Whatever his method—or perhaps more precisely, non-method—it has worked for him. For more than six decades, the Oscar winner 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—slated to air Jan. 30, simulcast on TNT and TBS—SAG will honor Borgnine with its 2010 Life Achievement Award.
Brought up in New Haven, Conn., the son of Italian immigrants, Borgnine admits frankly he had no special goals growing up. 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 GI 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 Theatre 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." 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 Theatre." Despite dry periods early on, 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 was willing to wait it out for the right picture. And it came with the role of Fatso Judson in "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 actor who asked for $1 million a film in an era when it was not commonplace, and she never worked again.
During the course of his career, Borgnine 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."
Consummate and Present
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, admitting his goal is to keep on working. Indeed, he has several new projects in the hopper. Equally gratifying, he continues to be admired by his colleagues. Doris Roberts, who co-starred with him in "Another Harvest Moon," says: "Ernie Borgnine has managed to deliver honest and believable characters in every variety of film and television performances, and somehow he does it with such ease that he makes each one seem totally real. He never stops working, because producers know he is a safe asset. For me and I'm sure other actors, one of the joys of working with Ernie is his lack of ego or competitive attitude; he simply brings with him an innate sense of characterization that makes it easy for us to do our best work as well."
Rick Pamplin, who directed him as the title and solo performer in "Hoover," a film about J. Edgar Hoover, says: "Directing Ernie was one of the highlights of my life. He is the consummate actor—early to work, well prepared, driven, questioning, and powerful. He has an unbelievable curiosity about his characters, a near obsession with mastering the script, and a presence onstage and in front of the camera that is riveting. I directed him in a filmed one-man show, with a few props, and yet he made the character come alive for 90 minutes, sustaining the story, carrying the movie, and creating a complex and convincing portrayal of an American icon. Few, if any, actors could do so much with so little."
Borgnine is equally loved by audiences who admired him in his old films and TV programs and by youngsters today who know him as the voice behind Mermaid Man on "SpongeBob Square Pants." And he is never too old to learn: He says mastering the art of animation 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."
Turner Classic Movies will be screening four of Ernest Borgnine's films ("Bad Day at Black Rock," "The Dirty Dozen," "Marty," and "The Wild Bunch") plus an encore airing of his "Private Screenings" special with host Robert Osborne on Saturday, Jan. 29.
-For "Marty," Borgnine nabbed Golden Globe, British Academy of Film and Television Arts, National Board of Review, and New York Film Critics Circle awards.
-Made his non-credited Broadway debut as a hospital attendant in "Harvey"
-Made his credited Broadway debut in "Mrs. McThing"
-Made his film debut in "The Whistle at Eaton Falls"
-Featured in "The Wild Bunch," "The Dirty Dozen," and, most recently, "Red"
-Had regular TV roles on "Airwolf" and "The Single Guy" and was featured in such series as "Touched by an Angel," "The Commish," "Home Improvement," "Get Smart," "Wagon Train," and "ER"
-Received Emmy nominations for "McHale's Navy," "ER," and "All Quiet on the Western Front," a limited series on CBS
-His memoir, "Ernie: An Autobiography," was published in 2008.