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

I have to ask you about that. Of course, there’s the very famous scene in which you and he fight, and he manages to beat you with just one arm. Can you talk about that scene? I believe that you suggested the way in which it was ultimately shot...
I was talking to the director and said, “Sir,” I said, “how is a big guy with one arm gonna take on a big guy like me?” And he said, “Well, what do you got in mind?” I said, “Well, the only thing I can possibly imagine would be that, you know he’d do it to me judo-style.” He said, “Okay.” And he said, “Work it out with the guy that’s gonna do it here”—Spencer Tracy wouldn’t do it because, at one time, he threw a punch at Clark Gable when he was supposed to be zigging and instead he was zagging, and he knocked out his front teeth, so from then on he never threw another punch except when doing a close-up, you know, so he didn’t have to show them what he was doing. Anyway, I worked it out with this fella, you know, and then they came on the set and they said, “Okay, that’s it, we’re gonna shoot this!” And I started walking away, and they said, “Wait, wait, wait! Ernie, come on back, you’re gonna do this scene!” I said, “But, Sir, I—” “No, no,” he said, “we’ve been watching. You can do it. Come on.” I said, “Okay.” So they put a piece of sponge in my hand, and covered it with “blood”—you never saw it—and then, when he hits me in the back of the neck, and my head goes down, his knee came up at the same time and missed me just by inches—micro-inches, you might say—and when I came back up I hit my nose with the sponge, and all the “blood” spurted out, and I heard Spencer on the other side saying, “Jesus Christ, they killed him!” [laughs] It didn’t phase us. We went right on—boom, bam, bim—threw another punch, and by the time I hit that door I was going about ninety-four, ninety-seven miles an hour! During the rehearsal, I hit it with my arm and the door went flying open. Some son of a bitch had locked the door [laughs]—you know, they put the lock on—and to this day I can see it in my mind’s eye as I close my eyes, I can see that door flying off, and the screws coming out, and everything else, and pow! I lay out there with this thing wrapped around my neck and I said, “What the hell? What the hell happened?!” So I went over my body carefully and I said, “Oh, okay, everything’s okay. Thank God for that.” And I got up, and staggered back to the door, and threw that last punch; he flipped me; and boom, bam, bit, that was it.

I believe that Walter Brennan and Robert Ryan had asked to observe you in a scene—was that the scene?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. ’Cause they just were in awe, you know? And the Goddamn thing was during the whole thing, you know, that Goddamn Lee Marvin would always go, [makes a clicking sound with his mouth]. [laughs] “You bastard!”

I know that you really admired Spencer Tracy as an actor, and in the past you’ve spoken about a scene involving him and Robert Ryan. You weren’t in the scene, but you were watching it, and you were very impressed. Can you tell me why that was?
He was sitting there with his head down, you know, which is something that— Usually you don’t find an actor doing that, you know? And he was sitting there on the bench. And Robert Ryan was, you know, walking around his car there, and everything else, and during the entire scene, Christ, he did everything but try to drop his bridges, you know, just to get attention to himself. And I said to him, “What the hell is Spencer Tracy doing?” I said, “Nobody’ll ever watch him!” [pauses] Your eyes were riveted on that man, and he knew exactly what he was doing by keeping his head down; you know, he’d look up occasionally, but he’d look down, and he was talking all the time. I learned a great lesson that day from, I guess, the epitome of acting, because, hey, man, if that’s your scene, you know, and it’s yours, and you don’t throw it away, you’ve got it, that’s it. And he knew how to do it.

And he really liked you. One day, when you had to leave the set early, he teased you a little bit, right?
That’s right, that’s right. He said, “Whoa! Hey! Hey! Wait a minute! Where you going?” [laughs] He said, “Anybody leaves early, it’s me! I’m the star here!” He was kidding, of course, you know?

But, ironically, where were you off to?
I was off to read, believe it or not, for Paddy Chayefsky and Delbert Mann, the director. I said, “They gave me permission to go out and read.” “Read?! Goddamnit, you don’t read anymore,” he says, “You’re a star!” I looked at him and I said, “Out of your mouth to God’s ears!” [laughs] He wanted to know what the hell it was all about, so I told him the story, you know, and he said, “Hey, that sounds pretty good, by golly! Well, don’t worry about it, you’ll get it.” And I said, “Out of your mouth to God’s ears! Boy, that’s marvelous.” And I thanked him very much. And he said, “Let me know when you come back, huh? Let me know.” I said, “Yes, Sir.” Well, I didn’t have to be back until the next morning, and the next morning, of course— What I actually did is a story in itself, with Paddy Chayefsky and Delbert Mann, to make them believe that I could do it, because they had other minds, they had other plans, and everything else, and I had to convince them that I could do it. Well, to make a long story short, I walked on the set the next morning, and he looked at me, and he said, “Well?” I gave a great big smile. I said, “I got it!” He said, “I told ya!” The next year I beat him out for an Academy Award. Can you imagine?

And you and he almost crossed paths again on The Old Man and the Sea, right?
Yeah. I almost went to do that because he was having a lot of trouble over there—he started drinking, and they finally put him down, but it came very close. I was playing golf with—oh, what the devil’s his name—one of the columnists—

Was it James Bacon?
Jim Bacon. And Jim Bacon and I were playing golf, and the guy came running on the golf course and he said, “Hey! They want you to stand by! You’re probably gonna go to Cuba to relieve Spencer Tracy!” I said, “What?! Me relieve him? What are you, crazy?” You know? It never happened, but I had the distinction! [laughs]

You know, you are the last person standing who can comment about a controversy that allegedly happened on the next movie that you did, Johnny Guitar. Supposedly, there was the catfight of the century between Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge…
Oh, Jesus!

What was really going on there? I know they were both strong personalities…
She wouldn’t lift the gun—would not lift that gun to shoot at Joan Crawford because Joan Crawford had called her, “You bitch!” [laughs] She called her every name under the sun. We had a day off one day—something happened or something—so we went into town, the four of us, you know? There was—what the heck’s his name?—Royal Dano, and myself, and the kid, and— So the four of us traveled around together, you know, who made up the little gang. And we were coming by, and she looked down, and she said, “Hey! How are ya?” You know? And we went over, and the first thing we know we were telling stories, and telling jokes, and everything else. And pretty soon McCambridge came by, “Oh, hello, how are you? Oh, this is wonderful!” You know? And, at the end, she started to say, you know, to Joan, “Oh, isn’t this wonderful?” Joan said, “Get out of here, you fish-wife!” Oh, my God, she called her every name under the sun, and we hauled ass out of there in a hurry!

Why do you think Crawford hated her?
I have no idea, I have no idea. But she just— I don’t know whether she was doing part of it for being in the picture, or whether it was that she didn’t like her, or what, but that was it. And boy when it came time to lift that gun to shoot Joan Crawford, Joan stood up there, just as pretty as you please, and she couldn’t lift that gun up at all! It was fun to watch, I tell ya. Poor old Nic Ray seemed like he was in the middle of it, too, because he was havin’ both of them at the same time! [laughs] Nic didn’t care—you know, “What the hell?” Oh, God. And what a guy he was—beautiful man, beautiful person.

And the next year he kind of immortalized himself with Rebel Without a Cause
That’s it, that’s it, yeah.

Well, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about what you did the next year, which I know was one of the most important chapters in your life: Marty. I don’t think very many people realize how unlikely it was that the movie would even get made, let alone win a bunch of Oscars—not even the studio wanted it to succeed, right?
No, they didn’t want that picture to be made. Between them, they had decided that they were only gonna make half the picture and then put it on the shelf because they wanted to take a tax loss. And their tax man came up and said, “Wait! Wait! Wait! Wait! You gotta finish the picture, then show it one time, and then you can take your tax loss. That’s the law.” So they said, “Oh, Christ!” You know? I was supposed to get ten thousand dollars for the picture and I got five—never saw the other half. Once we got back from New York, we waited until they actually built the sets, and they were still hammering while we were getting ready to do it. And we finished in, what, fourteen shooting days, I think, something like that, and that was it—we shot it boom, bam, bim, just like you would a television show, you know?

It was not really expected to do very well, but it did, and I know you credit Walter Seltzer a lot for getting it out there…
Well, I’ll tell you what happened. They had a fella by the name of Walter Seltzer, who is now living over there at the Motion Picture Home. And Walter Seltzer and a couple of other guys started out by showing the picture to bootblacks, to barbers, to people who do your nails, you know, and everything else, and they started the word of mouth, you know? And pretty soon they took it to New York, and they showed it to—what the hell’s his name—Toots Shor. Remember Toots Shor had a great big restaurant and watering hole, you know? And he said, “Have you seen Marty yet?” You know? So Joe DiMaggio and all the rest went to see it, you know, and they said, “Hey, this is a great picture!” You know? And one thing led to another, and the first thing you know people couldn’t wait to see it. And then it became a big smash and, oh, hell, there was all kinds of things to do, you know? I was making a picture at the time from another Paddy Chayefsky show called The Catered Affair, and I had just received—it’s now-extinct, but all the newspapers of New York gave their version of the best actor, and it was a plaque, and it was made up of all the newspapers of the city. And when I got that, you know, I was running lines in a scene over there, and this guy came out there and he had a great big—what the hell do you call it?—horseshoe of roses; I mean, it stood up at least five feet high, and it was all pink roses and everything else, and it had a band across the thing there, and it said, “Congratulations, Ernie! Why don’t you Italians go home? Bette Davis.” [laughs] This was while we were shooting Catered Affair—she was opposite me in Catered Affair. Oh, she was so happy for me. Really.

When you were making Marty, did you feel any pressure? The TV version of it had been so successful with Rod Steiger. Did you feel any need to check that out and draw from that, or to live up to it?
I never saw the show. They wanted to show it to me, and I said, “Hell, why do I want to see that?” I said, “I want to give my own rendition.” And it’s like night and day—I’ve had people still coming up to me and say, “We saw both shows, and you were Marty!” [laughs] “Thank you very much, that’s very nice!” You know?

And Delbert Mann, who worked on both—
Delbert Mann was director on both of them, yeah.

What did you make of your experience with him? Obviously, you worked together again afterwards, so I assume you liked it. But what was he like to work with?
Oh! This man—every time you worked with him, it was like going to school again, you know? It was like you got a first-hand thing of how to act, what acting was all about, and especially doing the kind of work that you were doing at that time, you know, whatever you were working on. By the time he got through, it was just like going to school. It was wonderful! And I never forgot him, and he’s still in my prayers, believe it or not, because he was such a wonderful man, and I still revere him to this very day.

Where do you think that performance came from? I mean, that’s the role that you’ll probably be remembered for long after all of us are gone, so I wonder— Did you know anyone like Marty? Could you personally relate to him at all? Why do you think it all came together so well on that?
Scott, I’ll tell ya. As a youngster, I was the original Marty. I was afraid to meet people, I was afraid to— I was the original wallflower. I didn’t know how to dance, I didn’t know how to do anything, you know? And even while I was in the service—in the Navy—it wasn’t until somebody took me out there and showed me how to start dancing that I really became entangled in that kind of stuff. But I never knew anything about dancing—nobody ever taught me. Hell, I didn’t— You know when it says, “When I first went to my first Panama whore—” [laughs] Did you read the book?

It’s been a while…
[laughs] I didn’t know what the hell it was all about! Really. You know? That’s the kind of guy I was. And thank God, you know? To me, it was like falling off a log—I just played myself the way I had been, you know? And besides that, the way it was written—I mean, you couldn’t go wrong. I mean, the way the writing was—it was so beautiful, so touching. Everything that you could possibly want, you know what I mean, was there. And, if you played it right, hey, man, it was the easiest thing in the world.

It’s interesting that you gave that performance in the same year that James Dean and some of the other Method actors were really starting to come up, but you really used your own method, right?
People have asked me what method I use; I say, “What method?” You know? You use two things: your heart and your head. That’s how you work. I don’t know of any method. I never had a method; didn’t want a method; and, besides, I’ve been a pretty successful actor, having just finished my two hundredth film. But, I’ll tell ya, you know, people ask me, “Oh, what’s your method?” “Well, look at me. Does it look like I’ve got a method?” [laughs]

Well, whatever you do, people approve -- including the Academy, which gave you your Oscar. Did that surprise you? Did that change things for you? Was that important to you?
Oh, my God, I never expected anything like that, especially when I was nominated, you know? And the day of the Oscars, I fell asleep in the afternoon, and my then-wife was screaming bloody murder, “How can you sleep?! You’ve been nominated for an Academy Award! How can you sleep?!” I said, “Easy! I’m not gonna win it. What’s the matter with you?” During the show, when Grace Kelly got up to do that, I was looking around at Burt Lancaster and all the rest of those people, you know, and I was saying to myself, “By golly,” you know, “these guys are pretty good, too, and imagine me being in line with these fellows,” you know, being nominated for these things. And suddenly my wife was punching me in the stomach—she said, “They called your name! They called your name!” I said, “What? What? What?” “They called your name, dummy! Get up!” [laughs]

Wow. That must have been one of the great moments…
Oh, what a moment, what a moment. It’s something that will live with me to my dying day, I’m sure, and then some. Because, I don’t know, I guess— What can I possibly say, you know? When your peers say, “You earned it! You got it!” My goodness, what else can you possibly say?

Well, it was very well deserved. And you deserved some more great roles right after, but you were locked into that contract, right?
That’s right. I was under contract to Harold Hecht and Burt Lancaster. They were throwing crap at me. They were getting all kinds of stuff, you know—they were getting pictures, they were getting writers, they were getting everything you can imagine on my name! And they said, “Hey, we’ll call you, don’t worry about it!” You know? “And if you want to pay for it, have you got, you know, a hundred and fifty thousand, two hundred thousand?” And I was making thirty-seven-five under that contract, and that was it. But, you know, in a way, I felt good until I found out what they were doing—that they were selling me down like a piece of meat, you know? This isn’t right. I mean, after all, hell, when they had me up for—what the hell was it, that thing that Burt Lancaster did?

Sweet Smell of Success?
That’s the one. And they had me go to New York to get my script from the headwaiter at 21. And I said, “What the hell’s he doing with it?” “Nevermind. Just go over there and get it.” So I won the Oscar, so I suddenly had a general manager, a manager, I had a personal publicity guy, I had everything—even my car was changed, you know? They did everything.

But when you went there to 21 to pick up that script, what did you find?
I found that I had about seven lines altogether in the whole goddamn script! And I said, “Well, hell, this is crazy.” And my guy who was with me, my personal manager, said, “Oh, we can’t let you do this—no, no, no, no,” he said. “You’re gonna go home.” So, naturally, they put me under suspension. And I, for one, said, “By golly, I’m gonna get a job downtown in a five and ten cent store and do something.” “You can’t do that!” I said, “What do you mean? They’ve taken away my livelihood. I can’t act. I’ve gotta do something.” “Oh, my goodness, no, no, no, no.” Well, you know, naturally I was left holding the bag, and waited until they goddamn well got around to what they wanted to do, and they finally settled, and I owed them five hundred thousand dollars, which I paid off slowly but surely. And that’s it.

Do you blame Burt Lancaster? Who was behind all of this?
No. What are you gonna do? “Blame?” Who you gonna blame? I blame myself for having signed that contract.

I guess I’m just surprised, though, because this is the same person who you’d worked with on From Here to Eternity
Yeah, yeah. But, you know, when one of those things happen, what are you gonna do? You can’t blame anybody but yourself for having signed it.

What do you make of it when people say to you, “Are you a character actor or a lead actor?”
They’ve never said that to me. They’ve said, “You’re a star!” [laughs]

Well, that is certainly true. But do you see a distinction between those two?
Oh, I see myself as a character actor.

What’s the difference between the two, in your mind?
Well, let me tell ya. If you’re a leading man, naturally you’re not gonna last as long as a character actor. And a character actor keeps going all the time—hell, I’m ninety-two years old and I’m still working! You know? And show me any ninety-two-year-old leading man that’s still working! [laughs]

You had the endurance of somebody much younger than yourself even when you got a little older. In The Wild Bunch, you were out there like a kid…
Oh, sure. Oh, sure. Why not? What the hell? If I sign up for something like that, I want to do it, you know?

And that was a pretty rough movie…
Oh, yeah. Yeah. That was a rough cobb. But I’ll tell ya, it was wonderful and we had a lot of fun on it—and a lot of hard work. We knew we had something, but we didn’t know what we had until they first saw it and they said, “Why was this ever made?!” You know? “This terrible picture with blood spurting and—!” I said, “Oh, God, we made another nothing,” you know? And the day came when they were gonna open it—general viewing—and I called up Bill Holden and I said, “Bill, stand by for all the brick that’ll come our way!” And he said, “I know what you mean.” [laughs] And then suddenly the papers came out and said, “The greatest western ever made!” The same people that were hollering like hell, you know, as to why we ever made this flicker. It was crazy, you know?

Thinking back on it, you have been in the littlest kinds of movies, like Marty, and also the biggest, The Dirty Dozen and Poseidon Adventure—I mean, those are huge movies!
Yeah, yeah.

The last thing I want to ask you, as one of the few actors from the Golden Age who are still active and still voting in the Academy, is what you think of the state of the movies today, and particularly about the new kinds of movies that are being made today that might not have been made years ago. For instance, you had Brokeback Mountain a few years ago—
[Gravely] Yeah.

Not to harp on this too much, but a lot of older members of the Academy said that they weren’t really thrilled about the idea of that movie. I know that you had made a comment—if I can read it back to you—“I didn’t see Brokeback Mountain and I don’t care to see it. I know they say it’s a good picture, but I don’t care to see it. If John Wayne were alive, he’d be rolling over in his grave.”
Don’t you feel that that’s about it? Don’t you feel that that’s about it?

Well, there’s a very big divide. You’ve just lived through Prop 8, the vote about what to do about this. To people who were sensitive to that, and felt that as an Academy member you should have at least watched the film, what do you say?
Well, let me say this. There are some good actors out there, and I’m not taking anything away from them. But when you have to judge five films, the best of the year, you’re not getting very much for your money, are you? Five films? And some of those I wouldn’t look at twice because of the fact that— To me, I think it’s a way of making money these days, and that’s all there is to it. I’d rather watch a dog movie. [laughs]

So with Brokeback, your feeling was just “not interested”?
That’s it. You know? They’re making things these days—I swear to goodness! I have all kinds of films here— What the devil is it? I can’t find this paper here—here it is, here it is! I have one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five, twenty-six, twenty-seven, twenty-eight, and then about ten more, that’s thirty-eight— I’ve got about fifty places here—HBO, Signature, East, West, everything that you can imagine, Showtime, I’ve got Starz, I’ve got Cinemax, I’ve got HBO, East, West, Family—and you know something? The majority of them have one star or two stars. If you get an occasional picture with three stars, you watch it because you say, “Well, this has gotta be good.” And even that is kinda sad.

But I think what people were sensitive about with Brokeback Mountain was, here is a movie that was very critically acclaimed, it was winning a lot of awards, and then it finally got to the Oscars after having pretty much won everything, and it didn’t win there. And people were saying that the only explanation for it not winning there, after having won everywhere else, was that Academy members must not like the idea of a movie about gay people…
The thing is— Did you see this last thing that they did—I forget, the SAG Awards or something like that—where they gave it to a British film. What the devil’s it called? I’ve forgotten right now. Anyway, out of nowhere! And here you are, you’re looking at a fella—Frank Langella—who gave a performance as Nixon that—I couldn’t believe it, it was just marvelous! And, you know, you say that above this? How can you? You can’t really put the thing together. And I’m sorry to say today’s films leave me a little— That’s why I watch TCM, the Turner channel, you know? And I watch these old-timers like Gary Cooper and the rest of them, and I learn—I’m still learning, believe it or not—because of their sincerity, their truthfulness. Back then it was really something.

Well, you belong in that category, and I just want to thank you so much for all the movies then, and for taking so much time to speak with me today. I really can’t thank you enough…
God bless you, Scott. I really— Thank you!

It’s an honor. And we miss you in Connecticut!
Well, God bless you. Listen, very happy New Year!