getting all the parts and I was getting nothing. It just didn't seem right to me. I was bemoaning my fate, is what I was doing. And suddenly I smelt hot chestnuts. There was a vendor selling hot chestnuts up there, and it used to remind me of my mother when she used to cut the chestnuts and put them on the stove and the whole house would be permeated with that wonderful smell of chestnuts. And, boy, you'd eat them and they're hot and everything else and just wonderful. I went closer to the vendor - not to buy any because I didn't have any money to even buy a chestnut. Just to smell. And I saw a sign on this vendor's cart that became my philosophy of life, and the title of my book. And it read, 'I don't want to set the world on fire, I just want to keep my nuts warm.'


CJ: On which note... May I thank you sir, Ernest Borgnine, for a wonderful evening.


EB: To be honoured like you people have honoured me, let me thank all of you. God Bless you all.