By NICK THOMAS
For years I had been trying to snag an interview with veteran actor, Ernest Borgnine. But each time I nagged his long-time publicist, Harry Flynn, Harry always had good excuses: “Ernie’s away filming.” “He’s overseas on holiday.” “He’s out of state on business.” “He’s off doing a book tour… Ask me again in a few months.”
My hopes for a chat with the aging Borgnine began to dim. But then, in December of 2011, our paths crossed in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico.
I was sailing on the first Turner Classic Movies film cruise with some 2,000 other passengers, along with several celebrity shipmates, including Borgnine. We got our first glimpse while boarding the ship.
As we stood in line to proceed through security, my wife noticed a motorized scooter pulling alongside us, inching its way to the head of the line. But I didn’t give it much thought. “Look,” my observant wife said to me, “it’s Ernest Borgnine!”
“Everywhere you go now you have to wait,” said a very cheerful Borgnine.
He was wearing a baseball cap and glasses, which I offered as a somewhat feeble explanation for failing to recognize the then 94-year-old Hollywood legend. In his characteristic booming, gravelly, voice, he added with a broad grin, “except when they want to take your money! See you all aboard!”
And see him we did, many times.
Just a few hours later, there was a compulsory safety drill. But the folks demonstrating the emergency procedures had to compete for the crowd’s attention when Borgnine came in and was mobbed by well-wishers. Had the signal to man the lifeboats come through then, I suspect many passengers would have gone down with the ship, still straining to get a glimpse of Ernie (he always preferred fans to call him Ernie).
Hardly a day went by when we didn’t see him moving through the ship, smiling and waving at passengers, pausing for a handshake, posing for a photograph, or giving an autograph or hug to a fan. I can’t imagine too many of today’s self-absorbed stars being so gracious.
During the cruise, TCM arranged for me to sit down one-on-one with Borgnine for a 20 minute interview. He was just a delight – such a gentleman, so graceful, and down to earth.
Although he was clearly a showman and enjoyed interacting with the fans, their admiration seemed to overwhelm him a bit. “It’s one thing to like an actor, but the kind of love people have shown me is amazing. I don’t know why, because I certainly don’t deserve it,” he said humbly. I naturally suggested he was being too modest.
“I don’t see it that way,” he said. “To me, acting is just a job I do for a living. I’m just a working stiff and want to get along with everyone. I don’t go in for all that adulation stuff.”
At the same time, Borgnine admitted that recognition is also a measure of an actor’s success. He recounted an earlier time in his life as a struggling young actor when he emerged from a LA restaurant one day, wondering if people would ever recognize him.
He got his answer, he told me, years later when traveling on another, smaller boat, this time around Easter Island. “I put my head up out of the boat to look for the statues on the island and a woman on the dock nearby saw me. ‘Oh my God, Ernest Borgnine!’ she yelled. And I said to myself, ‘You’ve made it!’”
There’s no doubt that he “made it.” Along these lines in the past decade alone, Borgnine appeared in almost 30 films and many TV shows, a number that could be considered a career for some actors.
I suspect many of us classic movie fans hoped that Borgnine would live and continue to work “forever.” But nature is uncompromising on that subject. He passed away earlier this month, quite unexpectedly, after a lifetime of good health.
Borgnine could play the heavy, as in From Here to Eternity or 1973’s Emperor of the North. But he was also a great “good guy” on film (Escape From New York), TV (McHale’s Navy), and in real life (unwavering support for our military). TCM will present a 24-hour memorial tribute on July 26 including 1955’s Marty, for which Borgnine won the best actor Oscar playing a good-natured but shy butcher.
Clearly, he was proud of his success. “Wow, if mom could see me now!” he told me towards the end of our interview.
Now she can, Ernie.
Nick Thomas has written for more than 200 magazines and newspapers. He can be reached at [email protected]