Just Trying to Make a Buck
by Dave Paull
When I read that Ernest Borgnine was going to screen his movie “Marty” in early April of this year in Portland, I instantly wanted to be there, but I'm not sure why, since I wasn't a big fan. I'd seen several of his movies and enjoyed the sincerity he brought to playing the average guy – the uncommon common man. There was something of a challenge in trying to get an interview with this iconic movie actor.
Mike Turner, a colleague at KXL, loaned me his little digital audio recorder and I walked the few blocks up to the Portland Art Museum's Whitsell Auditorium, where Marty would be shown that evening. I found the room downstairs where Borgnine was greeting a select group of fans, but the door was locked. After loitering conspicuously and asking repeatedly, I was finally allowed into the inner sanctum and there he was.
Borgnine was alternately sitting and standing with his fans, posing for pictures, laughing and talking with everyone in line. He was a barrel chested man with silver hair and big teeth, wearing a dark navy suit with a tie and sweater.
While waiting for a break in autograph signing, I spoke with Borgnine's press agent, Harry Flynn. From him I learned that Ernest Borgnine was a 33rd degree Mason and an ex-Navy man who had signed up for active duty in 1935. After being discharged he re-enlisted when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. When he got out of the Navy for good, Borgnine said he didn't know what to do with his life. It was his mother who encouraged him to pursue his interest in acting.
Borgnine told the story filming with Montgomery Clift in “From Here to Eternity.” The two had to stage a realistic looking fight scene, which ran for about 3 minutes in the movie, but took 12 hours to shoot. Ernest said that he and Montgomery Clift were black and blue with bruises after punching and fighting each other for so long.
Then it was my turn to sit down and ask some questions. When I referred to Borgnine as a legendary actor, he wouldn't have it. He said “what's this - legendary? I'm just a guy trying to earn a buck.” He told another story about working on the film “Flight of The Phoenix.” Borgnine said he learned a lot about acting from the star of the film, Jimmy Stewart, who showed up early and left late, always working on the craft of acting. That was Borgnine's style, too.
Then it was picture taking time and we stood up for a snap shot. Borgnine beamed at the camera and laughed. He seemed tireless and always interested in whoever wanted to talk with him. That's what I remember most – the energy and cheerfulness of this 95 year old man. It took me by surprise when I heard of his passing. But, of course, Ernest Borgnine will live on as a legendary Everyman in the vast number of movies he made.