By Stacy Jenel Smith
Ernest Borgnine will be remembered for his Oscar-winning performance in “Marty,” his popular TV series “McHale’s Navy” and his work in “From Here to Eternity,” “The Wild Bunch” and dozens of other films — but I’ll remember him best in his latter day role as the Great Old Guy. He loved to tell his stories and show off his vigorous enthusiasm for life even in its waning years, and it was a gift to take in that energy whenever the chance came along.
The 95-year-old charmer was still working — and quite capable of working a room — pretty much to the end. I asked him, just before his last birthday in January, what was the secret to his robust longevity.
“My secret is: keep laughing. That’s the idea,” Borgnine replied, in one of his big jovial declarations. “If you can keep laughing and keep smiling, one way or another, by golly, you’re bound to find other people around you laughing, too.”
He went on, “I’ve had my times when I just felt terrible, just awful, you know? But hey, there’s always something that comes along that makes you feel good. That’s what matters, really — it’s how you approach life. You can be like the people who go around with a cloud over their heads for the rest of your days and it’s terrible. Or you can wake up in the morning and say, ‘Hey, man! I’m alive and God has had a good look at me and blessed me.'”
Among his recent work was his portrayal of a man whose wife was dying in the final episode of “ER.” He played it with such honest simplicity, it was a four hankie job, for sure.
“It was hard in the sense that it never happened to me and to make it look like it was real, I had to really dig into my heart and my head,” said Borgnine, who is survived by his wife of 39 years, Tova. Their marriage was his fifth, and he made it clear that with this one, he’d gotten it right. “We thank our lucky stars, because after all this time and everything that’s happened, we love each other all the more every day,” he said in ’09.
Borgnine won an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Guest Actor on a Series that year — while returning “ER” stars George Clooney, Eriq LaSalle and Noah Wyle did not. When I pointed that out to him, he smiled and said with a twinkle, “I know. I shouldn’t gloat, believe me.” (Michael J. Fox won that year.)
Later, when Borgnine made his notorious remarks against the gay love story in “Brokeback Mountain,” I was among the many who cringed as if it had been our own elderly relative who’d said it. He’s not a mean guy, we wanted to say. He’s from another time… We wished he hadn’t’a. But he had.
Borgnine said that of all his many movie production memories, none surpassed his experience in making the 1977 miniseries, ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’ He played the Roman Centurian in the production that starred Robert Powell — and recalled that while they were shooting the crucifixion sequence, at one point he was required to look at a dot positioned for correct eye line as if he were viewing Jesus on the cross, and then he would react.
He asked director Franco Zeffirelli if someone could read the line, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do,” so that he could get into the moment for his performance. Then, he said, “They turned the camera and I looked up at the dot…but suddenly I saw the head of Jesus Christ, and it fell to one side as he died. I started crying like a baby. When they finished shooting, I looked around and everybody was crying.'”
However, he added with a slight laugh, “Zeffirelli said, ‘Ernesto, that was very good. Can you try one without so many tears?’
“That’s been written about in books,” added Borgnine, who came out with his autobiography in 2008. “It’s the one thing I carry with me the rest of my life.'”
In the last couple of years, Borgnine took on a number of smaller roles in fare such as The Hallmark Channel’s “Love’s Christmas Journey.” And then there was his final starring vehicle — writer-director Elia Petridis’ indie film, “The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez.” The dramedy, which has been seen by festival audiences, has him as an old man bitterly disappointed that he never became famous — who suddenly finds himself the center of attention among the Latino workers in his nursing home when they learn of an incident in his past.
“I doubted very much if I could pull off something like this,” he admitted. “Carrying a picture is a whole lot different than just being in a picture. You have to think ahead to where things are going at all times. But this young man was so enthusiastic and confident, it made me feel confident. He said, ‘No one else in the world can do this. You’re brilliant.’ He was just a dream to work with. I learned so much. I can’t say enough,” he said of Petridis.
Borgnine got an extra job while in the midst of shooting – performing the marriage ceremony for Petridis and his fiancee. “The state of Washington allows this kind of ceremony, so, so help me Hanna, that’s what happened. It was wonderful,” he said.
He confessed he loved it when crew people on his movies asked questions about the old days in Hollywood. He would regale them with tales of the times when the studios cranked out Westerns by the dozen.
“We need those Westerns again. Doggone it, I miss that so much. I used to have so much fun making Westerns,” he told me.
“I’ll never forget the time when we had visitors from France and England out on one of those sets, standing behind the camera, ready to watch me do a scene where I get on a horse. I came out and said, ‘Okay, where’s the ladder?’ Ha, ha.”
As a put-on, prop people brought out a ladder, much to the surprise of the onlookers, and Borgnine climbed up saying, “John Wayne uses one of these. Didn’t you know? Well, I’m not going to let out any trade secrets.”
With that, Borgnine burst into one of those big laughs of his that made you want to join in.
Hey man! You were alive, and God blessed us all.