Ernest Borgnine interview, December 15, 2009
In December 2009, I had a delightful talk with Ernest Borgnine, who left us recently, too soon, at age 95. I asked Ernie (as he insisted I call him) for his reminiscences about Frank Sinatra, and he happily obliged:
JK: You said in [your memoir] Ernie that you and Sinatra were both scared when you did your scenes together.
EB: Yes, we were. We were frightened to death because we wanted to prove ourselves again, you know. I didn’t have anything to prove except one thing—that I could do it. He had to prove himself again because he was right down to nothing. He had lost his voice, and he was doing gigs at that time for $50 a night. It was terrible. But between Montgomery Clift and myself and everything else, we got him going, and boy, I’ll tell you, when it came out, he won the Academy Award, and I was just so proud of him.
JK: Well, you won one pretty soon after that.
EB: I beat him out for that thing that he had…Man…what the heck was it…
JK: Oh, The Man With the Golden Arm.
EB: Man With the Golden arm. That’s it.
JK: You beat him out. Good for you. Was he what you expected? Was he different from what you expected? He was such a gigantic star…
EB: No. To me, he was a human being, and he always was a human being, and he was marvelous. There was nothing put up about Frank. He was Frank, and you could take it or leave it. That’s the way it was with him. He was the kind of fellow that took Lee J. Cobb one time out of a hospital with…
JK: I know about that.
EB: Have you heard about that?
JK: Yeah, it’s amazing.
EB: and God bless him, he’s that kind of a fellow. Never said a word. Just paid for everything, and BOOM. He said, “Why?” “Because I like the way you act.” Isn’t that wonderful.
JK: He had a reputation… Well, he had a lot of reputations. But he had a reputation as a movie actor of being One-Take-Charlie…
EB: That’s it.
JK: …and of being very impatient on the set.
EB: Well, I don’t blame him. Because you know, they keep you there half-a-day trying to get a little tiny thing that can come automatically. Today, when they watch motion pictures, they don’t watch the entire thing by watching on the set. They watch a television set.
JK: Thanks to Jerry Lewis, yes.
EB: You know, that’s terrible! Because how the hell can you shoot a picture watching on the television set? You don’t see the expressions, you don’t see the things that are happening in a man’s eyes. When you do it on the television, what the hell good is it? You might as well be watching television.
JK: But see, I read that on From Here To Eternity he was not like that, that he was much more patient and hard-working.
EB: Oh, absolutely.
JK: That was your impression, too.
EB: Because he was trying to prove himself back again. You know what I mean? He had to keep going and really prove that he could do it.
JK: So he was respectful with you?
EB: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. We got to be good friends, and for years, up until the time he passed away. Whenever we wrote to each other, for Christmas cards or stuff like that, he would write his name “Maggio” and I’d write mine “Fatso.”
JK: I thought that you also… I’ve got to ask you this question. It’s a little bit delicate, but you mentioned it in your book, and so I’m asking you. You said something about that on the set of From Here to Eternity, that Frank was going to show up with some booze and broads, but he never showed up.
EB: [LOUD LAUGH]
JK: Do you remember that?
EB: Yes, I do. He said, “I’ll show up…” This was after we did the fight, the knife fight between Montgomery Clift and myself.
JK: What did he say?
EB: He said, “Oh, hell, you guys are going to get through early. Maybe I’ll come by and we’ll have a couple of drinks, and then some broads, and who knows?” And he never showed up.
JK: Maybe he found one for himself that he didn’t want to…
EB: Who knows? Who knows? Hah-hah. But he was… I tell you, in my estimation, Frank could do no wrong, because he made it look so right. He was a good guy.
JK: He was, and he was really working hard on that movie. Just tell me a tiny bit about Fred Zinnemann. Did you like Zinnemann?
EB: Zinnemann was wonderful. He said, “Thank God for New York actors.” Hah-hah-hah! Because we used to bring him a lot to do. We gave him things to work with. There are people out here that don’t really communicate very well. But the old boys from New York, we always brought new ideas to it and everything else. We asked him, “What do you think about this?” “Yes, let’s try it.” He was that kind of fellow.
JK: He was a serious guy and a professional, is my impression.
EB: Oh, absolutely. To say the least.
JK: And quiet and thoughtful.
EB: Very quiet. Never said a word. He’d always come up… A very suggestive and very wonderful man. Never argued or anything else. I never heard an argument in my life with that man. He was just wonderful.
JK: Did you have any contact with Harry Cohn at all?
EB: Harry Cohn one time wanted to put me under contract.
JK: Is that right?
EB: That’s right. After my very first picture here, The Mob, with Broderick Crawford. He liked what I did. He said, “We’ll put you under contract and give you $150 a week, and so-and-so-and-so.” I said, “Sir, I’m sorry. I’d love to take it. I really would. But my wife is very close to her family, and she doesn’t like to leave her family.” He said, “What the hell is she? Jewish?” I said, “Yes, sir, she is.” He said, “Goddamn Jews are all alike.” [LAUGHS]
JK: Pot calling the kettle black.
EB: The casting director at the time, he said, “Don’t worry, I’ll find something for you,” and he was the one who kept pushing me for From Here to Eternity.
JK: Did Cohn show up on the set of From Here to Eternity?
EB: I never saw him once.
JK: How about Buddy Adler?
EB: Buddy Adler, yes. Oh, he was a sweetheart.
JK: Was he?
EB: Yes. He was our producer. The minute he saw me, he said, “My God, there’s my Fatso Judson.” Then another time, I saw this couple come across this studio… we were working inside of a studio, and they came through the doors of the studio, and we just said hello. Monty Clift and I were talking together, you know. They came over, and the first thing you know, I’m embraced by this man in these big arms, and he said, “You’re the son-of-a-bitch I wrote about when I wrote this book.”
JK: Ah, James Jones.
EB: It was Jim Jones himself. I said, “My God, thank you very much, sir. I really appreciate it.” He said, “No, I appreciate it.” Quite a man.
JK: You did such a great job in that movie. After you did that fight scene with Sinatra, was it hard to switch gears… You showed such hate for him in that scene.
JK: I guess that’s why they call it acting.
EB: That’s where the acting comes in, you see? The funny part about is that I had a line at the end, where I lay down there and he stepped over me, and he looked over me… I had a line that came out and said, “You’ve killed me; why did you want to kill me?” I studied that line for seven weeks. I said, “I want it to come out right. I don’t want somebody to come out and say, [AFFECTED VOICE] ‘oh, you’ve killed me; why did you want to kill me?” Well, to make a long story short, when I went to see the picture, they cut the bloody line. I suddenly realized, “They made me a heavy…but the best heavy ever.” I was so thrilled, you know. Hey, from then on, I was sticking pitchforks in Lee Marvin… [LAUGHS]