‘The unsinkable exuberance of Ernest Borgnine’

Sept. 14, 2007, Austin American-Statesman

You know what Ernest Borgnine is looking forward to? He is looking forward to hawking DVDs on the QVC shopping channel. He is looking forward to taking calls from viewers who want to say nice things to the movie star, now 90, while they provide their MasterCard digits to buy DVDs of “McHale’s Navy,” his popular 1960s sitcom.

The attention electrifies him. He loves it. And he loves to share the love. It’s a generous, outsized love, one that tumbles and laughs and belly-shakes from his end of the phone during a recent conversation.

How he laughs. His are hearty, throaty, avuncular guffaws, rollicking animal sounds punctuating prosaic statements that don’t seem to warrant joyous noise. What the heck! Ha ha ha ha ha!

Ernest Borgnine. Instant name recognition. Instant face recognition. Like that, you could point him out in a lineup of gruff, balloon-bellied guys with a gap between their front teeth wide enough to sail the S.S. Poseidon through. Those teeth make a heck of a smile, unmistakable, downright iconic. Huge, enveloping, really goofy.

Excited, I tell co-workers I’m interviewing Borgnine, and instead of fond memories of “The Poseidon Adventure,” “The Wild Bunch” or “The Dirty Dozen,” I get reflexive chuckles and the callous but pardonable question “He’s still alive?”

This isn’t surprising. I admit, much of why I accepted the invitation to talk to the jolly actor, who’s plumping the “McHale’s Navy” DVDs, is because of his undimmed camp appeal.

A granddaddy of Hollywood character actors, Borgnine’s living ghost has never left the building. It’s hung around long enough to become legend, and legend too easily in these sniggeringly ironic times becomes a target of fun and fodder for parody.

He wasn’t asked to play himself on “The Simpsons” for his brilliant acting, but for the fumes of notoriety, the knowing wink of familiarity, for both the good films (“From Here to Eternity,” “Johnny Guitar”) and the dreadful (“Real Men Don’t Eat Gummi Bears”).

To be blunt: He was on the cartoon because the very idea of Ernest Borgnine  is funny.

How did this happen? How does a distinguished, Oscar-winning artist (for his touching performance in 1955’s “Marty”) go from movie star to free-floating punch line? What makes Ernie funny?

Derision isn’t at issue. Pop culture is not making fun of or diminishing Borgnine’s career and persona. He and I talk about this. I remind him that his unconventional looks – the pudge, the buggy eyes, that insouciant gap – and his steadfast refusal to stop working make him ripe for burlesque.

“Let ’em have fun,” says the happy, hale actor. “Keeps you in mind, doesn’t it?”

He roars. The oncoming earthquake is equal parts Santa Claus and Walter Huston in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.”

We adore our camp figures even more, it appears, than the sparkling immortals whose careers never seem to dip or dive, holding steady and respectable. The campy ones are imperfect, more human, and we relate. They add an unexpected dimension to celebrity watching: fun without malice.

Still, we can be mean. We are a cynical public and our searching appraisals are often made through a scrim of hopeful schadenfreude. While some camp-ready stars are vectors of their own free-falls into risible self-caricature – Joan Crawford, Ozzy Osbourne, Tammy Faye Bakker, the two Coreys – others, like Borgnine, William Shatner and Shelley Winters merely got old yet kept going, a Hollywood sin.

Showbiz Law No. 152: If you ever appeared on “The Love Boat,” you will never be taken as seriously as you were before. (Borgnine rode the Love Boat in the early ’80s. Did “The Poseidon Adventure” teach him nothing about the perils of nautical voyage?)

But Borgnine, mysteriously, has claimed a place in our hearts, like a big fuzzy teddy bear, all smiles and elbow nudges. As critic David Thomson notes, at a point in his career Borgnine made the “transition from actor to inexplicable celebrity.”

Borgnine’s one of the good ones. We know this because he probably could not pull off a reality show. He is far from the Anna Nicole abyss. He is not a loser. He still says things like “Holy mackerel!”

Is his tirelessness, his urge to crank out smaller movies and sell DVDs on cable, really such a crime? 

“I just like to work too much. That’s my problem,” Borgnine  says. “I’d do anything, I don’t care. I even do (the voice of Mermaid Man on) ‘SpongeBob SquarePants,’ for heaven sakes!”

He laughs that crazy laugh. When it recedes like a passing jet, he says, “I tell you, it pays.”

You do what you have to do. What you want to do. Retired athletes pitch deodorant and life insurance. Suzanne Sommers and Chuck Norris peddle exercise regimes. Borgnine makes movies. He never stopped.

“No regrets whatsoever,” he says.

Stumped, I tell him he sounds like the happiest man in the world.

“I AM the happiest man in the world,” he says. “Why shouldn’t I be? I’m recognized throughout the world. I’ve got my health. The good Lord loves me. I got a good wife. Gee whillikers, I’m sitting on top of the world!”

And then Ernest Borgnine laughs and laughs and laughs.

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