What MAKES Sammy Run? – ERNEST BORGNINE: THEY DON’T MAKE ‘EM LIKE THAT ANYMORE
Award-Winning Director, Sam Borowski (R in red shirt) goes over the script for NIGHT CLUB with Academy-Award Winning actor Ernie Borgnine in between set-ups on the set of NIGHT CLUB. (Photo COPYRIGHT The NAOJ Company).
Playing Henry The Records Keeper in the movie, “RED,” Oscar-Winner Ernest Borgnine exclaims, “Yeaaaa, They don’t make ‘em like that anymore,” in describing Bruce Willis’ character. He might as well have been describing himself.
That’s because Ernie Borgnine was as Old School as they come. And, I ought to know – I had the privilege to direct him in the award-winning film, “NIGHT CLUB,” which has currently won 16 awards to date on the film festival circuit and is in the process of obtaining theatrical distribution. But, I not only directed Ernie, I was his friend, as well.
That’s why the news of his passing Sunday struck me hard. I wouldn’t know where to begin in jotting down a list of how wonderful this man was. Perhaps the first time I ever went to his house – where I arrived with my fellow producer J. Todd Smith, dressed in my traditional black suit – would be a good place start.
While we were getting out of the car, Ernie opened the door, smiled widely and shouted, “You don’t have to dress up to come see me!” Within minutes we were inside engaged in a conversation when I said rather Chili Palmer-like, “Ernie … can I call you Ernie?” He responded quickly, “That’s my name!”
As we talked about our upcoming film and film in general, he then made a bold announcement: “I heard you almost won one of these,” pointing to his 1955 Academy Award won for Best Actor in MARTY, a reference to my film THE MANDALA MAKER, which qualified for an Oscar in the Live Action Short category a few years back. “Well, I guess you’ll have to hold this guy for good luck.”
By the end of the night he thrust that very Oscar in my hand and posed for a picture with me, before doing the same with J. Todd, who was not settling for his Golden Globe! (It is my profile picture here to this day!)
But, that’s just the kind of man Ernie Borgnine was – he knew how to make people feel good.
While filming at the California Villa Retirement Home, he was always quick to pose with a resident or staffer. After I would yell cut, and my first A.D. Addison Randall would yell, “Moving On,” Ernie would almost stop on cue, smile and pose for Mary, one of the regulars in a wheelchair, who he knew was waiting for another photo with him. She would electronically wheel up to him, he would stop on a dime and smile.
You get the feeling that if you had no money in your pocket, Ernie would fill it, make sure you had enough to get home. That’s who Ernie Borgnine was.
And, he loved working.
“I just want to do more work,” he said. “Every time I step in front of a camera, I feel young again. I really do. It keeps your mind active and it keeps you going.”
Having known Ernie for a few years now, I can tell you his mind WAS active and he was ALWAYS on the go. Such as the Sunday he came to visit the NIGHT CLUB set, a few days after we wrapped him out. He drove himself there, and later cracked, “I had to go to COSTCO anyway …”
And, everywhere he went, he brought with him that infectious smile. So hard to think I won’t get to see him give that wide toothy grin again – at least not on this earth.
And, he had such wonderful advice for both young actors and filmmakers. I still remember hearing him give our younger actors, Zachary Abel, Ahney Her (of GRAN TORINO fame) and Bryan Williams advice on how NOT to lose your audience. They listened silently and intently, and at the very end – after he had done anything BUT lose them – he turned and said, “That’ll be a hundred bucks!”
Then, came the infectious grin followed by that wonderful laughter.
And, he had a simple take on acting
"You just need to use your heart and your head together," he once said.
He also advised aspiring actors to, "get a real job before you try to get an acting job.
"Learn about life and then learn your craft. And don't wear dark glasses on screen because you think you're cool. The eyes are an actor's best asset."
And what stories his eyes could tell … and did.
His was a treasure trove of knowledge for actors – and filmmakers – of all ages.
He went through everything you are now going through – the struggles, the lack of funds, the doubts. Heck, it was his mother who persuaded him to pursue acting at the Randall School of The Dramatic Arts inHartfordrather than take a solid paycheck with an air-conditioning company. He was there for four months – the only formal training he ever received … or needed.
Still, after earning a paltry $2,300 in 1951, he contemplated taking another possible solid paycheck with an electrical company, but he returned to acting after the job fell through.
Just four years later, he would accept the title role of MARTY, the role that would win him an Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role, and a whole new life.
He was living proof that we all can do it!
Just as long as you put in the time, stick it out and don’t quit! Remember, Ernie spent 10 years in the Navy before he pursued acting. And, it was because Ernie bided his time , playing mostly villains and heavies, that he got his opportunity at stardom, but only after Rod Steiger landed another part. And, even then, nothing was guaranteed.
When screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky and director Delbert Mann were informed about Borgnine as a possibility for butcher Marty Piletti, I remember Ernie recalling their very words: “Ernest Borgnine? The man’s a killer!”
You see, they were looking for a Teddy Bear. But, I suppose when Ernie smiled that infectious grin, they never knew what hit them. When it was all said and done they each – screenwriter, director and actor - won an Oscar for their respective position, with a Best Picture statuette for producer Harold Hecht thrown in for good measure.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Now, you can’t possibly imagine anyone but Ernie playing Marty. And no one conveyed that feeling of loneliness better than Borgnine. You felt for Marty – wanted him to get the girl so badly. Audiences across the country rooted for him, and so did the Academy, apparently.
But, perhaps Ernie’s greatest trait was his Attitude of Gratitude – he was always so grateful for everything he’d earned and achieved. I still remember him telling me in his home, “I just got lucky.”
After becoming the oldest Golden Globe nominee ever at 90 years young, for the TV movie, “A GRANDPA FOR CHRISTMAS,” Ernie was as happy as could be. And, so 52 years after his only other Globe nomination, which he won for the aforementioned MARTY, he showed up with that same infectious grin, even after someone else took home the trophy.
“Hey, I already got one,” he was quoted as saying at the time. “I was nominated and I think that’s wonderful. You don’t have to win them all.”
But, perhaps my favorite memory was when we had the longest day of shooting on NIGHT CLUB, and Ernie sensed the crew was growing tired and weary. So, during a scene with “The World’s Most Famous Accordion Player,” Dick Contino, Ernie decided to put a smile on everyone’s face, by using my unique system of marking takes, which takes into account all performances, lighting, sound and general overall quality.
“That one was a 2 and a half!” he smiled back at me (I rank them from 1-4, with a 5 being through the roof). And, I try to usually whisper those grades very low-key to my script supervisor, keeping the book, though nothing escaped Ernie’s attention.
After the next take, he proudly declared it a 3! The entire crew was smiling after that. But, you see, Ernie Borgnine, had a knack for making you smile … and sometimes cry, as he did in MARTY.
Yeaaaa, They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.
So long, my good friend – I will miss you, until we meet again. No matter how many Academy-Award Winners I work with, YOU will always have a very special place in my heart, and I will never forget the thrill of working with you or the joy of being friends with you. And, as they say in Ireland, “Ah Salute!”
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Film / Theater / TV, Writing
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