Sunday, July 8, 2012

Remembering Ernest Borgnine

I only interviewed Ernest Borgnine once --in a CBS press room in L.A. in 1979 as he promoted his star turn in the TV movie remake of All Quiet On The Western Front.
He was 62 at the time, already diminished in size from his From Here To Eternity days, very kind and unassuming about the strange business that had made him a star.
The TV remake was OK, too, hardly up to the status of the 1930 movie but Borgnine defended it just the same saying "A lot of kids watch Richard Thomas as Jon Boy in The Waltons and they'll watch and be educated about the Great War."
As Borgnine told me "I've always been a realist about my crazy profession."
Borgnine died Sunday in an L.A. hospital of renal failure. He was 95,
Borgnine spent 11 years in the U.S. navy before jumping to acting in 1951.
He'd soared to recognition as "Fatso" Judson, the gigantic brute in From Here To Eternity (1953) and he repeated the characterization in such flicks as Johnny Guitar (1954) with Joan Crawford, Demetrius And The Gladiators (1954) and Vera Cruz (1954) and Bad Day At Black Rock  (1955) with Spencer Tracy.
When United Artists decided to make a movie out of Marty (1955) it was assumed that Rod Steiger who'd created the part in a live TV special would get the part.
But Steiger refused to sign a long term contract and bowed out and after negotiations Borgnine was in.
 Playing the lonely, homely man desperately seeking a soul mate he was outstanding and copped an Oscar as best actor. He was paid a grand total of $5,000.
"It cost $360,000 to make and took in millions. For a brief period small movies were in."
But when Borgnine tried to repeat the formula in small movies like The Rabbitt Trap (1960) and Summer Of The Seventeeth Doll (1961)  "the public couldn't have cared less. So I went back to being a brute."
TV offered salvation in the wacky comedy classic McHale's Navy which ran from 1962 through 1966 for 138 episodes.
After which Borgnine split his time between big budgeters like The Dirty Dozen (1967), Ice Station Zebra (1968) and The Wild Bunch (1969). and TV movie parts.
"They always treated me fine on Wagon Trail. I think I played five different characters over the years on that one."
He offered forth funny anecdotes about working with the big stars. "I did two with Bette Davis who yelled at me all the time. In Bunny O'Hare (1971)  we were two seniors riding around on a motorcycle and she's clinging to me fearful I'll hit something but she's still yelling her head off."
He returned to series TV with Airwolf (1984-86) and The Single Guy (1995-97).
But he said he hated stardom.
"It wrecked my life. When I was anonymous I had a happy life. After fame strange things happened."
In 1958 he divorced wife Rhoda of 11 years because she craved the quiet life. Marriage to actress Katy Jurado was tempestuous and ended in 1963. He was married a month to Ethel Merman in 1964 --in her book she left a blank page to cover the marriage.  Only his fifth marriage to cosmetician Tova Borgnine was peaceful and lasted.
Borgnine was just as proud to have been the very first "center square" on Hollywood Squares in 1965 as to have starred in Marty.
The day we chatted who would have thought he had another 33 years of acting in him?

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