There aren’t many actors alive today who can say they earned $5,000 for a role that won them an Academy Award for Best Actor in a motion picture. Yet, that is the purported salary given to Oscar winner Ernest Borgnine for his role in the 1955 film, “Marty.”
On a Friday evening in March, the Hollywood Blvd. Cinema in Woodridge hosted a special screening of one of the most popular movies of 1972, “The Poseidon Adventure.” The real draw, however, was the appearance of several stars in the film. Ernest Borgnine, Stella Stevens, Carol Lynley and Pamela Sue Martin were all on hand to sign autographs and provide photo ops for eager fans. The lines were long, but the fans were patient and the celebrities were gracious enough to see it through to the end.
At age 94, Borgnine is still a viable actor in the film and television industries. He recently appeared in “Red” (2010) and has provided the voice of Mermaid Man in the popular Nickelodeon cartoon series “SpongeBob SquarePants” since 1999. Add to this resume two hit TV series’ (“McHale’s Navy” and “Airwolf”), numerous films (including all four “Dirty Dozen” movies), countless guest appearances on TV programs, and − well, you can begin to understand why he has a fan base that reaches far and wide, crossing generation to generation.
Having just spent more than two hours greeting fans and signing autographs, Borgnine was ready for a short break before addressing fans again. While having a snack of carrot cake and a glass of milk, chatted with me about the making of the classic disaster movie, along with a few other topics. I was pleased to find him as charming as I had imagined, based on all I had read about him.
I first congratulated Borgnine on the recent Lifetime Achievement Award given to him by the Screen Actors Guild in February of this year. He spoke of what an honor it was to receive, and of how, leading up to the presentation of the award, he received many calls and requests for interviews.
Then, with a hearty laugh, he said, “Now, nobody calls me anymore!” I assured him that I was more than happy to take up the slack.
As our conversation continued, I asked him to share a memory from the filming of “The Poseidon Adventure.” After brief consideration, Borgnine recounted the first day of filming, when the actors were all standing together, going through their lines for a scene. When the scene called for co-star Gene Hackman to say his first line, there was silence. Everyone looked at Hackman and he said, “Am I supposed to say something?”
Evidently, as Borgnine tells it, most of the dialogue in “The French Connection” (which Hackman had just filmed the year before) was ad-libbed, and Hackman hadn’t learned his lines for “The Poseidon Adventure.”
I then asked Borgnine about the ‘water factor’ in filming the movie, whether the water they were immersed in was cold. The water itself wasn’t cold, he recounted, but the actors were constantly wet while shooting scenes and would often get cold once out of the water.
“We did all the scenes ourselves, crawling through the tubes and everything,” added Borgnine. Then, with a laugh he added, “It was so wet and miserable, that I looked forward to going outside at the end of the day into the L.A. smog!”
The early ’70s brought a string of disaster movies, such as “Airport” and “The Towering Inferno,” but “The Poseidon Adventure” seems to be the one that has lived strongest in our memories, becoming a classic over time. I asked Borgnine if he had any thoughts on why this is the case. He said he thinks that it’s because people are able to identify with being in the water, on a boat or a ship. This would be especially true when the movie was initially released, as the airways were not a popular mode of transportation like they are today.
This discussion led to Borgnine telling a few Navy stories (he served from 1935 to 1945), including one time when the ship he was on was hit by a wave large enough to almost capsize it. It was easy to tell, by the look on his face and his earnest voice, that this was a frightening experience that will forever be etched into his memory. He followed this story with a couple of lighthearted incidences, which prompted me to ask whether some of his own Naval experiences spilled over into the writing of his 1960s hit TV sit-com, “McHale’s Navy.”
“Are you kidding me?” laughed Borgnine. “I got to do things on “McHale’s Navy” that I never got to do in the Navy − like, chase broads!”
Recovering from a good belly laugh, I could understand his success through the years, winning over devoted fans all along the way. Borgnine’s down-to-earth style and sense of humor are difficult to resist.
As our time came to an end, all too quickly, I thanked him for taking time to visit with me. With that, Borgnine was on his way to face his adoring fans, solidifying a night that was definitely not heading for disaster.
Tyna S. Cline © March 2011