The legendary Ernest Borgnine, who has died of renal failure at what can only be described as the ripe old age of 95, was a key player in my early, movie-loving life. As is well documented, I was taken to see The Poseidon Adventure, aged 10, by my Dad in 1975, and became frankly obsessed by the mother of all disaster movies. Although it scared the life out of me, exposing me to peril, degradation and mortality at a tender age, it also thrilled me, and my attempts to “process” this film that had made such an impression, stretched to reading the 1969 source novel, by Paul Gallico, practising holding my breath underwater at Kingsthorpe pool, and drawing pictures of characters and scenes from memory.
The 1974 Pan paperback of The Poseidon Adventure was a gift, as it bore two stills from the film on the front and back cover. (I still have it, so dog-eared now it looks as if it has been salvaged from the SS Poseidon by Michael Caine.) On the front, we see the characters Reverend Scott, cop Mike Rogo and his wife Linda, all scrubbed up for the New Year’s Eve party that will be their last taste of “civilisation” before the ship turns over. On the back, we see the party of survivors in the final stages of their escape, all sweaty and dishevelled now, with Rogo down to his vest, and Linda wearing the shirt he was wearing on the front cover.
You have to remember that this was an age long before video and the internet. It was simply not possible for me to look the film up anywhere. (Our library of books at home was tiny. Indeed, a couple of years later, I was able to borrow from Northampton Library a themed book called Thriller Movies by Lawrence Hammond, which contained valuable information about – and two more pics from – my feared but favourite movie, and Catastrophe: The End Of Cinema?, a pretty cheap tome, also provided pictorial relief.) Anyway, the Gallico paperback also had a cast list, from whose hierarchy, using my powers of deduction, I was able to hazard a guess at who played whom. Gene Hackman’s name was first, so he was Scott. Ernest Borgnine’s was second, so he must have been Rogo. (I was right. And so was I with regards the others, although I got Carol Lynley and Pamela Sue Martin mixed up, and Arthur O’Connell and Eric Shea.)
The funny thing about Ernest Borgnine is that he looked like an Ernest Borgnine. That was the amazing thing about him. Although Anglicised just a little from Ermes Borgnino, it fitted his wide, beaten-up face and brickhouse frame, and although I wouldn’t have been clever enough to spot it, aged 10, he is very visibly Italian-America, wouldn’t you say? His “journey” through the film makes him an essential moving part: a foil to Hackman’s sometimes over-earnest and bullying persona; somewhat brow-beaten by his ex-prostitute wife but adoring underneath the bickering; tough, for certain, and a safe, blue-collar pair of hands, if not as mentally agile as the Reverend and perhaps forever destined to be a deputy. In many ways, although Hackman would soon be anointed as My Favourite Actor – a devotion that lasted throughout my teen years and into adulthood – Borgnine (whose name I initially pronounced Borg-neen) had an instant seat at my top table.
I caught up with his other key parts belatedly in the sort of films made in the 50s and 60s that were then showing on television: in The Dirty Dozen, Bad Day At Black Rock, From Here To Eternity, Ice Station Zebra, The Vikings, Flight Of The Phoenix – always the tough nut, usually a bad guy. In Black Rock, he was Coley, the “half-horse, half-alligator” who would threaten to “kick a lung outta ya!” I even enjoyed him as Angelo Dundee in The Greatest. The moment I saw that gap-toothed grin, I felt reassured that I would not be wasting my time with a film on TV.
It was, of course, Paddy Chayevsky’s adapted-from-TV Marty that, in 1955, alerted people to Borgnine’s more subtle, everyman acting chops. It won him an Oscar. After which, frankly, he returned to being a tough guy. It was years before I saw Marty. He remained perhaps proudest of the performance for the rest of his days.
To a younger generation, he’ll always be Santini from Airwolf in the mid-80s, although I missed that meeting. As he grew older and more grizzled, and even more lovable, I relished seeing the autumnal Borgnine in serious, late-20th/early-21st-century movies like Gattaca or the portmanteau 11’09″01 September 11, bringing the ballast that only age and experience bestow. He had already turned 80, but nothing like on his last legs.
In May 2001, I met him. Aged eighty-four and full of life, he was over in the UK not to promote his own work, but his wife’s. His fifth wife, whom he married in 1973, was Tova Traesnaes, Norwegian by birth and founder of her own cosmetics line by trade. Ernie, as we shall now call him, and indeed how he introduced himself to me, was here to accompany her on a promo trip. She’d become quite the QVC staple, and they made a happy couple. He’d agreed to come into Radio 4, at Broadcasting House, to conduct a one-one-one career interview with me for Back Row, the weekly cinema show I used to host. As you might imagine, it was about as exciting a professional engagement that I could imagine, right up there with interviewing Robert Altman a year later.
He made quite an impact. White-haired and beaming, he lit up the corridors of the Radio Arts department, saying hi to everybody, and even opening doors of closed offices to announce his arrival and shake hands. It is not meant to demean him to say that when a producer approached him to shake his hand, concealing something in the other hand which may have been a diary or a phone, he assumed it was a camera and that she was after a photo, and immediately fell into the pose of a man about to be immortalised. This made us love him even more.
It was rare that anybody broke the Dorchester Hotel promo protocol and ventured into our unglamorous offices to be interviewed in what was a cupboard like studio, with no booth or glass, just a small table, two chairs, a jug of water and a tape machine next to which a producer could perch. It was like a royal visit, seriously. Robert Altman came in too, as did – to name but a few good sports – Juliet Stephenson, John Barry and Tom Courtney. You could barely squeeze Ernie’s personality in there.)
I have asked my old producer if he might transfer the interview onto a disc for me, and I can’t wait to hear it again. It was certainly a highlight of my movie-interviewing career, even if Ernie’s answers were well-rehearsed and he gave us nothing approaching a scoop. That wasn’t his job. For the record, we played the Borgnine interview out on May 26, 2001, in the same programme as piece on Johnny Depp’s new film Blow, a humorous column about Hollywood’s war with TV by Sue Perkins, and an item about Series 7: The Contenders.
On their way out of the building, as noisy and ebullient as they had been their way in, Mr and Mrs Borgnine-Taesnaes handed out cactus-based natural cosmetics.
I loved Ernest Borgnine, veteran of around 140 films, and would have done if I’d never been anywhere near his presence. He shall never be forgotten. “You had a lotta guts, lady,” he said, as Rogo, to Mrs Rosen (Shelley Winters) after she’d laid down her life in The Poseidon Adventure. So did he.