Friday, September 5, 2008

Ernie: the Autobiography

I've long been a fan of Ernest Borgnine. After a decade serving in the US Navy, he decided to become an actor at the age of 28. Usually playing the heavy or antagonist in a slew of films including From Here to Eternity, Bad Day at Black Rock, among many others, it is his role in the 1955 Oscar winning classic Marty that proved that Borgnine had the range and talent that would defy type casting. I don't know if you've ever seen this film, it was a small independent written by Paddy Chayefsky for television in 1953, starring Rod Steiger and Nancy Marchand. Burt Lancaster's independent film corporation greenlighted the project with Delbert Mann at the helm with the intent of writing it off as a tax loss. However, the film was completed and became the sleeper hit of the year, winning the Palme d'Or at Cannes and the Oscar for Best Picture (the only film two win both). It's a charming story of a lonely, socially awkward butcher played by Borgnine who's given up on finding someone to love. Betsy Blair plays Clara, a homely schoolteacher that Marty sees dumped at a dance at the Stardust Ballroom. What a shame romantic comedies aren't all this affecting and moving. Borgnine won the Oscar for Best Actor over James Dean in East of Eden, Spencer Tracy in Bad Day at Black Rock, James Cagney in Love Me or Leave Me and Frank Sinatra in The Man With the Golden Arm. He would work steadily, but wouldn't become a household name until his 1960s sitcom "McHale's Navy" came to TV screens around the world. Character roles would follow in The Dirty Dozen, The Wild Bunch, Willard and Escape from NY. (By the way, when is the Strouse-Adams musical adaptation of Marty coming to NY? Or when is the cast album with John C. Reilly and Carolee Carmello coming out?)

Borgnine, who turned 91 earlier this year, has just come out with his memoir. The book isn't very concise, it's a short yet personable work that seems to have been written by Borgnine without any assistance or a ghostwriter. It's wonderful to see him - he still works steadily, lives for it really and has the vibrancy of a much younger man. His autobiography has two pertinent notes related to the theatre. One of his earlier credits was working in the Broadway play Mrs. McThing opposite Helen Hayes and Brandon de Wilde. His wife became pregnant during the run. When he told Hayes, she immediately told him how happy she was to become a godmother, thus beginning a warm lifelong relationship with the First Lady of the American Theatre.

For those who have read Ethel Merman's autobiography, they know that Merman summed up the chapter entitled "My Marriage to Ernest Borgnine" with a blank page. In his book, Borgnine delves deeper into the professional jealousies that brought their marriage to a decidedly quick demise. On their honeymoon overseas, Merman got incredibly jealous whenever Borgnine got recognized, mostly because of his sitcom he became world-renown. She didn't take too kindly to being practically dismissed in his presence. The longer they were on their honeymoon, the worse it became. Merman became cooler and cooler towards him until they finally had it out during a bout of dysentary which left them both under the weather in South East Asia. The final straw for Borgnine was when Merman refused to give him any of her medicine when she was feeling better and he was still sick. Given that one could easily have great vitriol for an embarrassment marital failure, Borgnine is actually very kind to Merman in his book (much the way he is with all his ex-wives). He also goes on to say many, many years later he stumbled across her book, opened it and saw the blank page. His quip to his son: "Well, at least she didn't say anything bad about me."

The book isn't the most concise or in depth memoir or biography I've read, but it's definitely worth reading for these anecdotes and for the Oscar winning actor who has amassed sixty years in show business. That in itself is a marvel.

Borgnine has recently been making the rounds and tours to promote his book. One of the most unintentionally hilarious moments of the year came while he was being interviewed on the Fox News Channel when he was asked the secret of his longevity (possibly not safe for work?):

At his age, he can say anything he wants.

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