The importance of being Ernie

An interview with Academy Award winner Ernest Borgnine
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An interview with Academy Award winner Ernest Borgnine
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That voice—a rumbling baritone that seems to echo from the depths of a cement mixer—booms from the other end of the phone. “Just call me Ernie!” says Academy Award winning actor Ernest Borgnine, who recently passed away at the age of 95.

Borgnine, the son of Italian immigrants (his mother was a countess), has played the heavy opposite Western Hollywood icons, like Spencer Tracy, Randolph Scott, Gary Cooper, James Cagney, and William Holden.

How did you get started in Westerns?

Honestly, I needed the work. No one had ever heard of Ernest Borgnine. I remember going to movies when I was a kid and watching Westerns, especially Wallace Beery as Pancho Villa. If there was an actor I tried to tailor my acting after it was Wallace Beery. Of course, as I got older, I tailored my acting after me.

I had just finished being in a movie called The Mob with Broderick Crawford and had bills to pay when I was approached about being in a Western with Randolph Scott. It was called Stranger With A Gun. They asked me if I could ride and I said sure—a Chrysler. They hired me anyway. I remember showing up at the set with two big suitcases and standing there was a new actor named Lee Marvin. Everything he owned was in a small case no bigger than a lunch bucket, and he looked at me and my two big suitcases and asked if I was moving in.

How did you like working on Westerns in comparison to other types of movies?

I had a lot of fun doing Westerns. I met an incredible number of real talent doing Westerns. People like, say, James Cagney were not actors, they were just naturals. I remember working with Cagney in Colorado making Run For Cover. He got to you. He was a short man, but he had a presence. We would stop shooting for the day and Cagney would go to his cabin, change, and go down to a local bar or just be around us at our camp and tap dance to stay in shape. It was wonderful to watch.

Then there was the time I flew down to Mexico to be in Vera Cruz and they said they would send a car for me. It was Gary Cooper driving! On our way back to the set, Cooper turns to me and says, “I wish I could act like you.” I was shocked! I said, “You have two Oscars, why do you want to act like me?” Cooper looked at me smiling, “I got those two Oscars for saying ‘yulp.’ ”

Cooper was the most neglected actors in the world—even today. He had a natural way about him like Bob Mitchum had. He listened. It is one of the traits new actors don’t have anymore. He would listen to you say your lines and then react to what you said with his body language.

Probably the best though was Spencer Tracy. I remember watching him and Bob Ryan doing a scene in Bad Day at Black Rock, and Tracy was saying his lines while looking down and staring at the ground. You couldn’t see his face. I was sure he had blown the scene. But when we watched it in the theater, you never even noticed Bob Ryan was there. Tracy knew what he was doing all along. He got you hooked. You wanted to watch him even if you couldn’t see his face.

They had me speak before the Harvard School of Drama years ago, and the students there asked me what my method of acting was. I said I had no method. They said, “Well Marlon Brando did and Paul Newman did.” I said, “Good for them, but Spencer Tracy didn’t and James Cagney didn’t.” I work with two things—my head and my heart. I could tell what I was saying was really upsetting that Harvard drama teacher of theirs.

Why did you never appear in a John Wayne Western?

Wayne came up to me once at the Polo Club bar and said, “Ernie, we’ve known each other for years. How come we have never worked together?” I turned to him and said, “Because you’re afraid to work with good actors.” He laughed like hell at that.

You’ve appeared in The Wild Bunch, Bad Day At Black Rock, The Badlanders, and Vera Cruz. Who was your favorite director to work with?

Overall, it was Michael Curtiz in a 1956 musical I was in called The Best Things In Life Are Free. He was a real talent. He knew what he wanted. For Westerns, Bob Aldrich and Sam Peckinpah were good. Sam loved actors, but he wouldn’t put up with stuff behind the scenes.

I also really enjoyed working with Delmer Daves. [Borgnine was directed by Daves in The Badlanders, Jubal, and Demetrius and the Gladiators] You don’t hear much about him anymore. He was good because he was one of us. He didn’t lord over us or treat us like dirt, like so many directors do. And he knew people. I always looked forward to working with him.

Where was your favorite film location for Westerns?

I would say Mexico. Mexico is real nice, or was, until the current explosion of drug violence. It was quiet. The people were nice. They couldn’t do enough for you. They were always helpful asking what you needed.

What do you see for the future of Westerns?

I am afraid it’s nil, if anything. You very seldom see them anymore. It’s too bad. They were simple in plot. You knew what you were getting: Boy meets girl, boy loves girl, boy meets horse, boy loves horse—that sort of thing. Now we’re making movies about some real sons of bitches. Look at Johnny Depp playing Dillinger. He was real scum, and yet some young actor is going to be watching that in the movie theater with his feet kicked up, saying “I could do that.”

I turned down $500,000 once, because I wouldn’t play Capone on screen. He was a monster.

You’re very active for someone in their 90s. What is your secret?

Let’s say it’s better than sitting around the house getting old. The key is to keep working. How many people do you know who talk about retiring, but when they do, they start complaining about how boring it is to play golf every day? I may not always like the work I get, but it keeps me going.