Interview: Ernest Borgnine, Still Building A Life's Work At 94 The star of Marty and McHale's Navy — a man with more than 60 years of work on stage, TV and the silver screen — receives the Screen Actors Guild's Life Achievement Award on Jan. 30. Pat Dowell reports that at 94, he's still "a happy person."
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Ernest Borgnine, Still Building A Life's Work At 94

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Ernest Borgnine, Still Building A Life's Work At 94

Ernest Borgnine, Still Building A Life's Work At 94

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Tomorrow night, Ernest Borgnine will receive the Life Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild. Mr. Borgnine played tough guys in many Hollywood classics, including "From Here to Eternity" and "The Wild Bunch." Of course, he won an Oscar for playing nice in the 1955 film "Marty;" certainly had a hit TV series, "McHales Navy," in the 1960s.

Ernest Borgnine celebrated his 94th birthday last Monday, and hes still a working actor.

Pat Dowell reports.

PAT DOWELL: Tough guy Ernest Borgnine was set on his career path by his mom. He grew up in Connecticut, the son of Italian immigrants, and went into the Navy shortly after high school. When he got out at the end of World War II, he was looking for something to do, and his mother suggested acting.

Mr. ERNEST BORGNINE (Actor): Me, an actor? Are you kidding?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BORGNINE: But when she said it, it suddenly - I dont know, I looked up and I saw that golden light and I said mom, thats what Im going to be.

DOWELL: He used his GI benefits to study acting and drew on his decade-long stint in the Navy for the first memorable movie role he played, a sadistic stockade sergeant in the Army drama "From Here to Eternity."

Mr. BORGNINE: I based Fatso Judson on a fellow that I knew in the Navy, a boatswain's mate that I - I liked him, but he was, oh, he was a hard character to get along with. He always had a cigar in his mouth. Now if the cigar was down, just kind of relaxing in his mouth, that was fine. But if that cigar stuck straight out, watch yourself.

DOWELL: Fatso Judson taunts and threatens a private, played by Frank Sinatra, after a barroom brawl.

(Soundbite of movie, From Here to Eternity)

Mr. BORGNINE: (as Sgt. Fatso Judson): Tough monkey. Guys like you end up in the stockade sooner or later. Some day you walk in, Ill be waiting. Ill show you a couple things.

DOWELL: He does, and Borgnine was known thereafter as the guy who killed Frank Sinatra and helped Sinatra win his 1953 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Two years later, it was Borgnines turn. He won Best Actor for a role reversal in Marty, playing a good guy, the shy New Yorker who works in a butcher shop and knows too much about loneliness.

(Soundbite of movie, Marty)

Mr. BORGNINE: (as Marty) All my brothers and my brothers-in-law, they're always telling me Im a good-hearted guy I am. You dont get to be a goodhearted guy by accident. You get kicked around long enough you get to be a real professor of pain. I know exactly how you feel. And I also want you to know I'm having a very good time with you right now and really enjoying myself. So you see you're not such a dog as you think you are.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. BETSY BLAIR (Actress): (as Clara) I'm having a very good time too.

Mr. BORGNINE: (as Marty) So there you are. So, Im not such a dog as I think I am.

Mr. SEAN PENN (Actor, director): Marty has to stick out. Its so indelible. But with a person like Ernest Borgnine, I find myself almost obliged to experience him as a body of work, and a continuing one.

DOWELL: Sean Penn directed Borgnine in a segment that was part of a collection of short films called September 11, about how the terrorist attacks on that day affected people around the world. Penn and Borgnine became friends.

Mr. PENN: Contrary to the kind of generational mythology that actors of that earlier generation are not adept at improvisation and so on, he was not only adept at it; he was very spontaneous and very game. So in many ways he became a second writer on the piece.

DOWELL: Borgnine played a New York widower immersed in his grief to the exclusion of all else, still talking to his absent wife, laying out her dress each day, even as the towers fall.

(Soundbite of movie, September 11)

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BORGNINE: (as Segment U.S.): Something summery. Something summery. Oh, yes, this is it. Oh my goodness.

DOWELL: But Borgnine is best known for the smug ferocity of his great villains - the bully in the 1954 cult Western Johnny Guitar who knifes his roommate in the back...

(Soundbite of movie, Johnny Guitar)

(Soundbite of banging)

DOWELL: ...and then complains...

Mr. BORGNINE: (as Bart Lonergan) Some people just wont listen.

DOWELL: And Shack, the Depression Era railroad brute who delights in kicking hobos off his train in the 1973 drama Emperor of the North. But these characters are a mystery to the man who made them unforgettable.

Mr. BORGNINE: I havent the slightest idea where I got em. And as a matter of fact, I used to go home to my wife and I'd say, honey, am I really that kind of a person? Am I really that bad, to come up with a character like Shack? And, you know, it just didnt register with me, because I found myself doing things that I had never done in my life, and wouldnt do them, you know?

DOWELL: But hes also played super-heroes. Ernest Borgnine is the voice of Mermaid Man, who lives in retirement with sidekick Barnacle Boy, in SpongeBob SquarePants.

(Soundbite of Nickelodeons SpongeBob SquarePants)

Mr. RODGER BUMPASS (Actor): (as Squidward Tenacles) I told ya, I'm not hungry Mermaid Man.

Mr. BORGNINE: (as Mermaid Man) Nonsense Barnacle Boy. We've got to keep up our strength to fight against evil.

DOWELL: Borgnine has no favorite among his movies, he insists, although there is one that he admits is close to his heart: Sam Peckinpahs 1969 classic The Wild Bunch.

Mr. BORGNINE: I think The Wild Bunch was about the most fun for me, and the one that stands out more in my mind than anything else. It was the last of the great Westerns, I think.

DOWELL: Borgnine played an aging bandit alongside William Holden, trying to understand why an old comrade in arms has gotten out of prison by agreeing to lead a railroad posse against the bunch.

(Soundbite of movie, The Wild Bunch)

Mr. WILLIAM HOLDEN (Actor): (as Pike Bishop) They got Freddy. It looks like hes hit pretty bad.

Mr. BORGNINE: (as Dutch Engstrom) Damn that Deke Thornton to hell.

Mr. HOLDEN: (as Pike Bishop) What would you do in his place? He gave his word.

Mr. BORGNINE: (as Dutch Engstrom) Gave his word to a railroad.

Mr. HOLDEN: (as Pike Bishop) Its his word.

Mr. BORGNINE: (as Dutch Engstrom) That aint what counts. Its who you give it to.

DOWELL: Ernest Borgnine says he enjoys every acting job. Sean Penn says thats a key to Borgnines personal and professional longevity.

Mr. PENN: He's that unusual creature we call a happy person, and I think that does a lot for the health.

DOWELL: But one thing that Borgnine doesnt enjoy is watching his finished work.

Mr. BORGNINE: I just dont like my puss on the screen.

DOWELL: But he watches anyway.

Mr. BORGNINE: I say dummy, you could have done better. Listen, it's the only way you learn, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DOWELL: And at 94, Ernest Borgnine is still reading scripts, still acting, and still learning.

For NPR News this is Pat Dowell.

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