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Ernest Borgnine (1917-2012): A Personal Remembrance and An Unforgettable Interview

Scott Feinberg shares how the Oscar-winning actor, who died Sunday, impacted his relationship with the movies, as well as an interview that he conducted with him.

Ernest Borgnine - H 2012
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It’s been a rough couple of weeks for Hollywood good guys, who now number three fewer as a result of the recent deaths of 71-year-old Nora Ephron, 86-year-old Andy Griffith, and -- earlier today -- 95-year-old Ernest Borgnine. While the death of a 95-year-old isn’t shocking to anyone, the death of this particular one is certainly saddening to me because of who he was and what he represented, in terms of both the history of American cinema and my own life.

Ermes Effron Borgnino was one of the greatest character actors to ever grace the big or small screen. The son of Italian immigrants, he was literally a walking contradiction. He was a giant of a man, with a face only a mother could love -- big eyes, big nose, and big gap-toothed smile, all attached to a hulking body -- but, as anyone who ever crossed paths with him at any point in his life attests, he also possessed the gentlest of souls. (To get a great sense of what a lovely guy he was and how much he liked people, check out the 1997 documentary Ernest Borgnine on the Bus.) Once he decided to try acting at the age of 28, for lack of a better idea, it was this very dichotomy that enabled him to vibrantly bring to life, for multiple generations, as wide an array of characters as anyone in his profession.

He played mean-spirited tough guys in From Here to Eternity (1953), Johnny Guitar (1954), Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), and The Wild Bunch (1969), and a sensitive bachelor who struggles to find love in Marty (1955), for which he won a best actor Oscar. He played a stern but lovable skipper on the comedic TV series McHale's Navy (1963-1966), and also semi-retired superhero on the animated TV series SpongeBob SquarePants (2008-2011). He played a general in The Dirty Dozen (1967), a cabbie in Escape from New York (1981), and a feisty survivor in the disaster films The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) and The Poseidon Adventure (1972). In short, he could play just about anything.

I first learned about Borgnine, who happened to be a fellow Connecticut native, when I was almost 15 years old and my father brought home a VHS of Marty, the movie that had won the best picture Oscar back when he was 15 years old, and which he remembered enjoying. My younger siblings and I, like most kids, had no interest whatsoever in an old black-and-white movie -- with so much dialogue and so little action it couldn't possibly be good, we reasoned -- but, on that particular night, my father pleaded so hard with us to watch it with him that we didn't have the heart to say no. I'm very grateful that he did, because even though I didn't love the film (I was far too young to fully appreciate it), I also didn't dislike it, and it opened my mind to the possibility that classic movies might not be so bad, after all. In fact, it was just a short time later that I came across a list of the 100 greatest movies of all-time and decided to try to make my way through the selections just for the heck of it, a project that quickly evolved into an irrepressible love affair with film history that set me on the course of doing the very thing that I do for a living -- and, yes, still for pleasure -- today.

You can therefore imagine how cool it was for me that I got to speak with Ernest Borgnine -- or "Ernie," as he insisted that I call him -- on a number of memorable occasions in recent years.

When I was still in high school, I started interviewing as many key players from film history as I could convince to speak with me for what I intended -- and still intend -- to be a book about old movies for young people. My stated objective was to help to keep those movies, and interest in them, alive and well for generations to come, which is something that a considerable number of stars were willing to help me to try to do. One of the first people who I managed to contact, and who was kind enough to agree to speak with me, was Borgnine. Another actor had given me Borgnine's home telephone number and told me that he was sure that he wouldn't mind speaking with me, so I called him up one afternoon after school, and he couldn't have been more gregarious. He listened to my spiel, and then told me that he would be very happy to be interviewed by me if I called him a few days later, on Saturday morning, at 8 a.m.

Thrilled by this big "get," I spent hours and hours preparing for the interview -- watching and re-watching his films, reading other interviews he had given, and writing out provocative questions -- and eventually came to feel fairly confident that it would all turn out well. On the appointed day, at 8 a.m., I called Borgnine again. When he answered the phone, sounding disoriented and bewildered, I just assumed that he had forgotten that I would be calling him, so I said, "Hi, Mr. Borgnine, it's Scott Feinberg. How are you?" After a bit of a pause and then some stuttering, he replied, "My boy, do you know what time it is?" My heart sank. I realized that, in my excitement about the interview, I had somehow just assumed that Borgnine was in New York, not Los Angeles, and was therefore operating on Eastern Standard Time just like me. It was now clear to me that he wasn't. I was mortified, quickly tried to explain the mistake, and then hung up. He was very nice about it all, but when 8 a.m. PST finally came around three hours later, I just didn't have the nerve to call him back.

Flash-forward a number of years to September 26, 2008, my first day on the job as a blogger about the film industry, generally, and the awards season, specifically, for the Los Angeles Times. I was very excited about this new opportunity, but also very nervous about proving that I deserved it and, most importantly, deserved to retain it. Fortunately, my first day on the job provided me with a perfect opportunity to do just that: film great Paul Newman passed away unexpectedly, and I quickly set to work figuring out which old movie stars I had in my Rolodex who had some sort of a connection to Newman. Within an hour, I had reached out to -- and gotten some great quotes for a post from -- the actress Patricia Neal, who won an Oscar for her performance opposite Newman in Hud (1963), the actor Cliff Robertson, who studied with Newman at the Actors Studio (and eventually won an Oscar of his own), the actor Mickey Rooney, one of the legendary elders of the industry who knew and admired Newman, and, yes, Ernest Borgnine, who worked with Newman in When Time Ran Out (1980).

When I called Borgnine that day, I didn't mention that I was the same guy who had once awakened him at 5 a.m. (I was too embarassed), but just told him that I was a reporter who hoped that he might have a memory or thought to share, and he was very happy to oblige. Because he was so friendly and helpful, I took the liberty of contacting him for quotes on several other occasions over the years between then and now, during which my own career has taken me from the Los Angeles Times back to my personal website and now to The Hollywood Reporter, and he was always lovely.

The most memorable of those exchanges came when Joe Mantell, the great character actor who earned a best supporting actor Oscar nomination for his memorable performance as Marty's best friend Angie opposite Borgnine in Marty, passed away in 2010 at the age of 94. Mantell's family, whom I had gotten to know a little while trying to schedule an interview with Mantell, shared the sad news with me before anyone else in the press, and asked me to help get the word out to everyone else. I did so, and also decided to call up Borgnine. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I felt that, in this case, it would be no worse, and would perhaps be better, if he learned it from me rather than reading about it in the newspaper -- assuming a newspaper would even cover it.

After reaching Borgnine, who was very saddened by what I had to tell him, I gently asked if he might be willing to share a memory or thought about Mantell for the post that I planned to write about him. He said that he would be happy to, and his remarks struck me as very poignant: “Since the time we made the picture, we’ve never seen each other. I don’t know why -- we live close by and everything else, and I’ve often wondered about Joe, and what he’s doing, and everything else -- but we never got together again. But I’ll tell you one thing: he was a wonderful actor, and he made me look good, God bless him. He was just that kind of a wonderful partner who’s right there in the midst of it, you know what I mean? And he made it real, you know?” He added, “I can’t say enough about Joe, by golly. He was a heck of a good guy, and a wonderful actor, and unassuming as hell.”

That was Ernie Borgnine for you.

In case you're wondering, I did eventually get to conduct the interview with Borgnine that I had hoped to conduct on that morning years earlier when I forgot to think about time zones.

In January 2009, I was notified by a publicist at Turner Classic Movies that the cable network's host Robert Osborne had recorded an interview with Borgnine for his terrific Private Screenings series, and they wanted to know if I might like to speak with Borgnine for the Los Angeles Times website, prior to that episode airing, to help to increase audience awareness of and interest in it. I told them it would be an honor. On January 15, 2009, I spoke with Borgnine by telephone for 56 minutes, during which we discussed his life, career, and worldview.

On the occasion of his death, I'd like to leave you with the unedited transcript of that conversation, which I think reveals a lot about the man, and for which I was, am, and always will be very grateful.