Ernest Borgnine: A farewell’ to a legend who loved to laugh

by Mark Burger

“You’re Mark, right?” “Right.” “Then I’m Ernie. You call me Ernie, and I’ll call you Mark.”

And so began my interview with the actor Ernest Borgnine in 1995, the first of two I was privileged to conduct with the legendary, Oscar-winning actor who died this past Sunday. I loved the guy. I loved his work. And I loved talking to him. Even at 95, he was still working. Retirement was not an option.

A few years ago, my college roommate Dean Galanis was’ working on Borgnine’s TV film A Grandpa for Christmas. Dean was offered a number of positions on the picture, one as Ernest Borgnine’s driver for the duration of filming. They didn’t have to ask twice. Dean loved him. “How can you not?” he said.

I’ve interviewed my fair share of celebrities over the years, but rarely did I get the opportunity to interview someone who I’d literally grown up watching. Ernest Borgnine was one of them. The Wild Bunch (1969) is my favorite Western, and in 1995 it was re-released to theaters.

As Ernie had just completed a family comedy filmed in Florida called Captiva Island — I was living in Florida at the time — this was a golden opportunity to get an interview with him. From SAG I got his contact information and called his office to arrange an interview. An hour later, he called me back. Not the secretary, but Ernest Borgnine himself.

Although it was only a phone interview, his warmth came across loud and clear — and so did that infectious, throaty laugh. Ernie loved to laugh, and he had a great one.

We talked about The Wild Bunch and Captiva Island, Sam Peckinpah and Robert Aldrich (two of his favorite directors, and mine), his life and career (his stage debut was at the Barter Theatre in Virginia).

One of his few horror films, made in the ’70s, was produced by a company called Bryanston, which had made a fortune from distributing Deep Throat(!). Not long after Ernie’s movie was released, several higherups in the Bryanston organization were indicted, and it transpired that they had ties to organized crime. Ernie’s agent informed him that he was contractually entitled to royalties. Ernie told him not to bother. “I’m not lookin’ for it, Mark,” he told me, laughing. “Even now, I’m not lookin’ for it!” The late Cliff Robertson — God, it hurts to write that — worked with Ernie on the little seen’ Shoot (1976). Not the greatest film, but it’s not bad, and I’d sent a copy to Cliff, who recalled, “You can’t not have a good time working with Ernie.”

It was a sentiment shared by many. Not every film was a winner, but he had an incredible run. He’d already notched a couple of classics, including From Here to Eternity (1953) and Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), before hitting Oscar gold with Marty (1955). It was his only nomination but, hey, he won.

Over the next 50 years, he knocked off a slew of memorable’ films: The Vikings (1958), The Dirty Dozen (1967), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Emperor of the North Pole (1973), Law and Disorder (1974), Escape from New York (1981) and on and on. His small-screen triumphs included a four-year stint in “McHale’s Navy” and a guest stint on “Little House on the Prairie,” in which he played the lone inhabitant of Jonathan’s mountain. “I’m Jonathan,” he tells Laura (Melissa Gilbert). “This is my mountain.” As it transpires, Jonathan is much more than just a mountain man.

The second time I interviewed Ernie was shortly thereafter. Delbert Mann, the Oscarwinning director of Marty, was lecturing in Boca Raton. Having already talked to Mann, I called Ernie’s office and asked the secretary if he had 10-15 minutes to talk about working with Mann. Less than 10 minutes later, it was Ernie himself (again) on the phone. “Anytime anyone wants to ask me about Delbert Mann, I’m happy to do so!” I could have interviewed him 10 times more and still wouldn’t have asked all I wanted to. I do know he liked the interview, because he sent me an autographed photo after it ran. Years later, for my birthday, Dean had Ernie sign a mini-poster for Marty to me, and it hangs prominently in my home.

Long-time LA Times film critic and Mark Burger mentor Kevin Thomas bumped into Ernie on occasion over the years, and a few months ago happened to be dining at the same restaurant where Ernie and his wife Tova were having dinner. Reports indicate that Ernie died of renal failure but, according to Kevin, he looked terrific when he saw him. Kevin too mourns his loss.

“He was a wonderful, enduring presence who lent vitality to any film he was in, whether good, bad, or indifferent,” Kevin said. “He was always fun to watch.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself, so I’m not even going to try.