Ernest Borgnine On His 32-Day Marriage, Sinatra and SpongeBob

11:39 AM PST 01/30/2011 by Randee Dawn
Michael Buckner/Getty Images

Before his death, the Oscar-winning actor spoke to THR for his SAG Lifetime Achievement Award.

Five marriages. An Oscar. A SpongeBob SquarePants role. The Hollywood Reporter talked to the late Ernest Borgnine in January 2011 --  shortly before he received his SAG Lifetime Achievement Award --  about his life, films and famous friends ... and how "being a damn fool" led to an enduring Hollywood career.

Early years
His 10-year stint in the Navy included time as a ship’s cook. “I made all kinds of stews and fried oysters — and everyone got the cook’s spaghetti, except me! Then I caught bronchitis, and they sent me back into a position on deck.”

Becoming an actor
Factory work didn’t agree with Borgnine after a decade in the service. “It was like going to jail,” he recalls. So he decided to re-enlist, and his mother spoke up: “She said, ‘Have you ever thought about becoming an actor? You like being a damn fool in front of people.’ I saw this golden light and said, ‘That’s what I’m going to be!’”

On philosophy
Early in his career, he recalls, “I was walking around [NYC’s] 10th Avenue, wondering why I got into this business — it seemed Charlton Heston got all the good parts. Then I spot this vendor selling chestnuts. There was a sign on his cart that said, ‘I don’t want to set the world on fire, I just want to keep my nuts warm.’ I wanted that as the title of my memoir … but they said it wouldn’t sell in the Midwest.”

On Ethel Merman
His 32-day marriage to Ethel Merman notoriously imploded when he got more attention than she did during their honeymoon; later, Merman’s memoir included one blank page in reference to the marriage. Borgnine discovered the book while in a tiny town in Iowa. “We went into this bookstore, and someone saw the book and said, ‘Look at this blank page!’ and I said, ‘Thank goodness.’ ”

On Frank Sinatra
When he learned that he’d be appearing in From Here to Eternity with Frank Sinatra, Borgnine was thrilled — but apprehensive. “Believe me, he was a sweetheart of a man. But when I heard he was going to be in Eternity, I thought, ‘Holy mackerel, they’re going to make a musical out of it.’ ”

On marriage
After four marriages, he landed the right one (to Tova Traesnaes) in 1973. The key? “Communication. I respected my mother and thought she was the greatest woman in the world. I was taught to be a good husband, but I’ve been hurt. If two people can’t talk to one another, the honeymoon is over, honey.

On Oscar
The producers of Marty — for which Borgnine earned his only Oscar — “tried to cover the gap in my teeth,” he recalls. “They sent me to a dentist, and I said, ‘If people don’t like it, that’s tough. I won’t do the movie, forget it.’ So they said, ‘Keep it, keep it.’ ”

On television
Borgnine decided to return to television in 1964 after a kid selling chocolate door-to-door could name all of his favorite TV stars — but thought Borgnine looked only vaguely familiar. “I called my agent and said, ‘Is the part in McHale’s Navy still open?’ People asked how could I go back into TV, but I said, ‘It’s all entertainment.’ ”

On Spongebob
Thanks to his recurring role as Mermaid Man on Nickelodeon’s SpongeBob SquarePants, Borgnine is a hit with kids. “I did a speech at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., and when I was through someone said, ‘There a bunch of little girls here; would you mind saying hello?’ So I walk out, and this woman is telling them I’ve made a lot of pictures and television, and not one of them knew me. So I said, ‘How many of you know SpongeBob? Suddenly I had to sign more pictures and do every kind of thing except take them home.”

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