LOS ANGELES (Back Stage) - Ernest Borgnine doesn’t want to be called “Mr. Borgnine,” preferring “Ernest” or even “Ernie.”
Speaking in his signature gravelly voice, the 94-year-old Oscar winner is matter-of-fact about his achievements, still delighted and slightly awed that he has been able to make his living doing what he loves most: acting. He remains enthralled with movies, but is no admirer of much of what is produced today and is dismissive about acting methods.
“I learned to act by just sitting on a park bench and watching people go by,” he says. “I follow what the author has written and take it from there. I don’t have a method. You work with your head and your heart and then you create a character.”
Whatever his method — or perhaps more precisely, non-method — it has worked for him. For more than six decades, Borgnine has rolled up more than 200 movie and TV credits, playing a range of memorable characters — including the brutal Sgt. “Fatso” Judson in “From Here to Eternity,” the jolly and fatuous Lt. Cmdr. Quinton McHale on the popular TV series “McHale’s Navy,” and his Oscar-winning portrayal of the sensitive and lonely butcher in “Marty.”
Currently he is the inimitable voice of aging superhero Mermaid Man on the animated series “SpongeBob SquarePants.” And, at the Screen Actors Guild Awards ceremony on January 30, the union will honor Borgnine with a lifetime achievement award.
Brought up in New Haven, Conn., the son of Italian immigrants, Borgnine says he had no major ambitions. After graduating from high school, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, doing two tours of duty — the second during World War II — rising to the rank of gunner’s mate first class. When he was discharged, he was at loose ends, describing his state of mind as “disgusted and disgruntled.”
As he recalls, his mother, who he surmised may have wanted to act, said, “‘Ernie, did you ever think of becoming an actor?’ She always loved motion pictures, she hooked me on them, and, after we’d come home from some of the pictures, we’d play the parts, like cops and robbers. But she came from quasi-royalty — her father was Count Boselli, financial adviser to Italian King Victor Emmanuel — and in their world people who went into theater were looked down on.”
Only half-kidding, she explained why she thought acting was a good choice for her son: “‘You always wanted to make a fool of yourself in front of people.’”
Her pitch struck a nerve, and, with the help of the G.I. Bill, Borgnine enrolled in the Randall School of Drama in Hartford, an experience he viewed as useless. “I learned nothing there except how to wear a tutu, and at 28 I looked pretty nasty in a tutu,” he says. He moved on to the Barter Theater in Abingdon, Va., where he climbed the ranks from stagehand to actor. There, he says, he learned most by watching the wonderful actors on stage. Barter’s alumni include Gregory Peck, Patrician Neal, Hume Cronyn, and Ned Beatty.
Borgnine scored with his first acting gig: a relatively small part as a union leader in “State of the Union,” a 1948 Frank Capra movie headlined by Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. He recalls “feeling like a million dollars,” giving the role everything he had, and earning the only positive review from the local critic.
Within a few years, Borgnine was performing on such television programs as “Goodyear Playhouse” and “The Ford Television Theater.” Despite some dry periods, he refused to sign a long-term studio contract because he didn’t want to uproot his family for a movie deal that might or might not prove artistically fruitful. Borgnine waited for the right picture, and it came with the role of Fatso Judson in 1953’s “From Here to Eternity.” That was his career turning point.
“When I read the book two years earlier, I said to myself, ‘If there’s a God above, I will play Fatso Judson,’” Borgnine recalls. “After I did that role, I couldn’t work fast enough.”
And two years later, he walked off with the Oscar for “Marty,” which brought him more opportunities and money. “I went from earning $75,000 a picture to $100,000 a picture,” he says. But he was careful in his demands, mentioning an incident of a famous award-winning actress who overreached with a $1 million salary demand and never worked again.
Borgnine has performed with some of the great actors of the 20th century. “But the one who stands out in my mind is Gary Cooper,” he says.
“If you watch him, you can see him listening and then answering in turn. The same is true for Spencer Tracy. He listened before talking. That’s what acting is all about. Many actors today don’t listen. They speak because it’s their turn to speak. I was lucky. I worked with actors like Bill Holden and Hume Cronyn. They were marvelous people and talented. They gave it their heart and soul. That’s how they were brought up. Cary Grant was a beautiful person. Everything was in his facial expressions. You want to see real acting, watch the movies on TCM.”
Borgnine isn’t sure he’d be an actor if he were starting out today. It’s not simply the savage competitiveness throughout the industry, he says, but the kind of movies some producers are making. They are not entertaining and leave no impact, he asserts, suggesting they shortchange actors of quality. “If I were starting over, maybe I’d have spent my career in the Navy,” he says. “And by now I’d be getting a pension.”
But he is still going strong. Indeed, he has several new projects in the hopper. And he is never too old to learn: He says mastering the art of animation for “SpongeBob SquarePants” was a challenge. When kids are told he is Mermaid Man, “They can’t take pictures fast enough,” Borgnine notes. “Here I am at 94, still taking bows.”