Yale Bulletin and Calendar

November 3, 2000Volume 29, Number 9

Ernest Borgnine recalled how his mother had recommended he pursue a career in acting, telling her son, "You've always wanted to make a damn fool of yourself." The Hamden native went on to win an Academy Award for his starring role in "Marty."

Veteran actor Ernest Borgnine reminisces about his career

"It's just like falling off a log for me," said Academy Award-winning actor Ernest Borgnine, describing the trade he has plied for over 50 of his 83 years.

The Hamden, Connecticut, native was on campus to reminisce about his long and much acclaimed career and to introduce the soon-to-be released film "Hoover," a one-man vehicle in which he plays the legendary FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.

Looking astoundingly hale for an octogenarian, Borgnine stood throughout his talk at the Oct. 24 master's tea in Pierson College. He began by noting that this was not his first trip to Yale -- that he had visited the campus once before, 55 years ago.

Returning home in 1945, after serving 10 years in the Navy, Borgnine recalls, he wasn't sure what he wanted to do in life. His mother suggested that he consider becoming an actor, since, as she put it to him, "You always wanted to make a damn fool of yourself." He followed his mother's advice and went to nearby Yale, which he knew had an excellent drama school. At Yale a professor met with Borgnine, reviewed his record and said he would have to spend two years as an undergraduate before going on to professional school. At 28 years old, Borgnine recalled, he was not eager to be a college student.

Instead he enrolled in the Randall School of Drama in Hartford, where he landed his first lead part, the only male role in "The Trojan Women."

From Hartford, Borgnine traveled to the hinterlands of Virginia where he joined a troupe founded by the celebrated director Bob Porterfield. The company was appropriately named The Barter's Theater, since the actors lived on the goods that the local farmers in the audience used as payment for their performances. After scrubbing flats and taking small roles with that company for about five-and-a-half years, Borgnine finally won his career-making part -- as the Gentleman Caller in Tennessee Williams' "Glass Menagerie." Because this was the first time the play was being staged off Broadway, several famous New York critics came to the performance.

"I thought I was terrible in the part," Borgnine recalls, "but it brought the house down." Coincidentally, among the people who congratulated Borgnine the next day was the very Yale professor who, indirectly, had helped shape the course of his career.

After the glowing reviews he received for "The Glass Menagerie," Borgnine's Broadway career took off with his role as a male nurse in the play "Harvey." During this period, he continued to seek other acting work outside the theater. A successful screen test, in which he competed against 140 other actors, propelled him into the movie world, and in 1951 he moved to Hollywood to begin his lifelong career in film.

"Somehow," he mused, "I always managed to be at the right place at the right time."

Borgnine's first major role in a film was as the sadistic Fatso Judson in "From Here to Eternity," a part which called for him to break a chair over Frank Sinatra's head. As he prepared to audition for the part, he remembers saying to himself, "I've got to be the meanest, no-goodest, dirtiest guy in the world."

During his early years in film, Borgnine worked with such actors as Spencer Tracy, Bette Davis, Gary Cooper and Lee Marvin. In fact, Tracy was nominated for an Academy Award for "Bad Day at Black Rock," in which Borgnine also appears, but Borgnine beat Tracy out that year, winning the Best Actor award for his work in Paddy Chayefsky's romantic drama "Marty."

Borgnine recalled that he was at first extremely reluctant to take the lead role in the TV comedy "McHale's Navy." Then one day a delivery boy came to Borgnine's door who had no idea who the actor was, even though he had recently won an Oscar. Borgnine tried to introduce himself as James Arness of "Gunsmoke" and then as Richard Boone of "Have Gun Will Travel." The boy, familiar with both TV shows, called his bluff. Finally, Borgnine blurted, "Don't you recognize me from the movies?" When the boy said, "No," Borgnine knew it was time to take TV more seriously.

At a time when many movie actors are returning to the stage for what is considered a more authentic acting experience, Borgnine declared his preference for acting in movies. "In the theater you find, after a while, that you're becoming an automaton," he said of the routine of saying the same lines day after day, eight performances a week.

The film "Hoover," in which Borgnine stars, was completed in 1997 and is essentially a defense of Hoover's life. Borgnine, who expressed admiration for the character he plays, nevertheless said he was very surprised that he didn't have to wear a dress for the part. Borgnine also recently finished shooting a movie in Ottawa, in which he plays a mafioso thug.

Asked what he would be doing next, the veteran actor responded that he would like to go home and have Thanksgiving with his family before venturing on another part, but he'll still be looking for other good roles. "I look for something that doesn't have all that sex and swearing," he said. "I don't want to leave a legacy of dirty words."

Reflecting on his career, Borgnine quoted his mother: "If you can make one person in a day happy, you've done something. That's what it's all about."

-- By Dorie Baker


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