Ernest Borgnine (1917-2012): A Personal Remembrance and An Unforgettable Interview
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.
Hi, Mr. Borgnine. How are you?
Scott, first of all, it’s not Mr. Borgnine. May I call you Scott and you call Ernie?
I love it. Thank you.
I’m speaking to you from Woodbridge, Connecticut, which is not far from Hamden, Connecticut. Can you tell me about your childhood growing up there?
Well, I lived on Pine Street, at one time, where they had the school, a little grammar school there. And then I lived over on Cherry Ann Street, which is part of New Haven and Hamden. I had already been to Italy for about four-and-a-half, five years, I guess. And I had just come back from Italy, and I was getting along pretty good with speaking English and everything else—’cause I couldn’t speak a word of English when I came back, being, you know, all Italian over there. Anyway, I got along pretty good, and I made friends with an awful lot of the guys. I lived on Cherry Ann Street, where Dixwell Avenue Theatre used to be—the last I heard of it it was a place where they made mattresses or something like that—but they had my name up there above Spencer Tracy! [laughs]
I hope you can talk about what brought you to Italy in the first place…
Well, my mother and dad separated, and she took me one time, and she just put me in a bag, and off we went. And I think I was around, oh, two years old, and I don’t remember that at all. But I do remember we went to Italy, and we stayed there for about four-and-a-half, five years until they made up again, you know? He kept sending wonderful letters to her, and sending music, and everything else—“Please come back, I love you!” And, by golly, they came back together again, fortunately, and I was very happy about that. But when I first saw my dad I didn’t recognize him at all—I didn’t know who he was—but my mother kept saying, “He’s your father! He’s your father!” [laughs] Okay. All in Italian, right? And after we went home, a few years later, they had my sister. And they lived happily ever after. Unfortunately, she died at an early age because of a sickness, and my dad never remarried; he always loved his wife, and I know he was very sorry. He was a go-getter, you know what I mean? He wanted to do this, and do that, and everything else. At the time that they separated, he had been working on a railroad and, you know, he’d be gambling with the fellas, and, “Where’s the money?” So that was it—finally, one day, she just up and left, and it killed him. But they made it all back together again, and we lived happily ever after, God bless ’em.
I see that you graduated from high school in 1935, which was not a great time to be entering the workforce. What did you do over those next few years?
Well, when I got out, fortunately we knew a fella that was selling vegetables, and my mother asked him, she said, “Would you mind giving my son a job just to get him off the street?” You know? Because I didn’t like to hang around the pool halls or anything else like that—I never did that in my life. And so he said, “Okay.” And so he gave me a job at three dollars a week, and I worked from three o’clock in the morning until seven o’clock at night. And, I tell ya, those bananas got pretty stale after a while on that vegetable truck! [laughs] But it worked. And one day we passed by the post office, and I saw a sign, “Join the Navy! See the World!” And I said, “By golly—that would be something good!” You know? So I went down there on the very first day I had off, and the fella says, “You’ve graduated high school?” And I said, “Yes, sir.” He said, “Let me check you out.” He checked me out. And he put me on standby—he said, “You’ll get in if somebody else doesn’t pass.” I said, “Fine. That’ll be wonderful.” I never told my folks; never told them a thing. So one day I got a call, “Get down here right away!” So I went down there—there was a fella who had a little trouble with his hemorrhoids [laughs]—so I got into the Navy on another fella’s hemorrhoids! [laughs] I went home and I told my mom—I said, “Mom! Guess what? I’m a G-man!” She said, “What? What do you mean you’re a G-man?” I said, “I work for the government!” “You’re kidding?! How’d you get a job working for the government?” I said, “It was easy. I went down, and I said hello, and I put up my right hand, and I leave tomorrow.” She said, “What are you doing?!” I said, “I joined the Navy.” Well, my mother was so surprised because she wanted me to go out to Yale University, but at that time in life I had no idea what I wanted to be, you know, and it wasn’t until years later, after ten years in the Navy, that I came home, and my mother looked at me, and it was one of those, “Well?”s. “When you gonna get a job?” You know? And I went out looking for work, and I couldn’t find anything—I could, but I saw these young old men walking into these factories, and I said to myself, “Me? Walking there? No way. I can’t do it. Not after ten years in the service. I’m out in the open all the time.” And I went home rather disgusted one day, and my mother looked at me. She said, “What’s the matter, Ernie?” And I said, “Mom, for two cents I’d join the Navy and see the World again,” I said, “because I’d just finish my other ten years and get a pension. At least I’ll have something.” And she looked at me, and she said, “Have you ever thought of becoming an actor?” She says, “You always like to make a damn fool of yourself. Why don’t you give it a try?” And so help me, Scott, I looked up, and I saw that golden light open, and the doors, and I said, “Mom! That’s what I’m gonna be!” I had no idea where to go, who to see; nobody in my family had ever been in show business—none of us had ever been—we didn’t know what show business was, except you turn on the TV. And, of course, in those days you didn’t have TV! So, “What is it? Well, I’ll find out.” And I went to Yale University the next morning, and I tried to get into Yale University, and the fellow looked at me and he said, “Well, your marks are alright,” he said, “but you’re gonna have to take two years of undergraduate study.” And I said, “Well, what will that consist of, Sir?” He said, “Geometry, trigonometry, algebra, calculus—” I said, “Wait a minute, Sir, wait a minute. I don’t want to be a mathematician or a scientist.” I said, “All I want to be is an actor.” He said, “It’ll still take two years of undergraduate study.” Well, I thanked him very much. A couple of years later, I happened to be in a show at the Barter Theatre of Virginia called The Glass Menagerie. We had changed it up a little bit. The part that I played was the gentleman caller. The man that had played it originally out in New York had been boisterous, you know, and all that sort of stuff, but the man that we had who directed the show was actually the stage manager of the original play and he said, “We’re gonna change everything.” So he changed it, and we made it beautiful, and he actually kisses the girl at the end, you know, and then walks out—and I said, “Oh, my God, I’ve just given the worst performance of my life. I never knew what the hell I was doing, you know?” And it brought the house down! And I walked up to the place where we were staying, and there was this man smoking a cigarette out there, and, by golly, it was old Professor Cole from Yale! And he said, “Well, young man, do you realize what you’ve done tonight?!” He said, “My God, you’ve just upset the whole apple cart!” He said, “You were absolutely tremendous!” He said, “I’ve never seen anything like this!” I said, “Thank you very much, Professor Cole.” He says, “You know me?” I said, “You remember that fellow—” [laughs] It was one of those things, you know? Of course, that was one of the thrilling moments of my life, you know? There haven’t been too many, except when I got a picture or got a television show and you’re keeping the wolf from the door. And I was married at that time, and had a child, so I had to really scrounge, you know?
I have to ask you about what I assume was one of those thrilling moments. Can you talk about the day that you went for your first screen test—how that came about, what you did while you were awaiting your turn, and how it all worked out in the end?
Oh, that one! [laughs] You know, he said to me the day before, “You come! I give you a screen test!” His name was Robert Siodmak—
How did you meet him? How did this come about?
Well, I had been around New York for a while then, you know what I mean, having come up from the Barter Theatre where I really got started, and I was making the rounds and everything else. Somebody said, “They’re casting a picture over there.” I said, “Oh?” He said, “Yeah.” He said, “Gonna be Lloyd Bridges, and Dorothy Gish, and a whole bunch of people.” I said, “Well, by golly, I’ll go over there and ask him.” So I saw this portly woman—the secretary—and she said, “Just a minute, I’ll get the director.” So the director walked out, and he looked out, and he said, “Yeah, you’ve got good face.” He said, “You come! I give you a screen test in the morning.” Oh, my God, I went home—“A screen test?! My God, this is marvelous!” So, the next morning, I went up to where they were having this screen test thing, opened the door, and there was about seven hundred and forty-three people ahead of me. I said, “Oh, my God, what am I gonna do?” And he looked up from the camera and he said, “You! You come back!” He said, “I give you a screen test, don’t worry!” He said, “Two, three hours!” I said, “Okay.” So I walked away. Now, I had a dime in my pocket—enough to get back on the subway—so I said, “Now, where the hell do I go—you know, to walk down 5th Avenue—where do I go to sit, because I have to find some place to sit down for a couple of hours. So I finally found a place right there at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. And I walked into St. Patrick’s, and I sat down, and I saw The Man up there, you know? And I gave a little prayer—I’ve been a very bad Catholic all my life anyway [laughs], but—I said, “Please, give me a chance! Give me a chance!” You know? “I’d like to make it if I can!” Well, okay. I went back, and I was the last man to be given a screen test, and he stood up and he said, “Okay, just saw one word,” he said, “and I take your screen test! Roll the camera!” I said, “Sir, what do you want me to say?” “Oh,” he said, “just say the word ‘shit.’” “What?!” He said, “Yes.” He said, “When you say that word, it makes you smile. You have good smile. You say it!” “Shit.” And I gave out a smile. Later on, when they went to see this thing, it was MOS—you know, without sound—and the producer looked up there, and they had these names and everything else but no sound. He said, “Who is that?” They said, “Oh, his name is, eh, Ernest Borgnine. Yeah.” “Well, what the hell is he saying? He’s got a good smile, hasn’t he?!” They said, “We don’t know what he’s saying, but he does have a good smile!” [laughs] I got a part in the picture—I was supposed to go up there to be a stand-in or something, and I ended up with a featured role in my first picture! [laughs]
So you could actually say that you built your career on “shit”...
[laughs] That’s a fact!
Well, that was on the east coast. When you finally made it out to the west coast, I believe it was for the movie The Mob, and that after that film was released Harry Cohn came up to you and tried to keep you out there…
Oh, after the picture? Yeah, he wanted to put me under contract; Max Arnow was there—you know, the casting director who had cast me in this picture. And he said, “We kind of like your work.” He said, “We’ll give you a hundred-fifty dollars week and we’ll put you down for a seven-year contract.” And I said, “Gee, thanks very much, Sir,” I said, “but I just can’t do it.” “What do you mean you can’t do it? Where the hell are you gonna get work?” I said, “Well, I have a wife who is very close to her family,” I said, “and she just doesn’t want to leave New York.” “What the hell is she, Jewish?” I said, “As a matter of fact, she is, Sir.” He said, “Goddamn Jews are all alike” [laughs]—here was Harry Cohn [a Jew]! And, of course, when I told her this, you know, she said, “Well, what am I gonna do?” I said, “Honey, you gotta make up your mind: we either go to the west coast and try to get in or we’re not gonna make it at all,” you know? So she finally decided, by golly, that’s what we’d do, and we got started, and the first thing you know we had a home and we were going along pretty good.
The film that really brought you to people’s attention was From Here to Eternity. I’ve heard a wonderful story about how, long before you were ever offered the role of Fatso in the film, you had really dreamed of it. Is that true?
Yeah! I read the book about two or three years before that, and when I finished the book I said to myself, “Knowing there’s a good God above,” I said, “I’m gonna play that part of Fatso Judson.” Just like that! But it never occurred to me that I would ever get it, you know? And out of a clear blue sky, Max Arnow called me—’cause he said, “Don’t worry, kid,” he said, “we’ll keep you in mind,” and sure enough he called me—and when he called I said, “Well, what do you they want me for?” He said, “They want you for the part of Fatso Judson.” And I said, “My God! Talk about God listening to one’s ear!” [laughs] And so I said, “I’ll be out there in the morning!” And then it happened. And another thing happened that was quite something. For seven weeks I studied that one week: “You’ve killed me! Why did you want to kill me?” And he said that to, you know, the guy that killed him—what the heck’s his name?
Was it Clift?
No, it was, you know, the fellow who died at the end. What’s his name? Wonderful, wonderful actor.
Not Montgomery Clift?
[Having apparently misheard what I said the first time.] Montgomery Clift! God dang it, I couldn’t think of his name for a minute. Anyway, Montgomery Clift stood over me, you know, after we had that knife fight, and I said, “You’ve killed me! Why did you want to kill me?” Well, I had studied that line for seven weeks because I said, you know, if anybody walked up to me and said, [assumes a mocking voice] “Hey! You’ve killed me! Why did you want to kill me?” [resumes his normal voice], you know, then I’d really want to kill, you know, if I didn’t say it right. I wanted to really get it done. Well, I went to see the picture by myself in New Haven—I happened to be home at the time—and, damn, they cut out the line! And I said, “Jumpin’ Jesus!” After all that seven weeks of learning, you know, what to say, and everything else, and how to say it, they cut my bloody line! And suddenly I realized that they left me the heavy! Man, I was the biggest heavy there for a while in Hollywood that you’ve ever seen! I was killing Lee Marvin with pitchforks, I was kniving people to death, I was—everything! That’s why, when I got the part of Marty, you know, it was even said in the paper, “Marty?! Ernest Borgnine’s a killer! How did he get to play Marty?” You know?
Well, you also took a lot of flack for killing Sinatra, right?
[laughs] Exactly! Oh, my God, did I ever! When we first started Marty, the second night of shooting I was walking along thinking over my lines, and I felt a tap on my shoulder, and I turned around and there were a bunch of fellas standing there. And a fella said, [assumes an Italian accent] “Ay, you da guy dat killed Frank Sinatra?” [resumes his normal voice] I said, “Yeah,” I said, “it was just a picture, but I killed him.” And one of the guys spoke up in Italian and said, “Let’s beat the shit out of him,” you know? I said, “Whoa, wait a minute!” You know? “Hey!” I said, “I happen to be Italian myself”—and I said this in Italian. I said, “If you want to wait, I’ll take you out one at a time.” “Well—you’re Italian?!” I said, “Yes! And Frank’s a good friend of mine. “Oh, Jesus! Well, then we didn’t mean that.” And from then on they brought me jugs of liquor and everything else—it was the damndest thing you ever saw! That one fella in the back kept insisting, “We oughta beat the hell outta him!” [laughs] I told that to Frank one day; he laughed like a son-of-a-gun.
I’ve heard that when they first told you that Sinatra was going to star in From Here to Eternityyou said, “They’re gonna make a musical out of it?!”
Yeah! That, too, yeah. I said, “Well, there it goes to hell!” The most wonderful thing that happened— I was talking to Monty Clift one Saturday afternoon—we were on the stage waiting to go on—and we saw this couple walk through in a distant door on one of the soundstages. We didn’t pay any attention—we were talking to each other, you know, talking about all kinds of things—he was a wonderful man. And suddenly I was engulfed by these big arms, you know? And the guy said—without turning around—he said, “You’re the son of a bitch I wrote about!” And I looked around, and it was James Jones! And he looked at me and he said, “Yeah,” he said, “you are—you are really the guy that I wrote about.” And he said, “Believe me, keep up the good work!” And I said, “Oh, my God! James Jones, too? That was amazing; just amazing.
Very soon after that, you had another opportunity to work with someone who you admired very much, Spencer Tracy, in Bad Day in Black Rock…
Oh, God, yeah.
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…
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!
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—
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!
Sundance: On the Scene