At a recent reunion of the cast of the 1960s TV comedy “McHale’s Navy,” the actors were appalled at the arrival of their former commandant. A driver helped Ernest Borgnine from the car. The once-exuberant Lt. Cmdr. Quinton McHale was stooped over and walked haltingly, muttering gibberish.
His former ensign, comedian Tim Conway, rushed forward and exclaimed, “Ernie, what has happened to you?”
Suddenly Borgnine straightened up, threw out his massive chest and bellowed, “What’s going on here?” followed by his signature high-decible laugh.
Prankster Borgnine shows little evidence of aging as he approaches his 90th birthday Wednesday. His round, pudgy face is little changed. His only concession to age was abandoning the bus he used to drive around the country, talking with local folks along the way.
“I gave up the bus when I was 88,” he said. “I figured if I had an accident, I could be sued for plenty. Now I take cruises. I just returned from one that started in Auckland, New Zealand, and visited a lot of islands. I made a couple of speeches and had a great time.”
Borgnine is preparing for a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie, but otherwise his film work has been scarce of late.
“I keep telling myself, ‘Damn it, you gotta go to work,’ ” he said. “But there aren’t many people who want to put Borgnine to work these days. They keep asking, ‘Is he still alive?’ ”
Borgnine talked about his life and times at his spacious aerie near Coldwater Canyon in the higher reaches of Beverly Hills. He bought the 14-room house in 1965 for $110,000 and has expanded it. The value now is in the millions.
The Borgnine story is unique among Hollywood sagas because acting had nothing to do with it for nearly three decades.
He was born in Hamden, Conn., to Italian parents. They divorced when he was 2, and his mother took him to live in Italy. He returned to the U.S. five years later and joined the Navy in 1935. He was discharged in 1941, then re-enlisted when World War II started.
“I never considered being an actor until I was 28,” he said. “When I was home from the Navy after the war, my mother said, ‘Have you ever thought of becoming an actor?’ I decided to give it a try.”
He joined a drama company in Hartford, Conn., then spent five years at the Barter Theater in Abingdon, Va., learning the actor’s trade from the bottom up. He moved to New York, where he played a role in “Harvey” and appeared in television dramas.
Hollywood discovered Borgnine — as a heavy. He was the vicious soldier who beat Frank Sinatra to a pulp in “From Here To Eternity” and the outlaw who menaced one-armed Spencer Tracy in “Bad Day at Black Rock.” Then along came “Marty.”
Rod Steiger had won plaudits for his role as the shy Bronx butcher in Paddy Chayefsky’s original TV drama and was considered ideal for the film version. But he had already signed to play the villain Jud in “Oklahoma!” Chayefsky and director Delbert Mann scouted other actors, including Borgnine.
“They came to the set of ‘Bad Day at Black Rock’ and asked if I could read some scenes from ‘Marty,’ ” Borgnine recalled. “So I started reading from the script, and all of a sudden I started crying. I gave the performance of my life. I looked over and saw that Paddy and Delbert were crying too. I knew I had won the part.”
“Marty” was an Oscar phenomenon. The low-budget, black-and-white drama competed against such giants as “Picnic” and “Mister Roberts.” A publicity campaign that cost more than the movie’s budget blanketed the industry. Result: Oscars for best picture and for Borgnine, Mann and Chayefsky. Borgnine’s salary for the film: $5,000.
Borgnine spoke frankly about his five wives, including Katy Jurado, the Mexican actress he battled with across Europe and America; Ethel Merman, to whom he was married for 32 days; and Tova, the beauty-products tycoon.
“Tova and I have been married for 34 years,” Borgnine said proudly, “That’s longer than the total of my four other marriages.” The thought of it prompted another loud guffaw.
Asked about today’s movies, Borgnine responded: “I don’t like ’em. Oh, there are some good ones that come along. I liked the two pictures that Clint Eastwood made. ‘The Queen’ is very good. I liked ‘Bobby.’ But the majority ... ”
Asked if he had any more mountains to climb, Borgnine replied: “I just want to do more work. Every time I step in front of a camera I feel young again. I really do. It keeps your mind active, and it keeps you going.”