He may be in his nineties, but Ernest Borgnine shows few signs of slowing down. Just ask Saturday Night Live, which billed the actor as as “a 93-year-old sex machine” in a cameo the day before he talked to The A.V. Club. A thorough overview of Borgnine’s career would take pages, but even the sketchiest account would have to touch on his turn as brutish Sergeant Fatso Judson in From Here to Eternity and his tenure as one of The Wild Bunch and The Dirty Dozen, as well as his Oscar-winning role in Marty, in which he played against type both as a leading man and as a lovelorn everyman, rather than the thugs and hardasses he usually played. The scope of Borgnine’s career is even more impressive when you realize he got a late start, coming to acting in his thirties. Before that, he spent a decade in the Navy, rising to the rank of Gunner’s Mate 1st Class; he was discharged in 1941, but reenlisted when the U.S. entered the second World War, serving until the end of the conflict. His military service stood him in good stead, not only for his eponymous role on the TV series McHale’s Navy, but by giving him life experience to draw on, and a face that reflected every bit of it. Taking roles in Gattaca, BASEketball and the Sean Penn-directed segment of the anthology September 11, not to mention playing a prominent part in ER’s swan song and serving as the voice of Spongebob’s Mermaid Man, Borgnine is still hard at work. He can soon be seen opposite Bruce Willis in Red, and will be honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Screen Actors Guild next year.
The A.V. Club: Hello Mr. Borgnine. How are you?
Ernest Borgnine: Ernie’s the name, if you will.
EB: How are you?
AVC: I’m very well.
EB: Are you watching football?
AVC: I took a break, just to talk to you.
EB: Incidentally, did you ever find out who won that Ryder Cup?
AVC: I don’t know actually. I could look it up.
EB: Don’t be silly. That’s all right. We’ve got other things to do. [Laughs.]
AVC: Let’s start with Red. It’s quite astonishing looking at your body of work to realize how steadily you’ve kept working into your nineties. Retirement doesn’t seem to interest you much. What about this particular part spoke to you?
EB: Well they came to me, and my agent said, “You know there’s a little part in Red that they’re thinking about you, they’d like to see you.” I said, “Hey man that’s great.” I had never worked with Bruce before, and I said, “That will give me a chance to meet him.” I said, “Oh great.” First thing you know everybody said, “Yes, yes, okay you’re in.” I said, “Fine. Let’s go.” And off we went and that’s the end of that. We got together, and Bruce was just a sweet animal, a sweetheart. I tell you, right down to the core he’s just a real professional, a real gentleman, and I must say I’m so very happy for him that he’s got a heck of a good film over here.
AVC: This isn’t the first time you’ve made a movie about a bunch of old-timers getting together for one last ride.
EB: I think that’s what makes the whole film, is that you got so many good professionals in it, you know. The first thing is that it all shows, and they all really worked together and they made something. I think the lack of computerism in there is good, the fact that you only saw one or two computer things in there and that was it. The rest of it is all pure animation, pure acting, pure everything. And I am very happy about it. I thought it’s just marvelous.
AVC: You were in The Dirty Dozen and The Wild Bunch, which some of the classics of this little subgenre, 40 years ago—
AVC: You were playing an old-timer even then.
EB: Yeah. Sure, sure.
AVC: There are so many stories about Sam Peckinpah on the set being a bit of a loose cannon. What was he like for you to work with? And that cast?
EB: I tell you, when you’re working with pros it’s altogether different. Everybody brought that little bit of his own. You know, Warren Oates was Warren Oates. Playing right up to the very hilt, you know. Ben Johnson was, God bless him, he was just wonderful. Bill Holden, you couldn’t ask for any better. So it was just a love affair between all four of us, and we made The Wild Bunch and bam-bam-bam, thank you, that was it. It was the easiest thing in the world. The director never had to give us any kind of directions at all. We just brought it to him and he nodded his head, off we went. Bam bam bam. That’s the way it was here with this picture, I’m pretty sure, because he didn’t come to me saying this that and the other thing. This wonderful director we had on this one [Robert Schwentke]. And I tell ya, it’s nice that way. You’re able to bring your own ideas in and your own feelings, and the first thing you know it catches on, and the first thing you know—bam, you got a good picture.
AVC: One thing that makes a movie like The Wild Bunch and The Dirty Dozen work is that the actors look as if they’ve lived. You can see it in their faces. Bruce Willis has some of that quality as well.
EB: Exactly, exactly. That’s the nucleus of the whole thing. Instead of using computers as they use these days, they really use the real McCoy, and believe me it showed. You can see it to this very day. Every time you play one old-time picture along with today’s kind of work, and they throw in the computers and the guns and the this and the that and the God-almighty, it gets to be a hassle and you wonder who the hell’s doing what!
AVC: You were in the Navy for 10 years before being an actor. Do you think that experience helped you as an actor?
EB: Definitely helped me. Especially working with people, young men. You get the feeling of who’s doing what and all working together. It’s an ensemble kind of thing, because even if you’re only going to weigh anchor or drop anchor, you do it as an ensemble. I don’t know whether you were in the service or not, but you know how it is, when you get some men together, the first thing you know, everyone’s pulling together. That’s what makes a good football team, too. The idea of pulling all together, and off you go. It’s the same way with motion pictures, in my estimation.
AVC: It depends on how they’re made, as you’re saying. For everybody to pull together, they all have to be together on the set at the same time.
EB: Exactly. Exactly. Even if they’re not, you’d be surprised how one will pick up from the other. You look at the picture and first thing you know you go, “Ah-ha.” And “Oh,” and off we go. And you got it. There are some people who are a little denser than the others. [Laughs.] But they catch on after a while.
AVC: Just looking at the number of films you’ve made, you don’t seem to have slowed down much in the last several years. Is it important for you to keep working?
EB: Absolutely. I like to keep at my craft, you know? I like to keep reading scripts, whether I’m in it or not because of the fact that what would I do in a certain case? How would this happen or how would that go? I like to keep working with my mind, so when I do perform I have something to perform with, and it’s not just like trying on new clothes. You’re trying on a suit, but you know where the heck the pants go. [Laughs.] You know what I mean? It’s roughly that way, but that’s the way I look at it. You got to keep your hand in it, otherwise you can rot at the roots and first thing you know, you got nothing.
AVC: I imagine that’s true of life as well as acting, that you have to keep learning things and keep your hand in.
EB: Absolutely. Absolutely. I think you have to keep going. Otherwise, you know these fellas that say, “Boy I can’t wait to retire. Boy, I’m going to be 65 years old, and I’m retiring and I’m quitting and that’s it.” Well, two weeks later they’re saying to themselves, “What the hell am I gonna do?” And first thing you know they find themselves in a wheelchair or in a rocking chair going back and forth, back and forth, and that’s the end of it. And suddenly you’re dead. This way, if you keep going and keep pushing yourself a bit, that’s what keeps you going. It keeps my mind active and my body active, so that’s what its all about. People say, “No, you’re not 93 going on 94.” The hell I’m not! [Laughs.] I can feel every bit of it sometimes. But I’ve made myself to a point where I say, “By golly! You’re still young and you’re still thinking right, what the hell! Use it! That’s what its for.”
AVC: It’s still obvious that you take pleasure in being on screen, and we can take pleasure in watching you, even though we’ve got a lot of catching up to do.
EB: Well hey, we’ve all got a lot of catching up to do. [Laughs.] I’m still learning how to act, for god’s sake. When I see these old-timers on the Turner Classic Movies, I still get ideas, you know. That’s where you really learn acting. If you really see some of these old boys working it and you say to yourself, “My God, if I could really do that that would be wonderful.” [Laughs.] And the thing is, you have done it. Unknowingly! [Laughs.]
AVC: Who are you still learning from now?
EB: Hell. On Turner Classic Movies? I got it on all the time. I’m still watching all those old-timers really going along, and I’m enjoying it so much, not just looking at the pictures, but looking at the acting. Paul Muni. Beautiful character. Edward G. Robinson. Jimmy Cagney. All those old boys. You know you don’t find those characters anymore. Gary Cooper—the greatest listener in the world! And he used to answer in kind, which is wonderful because you don’t see that anymore. People don’t listen. They really don’t. There’s an awful lot to be desired. I’ve gone to places where people say to me, “What’s your technique?” Technique? What the hell technique is there to acting? We’re doing it right now even though we’re on the telephone. We’re acting because even with my voice, I’m giving you what I think is what I want to say. Do you understand me? Are you listening? And that’s acting. That’s what it’s all about. But a lot of people forget that today. And most of them now today, they come to the point where you walk on a set and the first thing you know you’re looking at the sound man and you’re saying to yourself, “How the hell can they get any sound when nobody is talking!” They get all mumbly, you know? [Mumbles.] You can’t make out what they’re saying! And you’re 6 feet away from them! Whereas in the old-time movies, you hear them, you understand every word they’re saying, and you didn’t have to put on your loudspeaker. [Laughs.] I tell you, I get so mad sometimes I turn them off. I say, “To hell with ’em. They don’t want me to listen? To hell with them.” [Laughs.]
AVC: When you’re watching Turner Classic Movies, you’re seeing a lot of people that you knew, most of whom are no longer with us. Is that part of it bittersweet?
EB: Absolutely. Absolutely. These old-timers really knew it. And they knew how to work it. And I tell you it was wonderful to watch them. Golly, I could go back to some of these old character actors that we used to have. Right now I can’t think of a name, but there used to be a fella who always used to work with John Wayne…
AVC: Andy Devine? Or Ward Bond, is that who you’re thinking of?
EB: Yeah that’s it. I tell you, it was just marvelous. It was so natural for them. They were the ones who really helped the star make a film. God bless them. I call myself a character actor all my life. I’ve done a certain amount as a leading man, but character actors in my estimation—it’s a lost art these days. It really is. It’s become more for all kinds of young fellas that talk about… Two people talking about love, and I love you, I love you. They don’t know what the hell love is! You got to go out and experience this kind of thing. You got to know what the heck it’s all about. But these people, they’re saying, “I love you.” Period. That’s what it says in the script! [Laughs.] If you’re talking to somebody, you don’t mumble, you certainly don’t whisper, unless you’re whispering secrets, or whatever the hell it is. The idea is you talk a normal tone of voice. Some people just don’t understand. That’s the way it goes. If you don’t get your nickel’s worth, you can turn it off. That’s it. [Laughs]
AVC: Words to live by. It’s been a real pleasure talking to you.
EB: Sam, it’s been my pleasure. And I hope to one day get together and break a little bread.
AVC: Of course.
EB: All right, partner.