Ernest Borgnine, whose career spans more than 60 years on stage, television and the silver screen, played tough guys in many a Hollywood classic, including From Here to Eternity and The Wild Bunch. He won an Oscar for playing nice, though, and he had a hit TV series, McHale's Navy, in the '60s. He turned 94 on Jan. 24, and he's still a working actor ? all of which explains the Life Achievement Award he'll get from the Screen Actors Guild on Jan. 30.
He may have been good at playing hard cases, but Borgnine was set on his career path by his mother. He grew up in Connecticut, the son of Italian immigrants, and went into the Navy shortly after high school. When he got out at the end of World War II, he was looking for something to do, and his mother suggested acting. He still seems surprised.
"Me an actor? Are you kidding?" he says. "But when she said it, suddenly ? I don't know, I looked up and I saw that golden light, and I said, 'Mom, that's what I'm going to be.' "
Borgnine used his GI Bill benefits to study acting and drew on his decade-long stint in the Navy for the movie role that brought him real fame: the sadistic stockade sergeant in the Army drama From Here to Eternity.
"I based Fatso Judson on a fellow that I knew in the Navy," Borgnine recalls. It was a bosun's mate, and "I ? I liked him, I liked him," Borgnine says. It's a startling assertion about anyone who could be a model for Fatso Judson.
"Oh, he was a hard character to get along with. And he had a cigar. He always had a cigar in his mouth. Now if the cigar was down, and it was just kind of relaxing in his mouth, that was fine. But if that cigar stuck straight out, watch yourself."
In the movie Fatso taunts, insults and threatens a private played by Frank Sinatra. "A tough monkey," he calls him after a barroom brawl. It's not their first nasty encounter, and Fatso tells him ? Borgnine's voice gets quiet and unsettling ? "Guys like you end up in the stockade sooner or later. Some day you walk in, I'll be waitin'. I'll show you a couple things."
He does, and Borgnine was known thereafter as The Guy Who Killed Frank Sinatra ? and helped Sinatra win his 1953 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Two years later it was Borgnine's turn. He won Best Actor for a role reversal in Marty, playing a shy, good-guy New Yorker who works in a butcher's shop and knows too much about loneliness.
Sean Penn directed Borgnine in an entry for a short-film collection called September 11, about how the terrorist attacks of 2001 affected people around the world. Borgnine played a New York widower immersed in his grief to the exclusion of all else, still talking to his absent wife and laying out her dress each day, even as the towers fall.
The two men became friends ? and despite Borgnine's knack for playing bad guys and sad sacks, Penn says he's neither.
"He's that unusual creature we call a happy person, and I think that does a lot for the health," Penn says.
Ask him about a favorite Borgnine performance, though, and Penn demurs.
"You know, Marty has to stick out ? it's so indelible," he says. "I find myself almost obliged to experience him as a body of work, and a continuing one."
Penn says directing Borgnine was uncommonly easy, and that the older actor's style is the exception to an accepted Hollywood rule ? the "generational mythology that actors of that earlier generation are not adept at improvisation," as Penn puts it.
"He was not only adept at it; he was very spontaneous and very game," Penn says. "So in many ways he became a second writer on the piece."
'Am I Really That Bad?'
Borgnine is best known and probably best loved for the smug ferocity of his great villains ? the bully in the 1954 cult Western Johnny Guitar comes to mind. Bart knifes his bookish roommate in the back when he won't consider joining him in betraying their gang. And then he complains, "Some people just won't listen!"
Shack, in the 1973 drama Emperor of the North, is another favorite for connoisseurs of movie villainy. The Depression-era railroad brute delights in kicking hobos off his train.
Curiously, these characters remain a mystery to the man who made them unforgettable.
"I haven't the slightest idea where I got 'em," Borgnine says with evident astonishment. "As a matter of fact I used to go home to my wife and say, 'Honey, am I really that kind of a person? Am I really that bad, to come up with a character like Shack?' ... It just, it just didn't register with me, because I found myself doing things that I had never done in my life ? and wouldn't do them, you know."
He's also played superheroes, of course: Borgnine is the voice of Mermaid Man, who lives in retirement with sidekick Barnacle Boy in SpongeBob SquarePants.
Like Penn, Borgnine won't name a favorite among his movies, although there's one he admits is close to his heart: Sam Peckinpah's 1969 classic, The Wild Bunch.
"I think The Wild Bunch was about the most fun for me, and the one that stands out more in my mind than anything else," he says. "It was the last of the great Westerns, I think."
Touchy subject for some, that. Borgnine loves Westerns, and his comments about one modern entry in the genre have stirred controversy of late, with some criticizing SAG's decision to recognize him with the lifetime-achievement honor. In 2006, Borgnine told Entertainment Weekly that he hadn't seen ? and wouldn't see ? the 2005 cowboy romance Brokeback Mountain. "If John Wayne were alive," he was quoted as saying, "he'd be rolling over in his grave.''
Loopy grammar? A joke? Maybe just a savvy statement of fact ? Wayne was prone to showy protective gestures when it came to Westerns, denouncing High Noon because Gary Cooper's marshal threw his badge in the dust at the end.
But weighing charges that Borgnine is a homophobe requires careful parsing of his comments over the years. In his autobiography Ernie, Borgnine speaks with great affection of gay actors with whom he worked, such as Montgomery Clift and Rock Hudson. He also displays sympathy for the pressure they faced to remain closeted or else see their careers crushed.
"To each his own," he says. And he thinks gay couples should be free to marry.
Then again, Borgnine still hasn't seen Brokeback Mountain, nor does he plan to do so.
"Why," I asked?
"Because 'Y' is a crooked letter," he cracked, chuckling expansively at his own joke. His fallback position: "It's just not my thing."
'I Just Don't Like My Puss On The Screen'
Borgnine answered questions about the controversy, as about everything else, with good cheer and ready laughter ? that "happy person," as Penn calls him, evident in every opinion and memory. The one thing he doesn't enjoy, ironically enough, is watching his finished work.
"I just don't like my puss on the screen," he says. But he watches anyway.
"I say, 'Dummy, you could have done better.' " It's useful, he insists, a way to learn good lessons for future roles.
And yes, at 94, Ernest Borgnine is still reading scripts, still acting, still learning. And if anyone's interested, there's one guy this onetime gunner's mate (and honorary chief petty officer) has always wanted to play: naval hero Horatio Hornblower. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.