Boy, were we surprised.

We usually get a larger number of clicks on Sundays when classic movie fans have a bit more time to troll the web. But on July 8, Classicmoviechat’s readership level skyrocketed.

The reason: the passing that day of 95-year-old Ernest Borgnine of kidney failure at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles.  It’s obvious by the response we got that his was not just another star death to be mourned quickly and then forgotten.

Borgnine seemed to hold an especially affectionate place among mainstream movie and TV fans not only for the length and diversity of his extraordinary career but for his personality — amiably straightforward and good-humored. He was to the end blessed with rare common sense about many subjects: his family, his fellow actors, his multiple marriages, and especially about acting and about life.

On July 26, as part of a 24-hour Borgnine memorial tribute, Turner Classic Movies will rebroadcast the excellent interview conducted by host Robert Osborne with the actor occasioned by the publication of his superb 2008 autobiography, Ernie (well worth the read).  

The TCM interview, Private Screenings: Ernest Borgnine, is lengthy and absolutely riveting, and will be re-run twice during the course of the TCM tribute. We’re happy to say that we in our modest way contributed to the celebration of Borgnine and his career well before he died. And we take pleasure in re-running today our piece, ERNEST BORGNINE — ‘Working Actor’ and a STAR, published on Feb. 27.

Note that we’ve kept our original blog references to him in the present. He is no longer with us but certainly remains in the present tense in our affections.

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            Have you thought of becoming an actor? You always like to make a fool of                                  yourself  in front of people. Why don’t you give acting a try  — Anna                                              Borgnino to her 28-year-old son Ermes, circa 1945.

Hello, everybody.  Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, today considering the long and fruitful career of Ernest Borgnine, who at 95 and still laboring away, qualifies on all counts as both “a working actor” and a STAR.

He is the first nonagenarian best-actor Oscar winner (for the title role in 1955’s Marty). He achieved movie and tv stardom in military roles: as the sadistic Army sergeant (‘Fatso’ Judson) who dispatches Frank Sinatra in 1953’s From Here To Eternity; and as Lt. Commander Quinton McHale in McHale’s Navy, the successful early-to-mid-Sixties tube series.

Always a restless actor who gets antsy if he’s not working, Borgnine has rolled up more than 200 movie and TV credits over six decades. Who can forget is superb portrayal of as one of the doomed mercenaries in director Sam Peckinpah’s classic 1969 western The Wild Bunch?

Most recently, he was the voice of “Mermaid Man” on Nickelodeon’s hit animation tv series, SpongeBob SquarePants. This year, Borgnine portrayed a stroke victim trying to escape from a nursing home in the indie movie, The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez.

Borgnine says he stumbled upon his professional credo in 1950, when he was a struggling New York actor.  The “eureka” moment came when he spotted a sign on the cart of a corner chestnut vendor that read: “I don’t want to set the world on fire. I just want to keep my nuts warm.”

In the course of his amazingly varied career, Borgnine has worked with a broad range of movie stars, some great and others not.  The actor provided glimpses of these encounters in his most readable autobiography. Some samples:

Gary Cooper (Borgnine’s costar in 1954’s Vera Cruz): Ernie got to know Cooper well on that Western, which is well worth another look today. That six-foot-three legend was a perfect gentleman, an absolutely wonderful man. He never got excited, never got angry, never got flustered. If he flubbed a line…he apologized to the actors and director and we did it again…He was one of the most brilliant actors I’ve ever worked with, and I’ve worked with some pretty good ones.

Frank Sinatra: Borgnine found him to be unreliable. He was a great guy when you were around him, all kinds of fun and good humor — when you could pin him down.

Shelley Winters (Borgnine’s The Poseidon Adventure costar): Ernie found her exasperating, the damnedest woman you’ve ever seen in your life. After nights on the town, Winters would show up at the studio the next day insisting that Borgnine help her with her lines. Of course, (by the time they finally arrived at the set) the stuff was fresh in her memory and I’d forgotten my lines….I just couldn’t stomach her anymore.

David Janssen (who as a young actor worked with Borgnine in 1955’s The Square Jungle): Janssen pulled Ernie aside one day, asking for advice and complaining about his contract with Universal. Borgnine, who was also being underpaid for the movie, said he’shanging in there. You should too. Janssen took Borgnine’s advice, and later became a big star on the TV series The Fugitive. One day on Wilshire Boulevard, Borgnine in his “little old Mercedes” pulled up alongside Janssen ensconced in a Rolls Royce. ‘Hi, David, how are you?’ He said, ‘Oh, hi,’ and roared off.  So much for gratitude.

Montgomery Clift (another Borgnine From Here To Eternity co-star): After “Fatso” Judson is stabbed to death by Robert E. Lee Prewitt — a night scene that took 13 hours to shoot — Borgnine and Clift retired to his hotel room. So Monty and me we sat there talking…and watching the sun rise. It was the most interesting, inspiring fun talk I’ve ever had with a man in my life….Years later, when I was told he was gay, I really was surprised…He never made a pass at me, but maybe that was just me.  All I know for a fact is that he died too young at the age of forty-five.

Final note:  it was Clift who convinced Borgnine that he really was as good an actor as he was.

Ernie, rest in peace.

 

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