Friday, October 15, 2010

There’s no stopping Ernest Borgnine

Everybody’s seeing “Red” over the teaming of “veteran” stars such as Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich and Helen Mirren. Yet, not a one of them has a resume to compare with Ernest Borgnine, who describes himself as “93 years old — and still going strong.”

That strength is no joke, either, according to correspondent Stan Urankar. A handshake offer is accepted with an iron grip and accompanied by a wide smile. “It’s not Mr. Borgnine,” the star responds. “Call me Ernie.”

His role in “Red” as Henry, records keeper at a massive vault in the bowels of CIA headquarters, isn’t a big one, but “it gave me the chance to work with Bruce Willis,” Borgnine says. “The minute I saw him on that television show (“Moonlighting”) with that woman (Cybill Shepherd), I said, ‘Man, this guy is gonna go someplace.’ ”

Borgnine never misses a chance to poke fun. “Every now and then during filming, Bruce would put his arm around me and give me a little squeeze,” he adds of Willis. “A couple of times he did that, I thought he wanted to go steady!”

A 30-minute press conference doesn’t do Borgnine justice. He could have regaled a room of journalists with stories for 30 hours on everything from his Oscar-winning performance in “Marty” to his TV comedy run leading “McHale’s Navy.” Among the memorable mentions:

His break in Hollywood: Harry Cohn, the legendary Columbia Pictures executive, offered a contract for $150 per week in 1951 that Borgnine declined because the first of his five wives didn’t want to leave New York City. A casting director called a year later about a “From Here to Eternity” role. “I’d read the book,” Borgnine remembers, “and thought I’d be perfect for the part of Fatso Judson. The casting director said, ‘That’s who we want you to play.’ ”

His friendship with Frank Sinatra: That began during “Eternity” filming. “I was shaking in my boots, here in my first scene with Sinatra and Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr and all these stars around. Frank’s Angelo Maggio says, ‘C’mon, Fatso, give us a break. We’re trying to dance out here.’ I stand up real slow and just stare at him. Well, Frank breaks character and says, ‘Holy blank! This guy’s 10 feet tall!’ It broke everyone up and made me feel so at ease. We exchanged Christmas letters for years after that. Frank always signed his as ‘Angelo Maggio,’ and I’d sign mine ‘Fatso Judson.’

His role as “Marty”: “The studio wanted to pull the plug and take a tax loss even before it was done, but they were told it had to be finished and play in at least one theater before they could do that.” Borgnine credits Walter Seltzer, a studio publicist who later became a successful producer, with urging for preview screenings among “working people, like bootblacks and barbers and manicurists. Next thing you know, they were talking about it at Toots Shor’s and some of the Yankees went to see it. I remember Joe DiMaggio coming up to me and saying, ‘Hey, Ernie, you made a great picture!’ ”

His years with “McHale’s Navy”: “I told everyone — cast, crew, guests, everybody — that the most important thing was to have fun. Well, people behind the camera would fight for the chance just to work on our show.” The Navy initially didn’t embrace the World War II-set antics of PT 73, commandeered by Borgnine’s Lt. Cmdr. Quinton McHale, with hilarious assistance from Tim Conway’s Ensign Parker. Early in the third season, Borgnine admits he was a bit queasy about accepting an invitation to lunch at the Pentagon. “They told me, ‘You’re the best damn recruiter we’ve ever had. Men have enlisted or gone on through officer training simply because they said they wanted to be part of “McHale’s Navy.” ’ ”

His regimen: “I’m the laziest man in the world,” Borgnine says. “I don’t move if I don’t have to.” Then again, he stopped eating meat 40 years ago. “Now, it’s fish, chicken — pasta, of course,” he adds. “I was carrying a lot of weight, but I came down from about 265 to the 232 that I’m at right now, and I feel pretty good.”

His career longevity is not unnoticed. The Screen Actors Guild plans to honor him with its Lifetime Achievement Award in January. A generation not weaned on “Marty” nor “McHale’s Navy” recognizes Borgnine as the voice of superhero Mermaid Man, an occasional visitor to “SpongeBob SquarePants.”

“Today, I’m known by everyone from little kids to old, old people,” he says, that smile beaming even wider. “It’s a joy to be able to say to each and every one of them, ‘Hi, I’m Ernie Borgnine. How are you?’ ”

(Read Stan's review of "Red" right now at Sun News. You can also find my review of "Nowhere Boy" there and at CriticsChoiceMovies.)

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