Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Borgnine is back in the saddle

By Bridget Byrne
The Associated Press

LOS ANGELES - "Shouldn't I be?" exclaims Ernest Borgnine, when asked why he's still working at 87.

"I think old age is just an expression. As far as I'm concerned, as long as I can keep going and work at my craft, I love it," says the veteran character actor. "And, hey, if I can bring a little enjoyment to people, why not?"

David S. Cass Sr., the director of Borgnine's latest movie, The Trail to Hope Rose (9 p.m. Saturday, Hallmark Channel), says: "Ernie's from the old school of acting where whatever the part demands he will try." Including riding a horse.

"I stepped up on the ladder, got on the horse, and off we went," Borgnine recalls. "Maybe they didn't know that at one time John Wayne used to get on a horse by ladder."

Once Borgnine was in the saddle, "he was like a 20-year-old," Cass says.

In the latest in a half-century of Western roles, Borgnine plays rancher Eugene Lawson, who becomes a father figure to Keenan Deerfield (Lou Diamond Phillips), an ex-con determined to stay honest amid the corruption of an 1850s mining town.

Cass says the role of Lawson called for someone "forceful in a very gentle way," a characterization that utilized both Borgnine's "Wild Bunch look, where it seems he might rip your head off and spit down your neck if you don't do what he says," and "the happiness in his soul and heart."

Past roles

As he did in 1969's The Wild Bunch, Borgnine has played many a bad guy, beginning with his first Western in 1953 - The Stranger Wore a Gun, starring Randolph Scott.

His breakout film role was as a heavy, too: Sgt. "Fatso" Judson in 1953's From Here to Eternity.

It was when he was playing a thug opposite Spencer Tracy in Bad Day at Black Rock that he auditioned completely against type for the role of the gentle, diffident Bronx butcher in 1955's Marty, winner of four Academy Awards, including best picture.

How he got the role of Marty Piletti is a story he's told many times, but still tells well.

The filmmakers, like most in the business then, thought of him as an actor who'd done nothing much on-screen but "kill people."

They had wanted Rod Steiger, who had played Piletti in the 1953 TV version, but Steiger had just gotten a part Borgnine had wanted - the bad guy role of Jud Fry in Oklahoma!

So director Delbert Mann and writer Paddy Chayefsky flew to the Black Rock location to audition Borgnine.

He walked in wearing "a cowboy suit, cowboy hat, three-day growth of beard, cowboy boots" and even started reading the part with a "Western drawl" before he kicked in with the appropriate Bronx accent.

But Borgnine's test ended up causing tears to flow, and he knew immediately that he had the role.

Later he was "more surprised than anybody else in the whole world" when Marty won him the acting Oscar. (Mann and Chayefsky also won Oscars.) The nominees he beat out: Spencer Tracy, Frank Sinatra, James Dean and James Cagney.

Borgnine points to the statuette placed amid all the memorabilia in the home he shares in the canyons of Beverly Hills with his fifth wife, Tova, the cosmetics entrepreneur.

"It was a wonderful thing, but you get your 15 minutes of fame and then it's 'What else have you done?'" he grins.

Getting into television

Despite his Oscar-winning performance in Marty, most folks probably know Borgnine best as Quinton McHale, commander of a motley PT boat crew on ABC's 1960s smash McHale's Navy.

He has a good story to tell about getting that part, too.

He had told his agent, "No, I'm a motion picture actor, period. I don't want to do television." But the next morning a kid came to the door selling candy to raise money for a local school.

"The kid said, 'Gee, your face looks awfully familiar. What's your name?'" Borgnine recollects.

"I said 'James Arness.' He said, 'No. He does Gunsmoke.' I said, 'My name is really Richard Boone.'"

Then the kid responded: "No. He does Have Gun Will Travel."

Finally, the actor told him: "My name is really Ernest Borgnine."

The reaction?

"Absolutely nothing ... I paid the kid. He left. I put down the chocolate bars and called my agent and said, 'Is that part still open?'"

Borgnine's been in two TV series since - as Dominic Santini, the veteran aircraft owner, in the first three seasons of the action drama Airwolf, and as Manny Cordoba, the doorman in the sitcom The Single Guy.

"I'm always ready if anyone comes along with something good," he says.

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