It would be hard to argue that Ernest Borgnine wasn’t universally admired by fellow actors and fans. Raised in Connecticut and after a spell in the Navy, Borgnine found his calling as an actor, debuting in the 1951 adventure film “China Corsair.”
Equally adept at playing tough or tender characters in over 120 feature films and numerous TV shows, Borgnine died in 2012 at the age of 95 and would have turned 100 in January (the 24th).
Speaking from her home in Pennsylvania, Borgnine’s wife, Tova, said she planned to celebrate the day with friends and would “toast Ernie in every possible way – his life, legacy and without question his humor.”
The couple met on a blind date in 1972 at Chasen’s restaurant in Hollywood, organized by veteran comedian Marty Allen and his wife at the time, Frenchie.
“Neither one of us wanted to go,” laughed Tova. “Ernie was going through a bad divorce, and for me it was ‘Oh my goodness, a date with an Academy Award winner?’ But we hit it off immediately and remained together for over 40 years.”
In late 1972, having completed work on “The Poseidon Adventure” and “Emperor of the North,” Tova accompanied Borgnine to Canada where he was filming “The Neptune Factor.”
“That’s when he suggested sending out Christmas cards and signing them Tova and Ernest Borgnine,” she recalled. “I said no, because we weren’t married. Well, that was his way of proposing! We were married in February.”
Tova says their four-decade marriage, rare in Hollywood, was “incredibly romantic throughout.” And as a businesswoman – founder of the multi-million dollar cosmetic company Beauty By Tova (see www.beautybytova.com) – she says her husband was very supportive.
Additionally, she remembers, “Ernie loved his fans” and he was humbled by their affection for him. “He was just such a down to earth guy. Some celebrities demand VIP service wherever they go, but Ernie would never expect it although he usually got it!”
Veteran character actor L.Q. Jones recalled appearing in two Borgnine films. For the beloved western “The Wild Bunch,” directed by Sam Peckinpah, Borgnine turned up on set recovering from a broken foot.
“You’d better be on top of your game with Peckinpah, who was a brilliant director but an absolute madman!” laughed Jones. “But instead of moaning about his injury, Ernie kept asking for more things to do and Sam loved that.”
Jones says Borgnine was a joy to watch on the set.
“He would come as close to overacting as he could, but was so good he’d never go over the edge. He elevated a picture up a notch or two just by his presence. Ernie was always prepared and few things fazed him when under pressure.”
Most importantly, says Jones, Borgnine always believed in the story and would become the character he was playing.
“He was a natural heavy. I mean, did you see him in ‘Bad Day at Black Rock’ or ‘Emperor of the North’? He made Lee (Marvin) look like a wimp – and that wasn’t easy! But he could be just as good in comedy like the ‘McHale’s Navy’ series, or as the heartwarming character in ‘Marty’ for which he won his Oscar. That’s the mark of a great actor.”
Alex Cord also remembers Borgnine fondly, for his work ethic, humor and generosity.
“In the 80s, we worked together every day for the years on the ‘Airwolf‘ series,” said Cord from his home in Texas. “I remember his energy and inventiveness.”
For one episode, a scene had to be shot in the hallway of an abandoned hospital, but it was at the end of the day at 2 o‘clock in the morning.
“We were dog-tired, but Ernie wanted to run through the lines before shooting,” recalled Cord. “It wasn’t a big deal, just a walk and talk scene, but Ernie suggested adding something to the scene. I don’t even recall what he did, but just remember being impressed by the fact that he had given that much thought to this little mundane scene at 2 am!”
Borgnine’s humor was evident in the 1977 TV movie “Fire,” where Cord and the cast were dealing with smoke and flames.
“Ernie wasn’t thrilled about that,” laughed Cord. “He had these big, bushy eyebrows and was worried about them getting singed off!”
And Borgnine could also be generous.
“I was a serious horseman and cowboy, and one day Ernie asked me over to his house to look at his collection of cowboy boots people had given him,” explained Cord. “These were brand new boots – good brands like Justin, Tony Lama, and Lucchese, some worth over $1,000. They were a bit snug, but I walked out with about 7 pairs. I gave some away, but whenever someone admired the ones I kept, I proudly said ‘They once belonged to Ernest Borgnine!”
In just his third film, Keith Carradine received billing behind Borgnine and Lee Marvin in “Emperor of the North.” In one scene Borgnine, who played a brutal train conductor determined to stop hobos hitching rides on his train, attacked Carradine’s tramp character as he sat in a chair.
“He picked both me and the chair up – I don’t think that was in the script! – and slammed me on the floor,” recalled Carradine. “He was a big, strong, guy and absolutely terrifying in that scene, which was ironic because he was one of the sweetest, gentlest people I’ve ever known in my life.”
Overall, he says, it was a great experience for a young 23-year-old actor “working with two legends.”
“I was a sponge, absorbing everything I could from them. Sitting around chatting between scenes one day, Ernie gave me some advice: ‘Kid, you’re going places, just keep your nose clean.’ He knew there were a lot of seductions in the business and was warning against making bad choices. Good advice I’ve never forgotten and we remained friends until the day he died.”
In December, 2011, I had the chance to sit down with Ernie – as he invited me and fans to call him – for some 15 minutes as we talked about his career. He was charming, funny, and modest.
“I don’t go in for all that adulation stuff, but the kind of love people have shown me is amazing,” he said in that gruff but lovable Borgnine tone. “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.”
“That was Ernie,” says Tova. “He was not only my husband and dearest friend; he was just a good guy.”
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 600 magazines and newspapers. See www.tinseltowntalks.com