Robert Osborne on Ernest Borgnine
Since Turner Classic Movies (TCM) premiered on cable television in 1994, Robert Osborne has been the host and anchor. A writer for the Hollywood Reporter since 1977, Mr. Osborne, author of 80 Years of the Oscar: The Official History of the Academy Awards, covers movies, TV and Broadway.
Robert Osborne was born in Colfax, Washington, and he graduated from the University of Washington School of Journalism. After heading to Hollywood, he was soon signed to a contract as an actor by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz at their Desilu Studios and it was Lucy who encouraged him to seriously pursue writing ("especially after she saw me act," he says). Lucy remained a friend and mentor to him until her death in 1989.
Each night on TCM, he introduces four movies and he hosts an occasional one-on-one interview special, Private Screenings, with such Hollywood legends as Patricia Neal, directors Sidney Lumet (Network, Murder on the Orient Express), Stanley Donen (Singin’ in the Rain, On the Town) and Norman Jewison (In the Heat of the Night, A Soldier’s Story), and the late June Allyson (Little Women, The Glenn Miller Story, Executive Suite). His newest interview, an hour with character actor Ernest Borgnine (Marty), airs on Private Screenings at 8 p.m. ET, Monday, January 26.
What single adjective captures Ernest Borgnine?
Positivity. Here’s this 92 year-old man and he is so enthusiastic about his movies and working with Frank Sinatra, Bette Davis, Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, and Montgomery Clift—he absolutely reeks of enthusiasm about his past and about being in a business that he chose to be in. A lot of actors aren’t—some of them think it’s not a manly profession—and it’s great to be around someone who’s not cynical about his past. He’s not complaining and claiming he was mistreated. He enjoys his work.
How long was the actual interview with Mr. Borgnine?
Maybe two and a half hours. There was an awful lot of good stuff. These things are easier to program for about an hour. The reason we spend the extra time on it is that you only start to get good stuff about 20 minutes into the interview; they have to realize that you’re not out to hang them up in any way, so we always try to have extra time, to let them relax.
How did the interview come about?
They usually ask [for an interview]. We had wanted to do an interview with Ernest Borgnine and he was available to do it. We only want to do maybe two a year because we want people to tune in and see something special. There’s a great pool of people with interesting stories—but few are interesting for an hour.
When did you see Marty?
When it first came out [in 1955]. I liked it, though I wasn’t crazy about it—it’s a poignant drama about lost love and loneliness and it wasn’t really in my [young] psyche. As I get older, I see what a beautiful film Marty is. Any of these movies that continue to touch us over a period of time are those that we have a strong identity with—in some way. Whether you look like Ernest Borgnine or Brad Pitt, everyone has had moments of great loneliness or insecurity or a moment when someone won’t respond to you. I think that, basically, we’re all kind of shy, lonely or insecure sometimes, so we understand what Marty’s going through—we can understand all of them: [his girlfriend], his best friend, the mother.
Had you already seen writer Paddy Chayefsky’s television production starring Rod Steiger in the role?
No, but I did see it later; I sought it out after seeing the movie. It’s very well done. Rod Steiger is wonderful in it—but, once you’ve seen the movie, Ernest Borgnine is kind of Marty.
How does Borgnine’s performance compare to Rod Steiger’s?
They’re both really brilliant. I do think that, as good as he is in it, Rod Steiger has such a strong physicality that puts to better use in a movie like The Pawnbroker. It’s a perfect part for Ernest Borgnine because he has a sort of sweetness that comes through.
Have you interviewed Paddy Chayefsky (Network, The Hospital)?
No, but I’ve met him. I was taking Bette Davis [who starred in Mr. Chayefsky’s The Catered Affair with Mr. Borgnine] to a function and she had never met him. He was a short, feisty little guy and, like many writers, he was very aware of everything that was going on in the room.
Did The Catered Affair do well?
It did OK. I don’t think it did great. The advertising campaign was built around Ernest Borgnine—not around [co-stars] Bette Davis or Debbie Reynolds—who had won the Best Actor Oscar for Marty. That was at a time when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) was cutting back [on costs]. The Catered Affair had done very well on TV with Thelma Ritter (All About Eve, Rear Window). Marty had proven to Hollywood that there’s good material on television—they made The Fastest Gun Alive with Glenn Ford, and Warner Bros. did The Left-Handed Gun with Paul Newman, which had both been TV programs. Probably, what triggered The Catered Affair was the success of Marty.
TCM is also showing The Last Command, a story about the Alamo, which seems to have been a partial response to John Wayne’s epic movie. Besides scale, in terms of story, how is The Last Command different from John Wayne’s The Alamo?
John Wayne always wanted to make The Alamo and he no longer had an exclusive contract with Republic Pictures. There were rumblings that he was going to make the film, so they rushed The Last Command into production. But John Wayne really wanted to make The Alamo with Republic. The Last Command is more involving—it has a romance and it’s entertaining. We’re always trying to get new titles into the program.
Tell us about Torpedo Run, which TCM is also featuring on the Borgnine schedule.
That’s an action film, very typical of the films he was doing. Movies are usually made about good-looking guys and good-looking women who are in their Twenties. Borgnine’s a very unusual fit, a bit like [actor] Wallace Beery (The Champ, Treasure Island), and he fits into the submarine division. Torpedo Run is a conventional action film, exactly what you want sometimes. Lately, when I DVR something, I notice that it’s generally the unimportant movies that I want to see.
What’s Ernest Borgnine’s most enduring performance?
[Pauses] If I was going to explain Ernest Borgnine to someone, I’d want them to see From Here to Eternity and Marty. That [pairing] shows in a two-year period his range as an actor—from terrifying in From Here to Eternity to endearing and lovable in Marty, where you want him to end up with someone nice.
What about Ernest Borgnine impresses you?
How nice he is—I didn’t really expect that. He’s jolly and uncomplicated.