The action thriller “Red” is about a group of former CIA operatives who come out of retirement when they find out that they are the target of government assassins. But among the big-name veteran actors who populate the cast (including Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman and Helen Mirren), Ernest Borgnine surpasses them all, in terms of sheer longevity.
In “Red,” Oscar winner Borgnine, who is in his 90s, plays Harry, a records keeper who helps the group on their mission. At a New York City press conference for “Red,” Borgnine kept the assembled journalists entertained and charmed with his no-holds-barred, jovial banter, as he talked about how he stays energetic at his age and what his memories are of some his most famous acting jobs, including “Marty,” “McHale’s Navy” and 1972’s “The Poseidon Adventure.”
How do you feel about seeing yourself on screen?
I hate it! I really hate because I always look back and say, “Dummy, you could’ve done better.” I never did like myself on screen. The very first time I saw myself was in the very first picture I ever made with Dorothy Gish. It goes back a few days … I slumped down in my chair. I couldn’t believe my eyes that I was actually looking at myself. It was terrible. But hey, you get used to it. And after a while, you just take it for granted that’s the best you can do.
What surprised you about the finished film of “Red” that you didn’t see when you were filming the movie?
Naturally, the finished product looked a heck of a lot better. But I want to tell you, while we were shooting it, we were inside this huge safe. My Lord, it took three men to push that door open and closed. It was just amazing!
And I said, “Does anybody have the numbers of the lock, just in case it closes?” And they said, “No, that’s why we’re keeping a box in front of it, because nobody knows the how to open it.”
But in doing a scene, you don’t see the finished product. What you see is what’s giving out. There’s a bunch of lights around, and you’re working with a person and so on and so forth. And that’s about it. In the long, you say, “Gee, I look pretty good!” [He laughs.] Or “I look terrible!” But that’s the way things go.
What do you do to prepare for a scene? How do you keep energized?
I answered that question one time on Fox News. I don’t know if I should say it here in mixed company. [He laughs.] But I told the truth. I said that what I did is usually between men, because you say to yourself, “We’re all due for a laugh and everything else.” This fellow kept bothering me all morning: “What do you to do keep yourself so worked up?”
Finally, I got sick and tired of it, and I forgot I was mic’ed. And I reached over and gave him the usual reply: “I masturbate a lot.” And the guy called back and said, “He said what?” [He laughs.]
Everybody dropped on the floor. They couldn’t believe it. At 93, what the hell! Listen, hey, who cares? I just feel like I’m that kind of a person that thank God I’m still going. And I feel good about it. And I keep active.
Did you read the “Red” graphic novel?
No, I’m sorry I didn’t. Is there a comic book out? Really? I’ll be darned? [He laughs.] No, I didn’t read it. The only thing is my agent came up to me and said, “There’s a part there to work with Bruce Willis.” I said, “Bruce Willis? Hey, man, count me in!” And sure enough they said, “Fine, you’re in.” And we went to work. And every now and then Bruce would come over and put his arm around me and give me a squeeze. A couple of times that he did that, I thought he wanted to go steady! [He laughs.]
What a heck of a nice guy. I predicted that he was going to be some big star the minute I saw him on that television show that he did … [“Moonlighting”] And I said, “This boy is going to go places.” And sure enough, he has, and he deserves it because he’s a hard worker, a conscientious worker and a wonderful guy to boot. It’s a pleasure to know him.
What’s your secret for staying so active and alert at your age?
Well, thank you. Do you want to try it sometime? [He laughs.] No, I’ll tell you. I’m the laziest man in the world. I really am. I’m the laziest guy in the world, simply because if I don’t have to move, I don’t move!
But when it comes to working and when I’m in front of people like you who are the bread and butter of our institution — hey, man, we go on from there. This is what it’s all about. It’s always my pleasure to be able to sit down and talk to people like you. God bless you all.
What’s your diet to stay healthy and to live such a long life?
What do I eat? I gave up [red] meat about 35, 40 years ago. I eat fish, I eat chicken … spaghetti, naturally. I do carbohydrates and things like that. I’m in pretty good shape for my age. And hey, go on from there. I was carrying a lot of weight before, but I came down from 265 [pounds] to about 232 right about now. So I feel pretty good.
What are you memories of doing “McHale’s Navy”?
People paid to get on our show. [He laughs.] We were a group that got together. And when I got them all together, I said, “I’m supposed to be Lieutenant Commander McHale and so on and so forth.” And I said, “The one thing I believe in is having fun. If you want to work at your trade, have your profession or whatever it is, have fun!”
And so this is what we used to do. In those days, we used to start at 8 o’clock [in the morning], 7:30, 7 o’clock sometimes. But we were in with a group of people who worked with us. And by the time we reached noon time, we already had 12 pages of dialogue in the can and ready to go.
One time we shot the whole thing [an episode] in a day and a half, believe it or not. We were given three days to shoot it. And somebody said, “Boy, this is great! We don’t have to come in tomorrow!” I said, “Come in tomorrow, because if Universal finds out that we could make it in a day-and-a-half, they’re going to try and make it in one day!” [He laughs.]
So we came back and we kept going three days at a crack, but we had fun. And when we had fun that way, it was enthusiasm that hit everybody. And we had these people working behind the camera that used to fight amongst themselves as to whether they were going to come and shoot for us, because … they enjoyed it so much. They were all ready to go home at 2, 2:30 in the afternoon, which is wonderful, instead of working until 6, 7 o’clock at night. It was a wonderful thing.
And the Navy wouldn’t have anything to do with us for the very first year. Even in the second [year], they were a little queasy about it. “No, this is not the Navy.” Do you know that [“McHale’s Navy”] is never shown in England? Because the admiralty frowned upon it. They said, “There’s no such thing as this!”
Anyway, so when I get a call to go to Washington [D.C.], the Pentagon. And I said, “What do I have to do there?” “You’re going to have lunch with the Secretary of the Navy.” So I walk into this place, beautiful offices and everything else … And I’m sitting down at this white table … and I said, “Sir, this is wonderful, but why?” He said, “You’re the best damn recruiter I ever had.” Actually found out that men had become officers in the Navy simply because they had wanted they wanted to be in McHale’s Navy. You can’t beat it!
Do you keep in touch with the other surviving “McHale’s Navy” cast members?
I’m still working with [“McHale’s Navy co-star] Tim Conway. He does Barnacle Boy and I do Mermaid Man in “SpongeBob [SquarePants].” It’s crazy, but it’s a living!
Since you’re so well-established in your career, how do you choose the projects that you do?
I don’t know. I just don’t care for pictures that swear a lot. Why should there be a legacy of dirty words that the kids can learn? Some of them know more than we do. But the idea is: Why leave that legacy? Why not say “darn” instead of “damn”? It’s an easy thing to do, but everybody feels they really have to put an emphasis on something.
If you watch Turner Classic Movies, as I do, you find all these old-time actors who never used a swear word. You know who opened up the gates of all this [profanity] business? Clark Gable in “Gone With the Wind,” when he said, “I don’t give a damn.” It opened up the valves, right? But it’s a shame, really, that we leave a legacy of dirty words. Why?
How did you get involved in “SpongeBob SquarePants”?
They called me up. I had done things like “All Dogs Go to Heaven,” and they liked what I did. And they called me in one day and said, “How would you like to do this crazy thing here?” They didn’t call it “crazy,” but it was a lot of money. And I said, “You bet!” Because your voice becomes the actor …
And I remember one time giving a speech in Washington at a press club over there. And they said, “Would you mind coming out here and saying hello to a bunch of little girls to send a lot of food over to the soldiers?” I said, “No, not at all.”
So I walk over there, and this lady is saying, “This man has made an awful lot of movies.” And I interrupted and I said, “How many of you have seen my movies?” And all these little girls turned around and looked at me. Nothing. Zilch. I said, “How many of you know ‘SpongeBob’?” “Yes!” I said, “I happen to be Mermaid Man.” I was home free. I couldn’t do anything wrong! [He laughs.]
I tell you, it’s all how you play the game. And now today, I’m known from little kids to old people. It’s a joy, really, to be able to say, “Hi, I’m Ernie Borgnine. How are you?”
Your 1955 film “Marty” is a classic. How do you feel about the movie now compared to how you felt about it then?
We did the whole thing in 14 shooting days. We did all of our work here in New York, and we went home. There were no sets made at all. And we found out to our dismay that they wanted to take a tax loss, and they only wanted to make half the picture and shelve it. And the tax man said, “No, no no! Sorry, but they passed a law where you have to finish a picture, show it one time, and then you can take a tax loss.”
So I made the picture for $5,000, believe it or not, with another promise of $5,000 more (which I never saw), if I signed a seven-year contract. So there we were. We started this picture “Marty,” and we finished it.
There was a fellow by the name of Walter Seltzer whom I’ll never forget. [He] was instrumental in showing the picture, not to the big hoi polloi, but he took it to barbers and manicurists and everything else and worked up the section like that. And then the next thing you know, they found out about it at Toots Shor, and Toots Shor said coming in to the boys coming in from the New York Yankees, “Hey, have you seen ‘Marty’?” And they all started to go …
Anyway, it came out, and we won everything in sight … My wife [Tova Borgnine] sells for QVC and has her own product and everything else. And one day, she met up with these people from the British Film Academy Awards, and she said, “You know, my husband has a British Film Academy Award.” And they said, “Yes, we know.” “So why don’t you invite him over to say hello and give a little talk?” And they said, “Is he coherent?” [He laughs.] I have to tell you, it’s a wonderful life.
What do you remember about your first big break in Hollywood?
I went out to make a picture called “The Bob” with Broderick Crawford. And I was supposed to play a mobster of some kind. And what I did in the thing that they shot here in New York for the preview, they upped the part. So they offered me at the end of the show, Harry Cohn came up with his men and said, “Listen, we want to put you under contract.” He had one of those coats throw over his shoulder, real Hollywood-style.
And I said, “Gee, that’s very good, sir, but I don’t think I can take your contract.” He says, “What do you mean? How much are you making now?” “Nothing.” He said, “I’m offering you $150 a week.” So I said, “Gee, I could use it, but my wife doesn’t want to leave her family in New York, so naturally, we’ve got to stay there.”
And he said, “All right. What is she? Jewish?” And I said, “Yes she is, sir.” And he said, “Goddamn, the Jews are all alike. They’ve got to stick together.” “OK. Fine, thank you.”
And the casting director who was with him said, “Don’t worry. We’ll find something [and] bring you back, because we kind of like you.” I said, “OK.” So I’m starving to death in Queens, and trying to make things go, and working on Dumont Stations and things like that.
And one day I get a call from this casting director. He said, “Listen, we’ve got a part for you we want you to play in ‘From Here to Eternity.’” I said, “My God, I read the book two years ago. I was thinking that if anybody plays the part of Fasto Judson, it should be me.” He said, “That’s exactly what we want you for.” I don’t know why, but it just happened to be.
And so I went out there. The very first question out of the park was “Get a haircut!” And I got nine haircuts before they found me just right. OK, fine. Now, I’m working on a scene with Frank Sinatra, and he’s working on this little pit down there where we were shooting.
And when I stood up and he said, “Come on, Fatso, give us a break here. We’re trying to dance over here.” And I stood up very slowly, and he said, “Jesus Christ! He’s 10 feet tall!” [He laughs.] It broke the ice. God bless him.
I was shaking in my boots because Frank Sintara, Burt Lancaster, everybody was there. You go crazy. He broke the ice and made me feel so wonderful. I never forgot it. We became dear friends. For years we wrote to each other every Christmas, and he always put down his name, and I always put down “Fatso Judson.”
But that’s how it got started, really. And for a long time I [played] nothing but a killer. I was sticking pitchforks in Lee Marvin’s back. I was doing everything. Anyway, there came a time when “Marty” came along, and I was making a picture down in Mexico with Bob Aldrich, the director. And they asked him, “Bob you’ve read the script of ‘Marty.’ Who do you think could play the part of Marty?”
And he said, “You know, I’ve only known one fellow, and that’s Ernie Borgnine.” “Come on! Ernie Borgnine’s a killer!” He said, “No, don’t kid yourself. He’s an actor.” “No, he’s a killer.” Well, he convinced them.
So they called me in. I said, “I’m glad to play any part.” He said, “You don’t understand. We want you to be the star.” And I asked them, “Do you really believe in me?” And he said, “Yes, or else I wouldn’t ask you.” And I said, “I’ll give you 120 percent.” That was it. That was a start. And from then on, it was all gold.
What do you remember about making 1972’s “The Poseidon Adventure” and working with Stella Stevens in that film?
She called me up and said, “Hey, there’s a guy who’s interested, and he’s got money, and he says he wants to make a picture with you and me.” I said, “Send over the script.” I hadn’t seen the script yet …
Stella Stevens is one of a kind. She’s a sweetheart. She really is … Remember the kid that was with us, the young boy who played a part in “The Poseidon Adventure”? Somehow or another, he’d gotten in front of her. And she said, “Get out of my light, you little bastard! I’ll kill you!” [He laughs.] OK, that was Stella! But what a sweetheart! Really, a lovely lady.
For more info: “Red” website
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Interview with Ernest Borgnine at the 2011 SAG Awards