Ernest Borgnine has been making movies for over 50 years, winning the Academy Award for his title role as a lonely Bronx butcher in Marty. But he’s also remembered for his character, ‘Fatso’ Judson, the brutal stockade Sergeant in From Here to Eternity. And, of course, there’s The Poseidon Adventure, Bad Day at Black Rock, The Vikings, Ice Station Zebra, Wild Bunch, Flight of the Phoenix and The Dirty Dozen – whew!
In his new movie RED, Borgnine portrays Henry, the CIA Records Keeper, who has invaluable information about a group of retired agents, played by Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman and John Malkovich, needs to keep one step ahead of their assassins.
Did you read the RED comic book?
No, I didn’t. Is there a comic book? I’ll be darned! My agent came up to me and said, ‘There’s a part there and you’ll work with Bruce Willis,’ and I said, ‘Bruce Willis, count me in.’ And sure enough they said, ‘Okay, you’re in.’
What was Bruce like to work with?
Every now and then Bruce would come over and he’d put his arm around me, give me a squeeze. After a couple of times of his doing that, I thought he wanted to go steady!
But what a heck of a nice guy. I predicted that he was going to be a big star the minute I saw him on Moonlighting. I said, ‘This boy’s going to go places.’ And sure enough, he has and he deserves it because he’s a hard worker, conscientious worker, and a wonderful guy to boot. It’s a pleasure to know him.
Have you seen RED yet?
Yes, I have. The finish product looked a heck of a lot better than (the scenes we did on set). While we were shooting it we were inside this huge safe. It took three men to push that door open and close it. It was amazing.
You have so much energy in this film, what’s your secret for staying young?
At 93, what the hell, thank God I’m still going. I gave up meat about 40 years ago. I eat fish and chicken. I’m pretty good shape for my age. I was carrying a lot of weight before, but I came down from 265 to about 232, so I feel pretty good.
How do you feel about seeing yourself onscreen?
I hate it, I really do, because I always look back and I say, ‘Dummy, you could have done better.’ I never did like myself on the screen. But you get used to it, and after awhile you just take it for granted that’s the best you can do, and you tried.
Marty is among the most beloved classics in American cinema, how do you feel about Marty, both then and now?
We did the whole film in 14 days. We did it in New York, there were no sets made at all.
We found out to our dismay that they wanted to take a tax loss and they only wanted to make half the picture and then shelve it. And the taxman said, ‘No, I’m sorry, but they’ve passed a law where you have to finish the picture, show it one time and then you can take your tax loss.’ So I made the picture for $5,000, believe it or not. When it came we won everything in sight.
What are you memories of working on From Here to Eternity?
One day I got a call from a casting director, he said, ‘Listen, we’ve got a part for you we want you to play in From Here to Eternity. I said, ‘I read the book two years ago, and I was thinking if anybody plays the part of Fatso Judson, it should be me.’ He said, ‘That’s exactly what we want you for.’ How I knew it, I don’t know.
I went out to Hollywood and the very first (thing they said to me) was, ‘Get a haircut.’ I got nine haircuts before they thought it was just right.
I was working on a scene with Frank Sinatra, and when (his character, Angelo) said, ‘Come on, Fatso, give us a break, we’re trying to dance over here,’ I stood up very slowly, and Frank said, ‘Jesus Christ, he’s ten feet tall.’ It broke the ice. God bless him, I was shaking in my boots because Frank Sinatra, Burt Lancaster, everybody was there, and you could go crazy. It made me feel so wonderful and I never forgot it.
We became dear friends and for years we wrote to each other every Christmas. He always put down his name (in the movie, Angelo) and I put down Fatso Judson. For a long time I played nothing but killers!
The Poseidon Adventure was another classic – what do you remember about working with Stella Stevens on that?
Stella is one of a kind. She’s a sweetheart, but one time during the shoot there was a little boy that was with us in the film, some how or other he got in front of her (in one of the scenes), and she said, ‘Get out of my light you little bastard or I’ll kill ‘ya!’ (he laughs) That was Stella.
What is it like to be a movie legend?
One day my wife, Tova, met up with these people from the British Film Academy, and she said, ‘You know, my husband has a British Film Academy Award.’ They said, ‘Yes, we know.’ She said, ‘Why don’t you invite him over to say hello and give a little talk,’ and they said, ‘Is he coherent?’ (he laughs) It’s a wonderful life! (he laughs even harder)