Ray Richmond is a contributor to Deadline’s TV awards coverage:
When some months back the Screen Actors Guild called to tell Ernest Borgnine that he would receive their annual Life Achievement Award tonight, he registered shock. Which isn’t necessarily a good thing for a man about to turn 94 years old. “I’m just over the moon about SAG giving me this thing,” he told me. “Heck, I’m just a character actor for God sakes. I’m no big star. It was my mom who told me, ‘Ernie, if you make even one person happy with your smile or a funny thing you did every day, you’ll have accomplished a great deal.’ And that’s all I’ve ever tried to do.” A son of Italian immigrants and a World War II Navy veteran, Borgnine received his big showbiz break (after some minor, local stage roles) relatively late, at age 33, when he was cast as the hospital attendant in a Broadway production of Harvey. That was followed by roles in some 200 films — the most impact: a villain’s villain in the World War II classic From Here to Eternity. He was cast repeatedly as the bad guy until he landed the part of the unconventional leading man in Marty and won the 1956 Best Actor Oscar. It was his first and only Academy Award nomination and, to everyone’s surprise, including his own, Borgnine beat out an all-star roster of Hollywood legends including James Cagney, Frank Sinatra, Spencer Tracy, and posthumously James Dean.
“Unfortunately, they don’t write movies like that anymore,” opines Borgnine. “We also don’t have the kinds of actors today that we used to have back in the day, either. And that’s a shame. It’s become more of a business today than a profession of bringing life to words. The ‘show’ part has disappeared and the ‘business’ part has taken over.”
Case in point, he says, is his cameo in this fall’s movie Red. “It cost something like $50 million to make and had terrific people involved. Then along comes a picture made for a half a buck, this Jackass 3D. It earned twice as much as a good picture like Red. And it’s a piece of junk.”
Borgnine was one of the first successful film actors to cross over to TV at a time when the new medium was seen as a flash-in-the-pan at best. “I remember a day when you were told in no uncertain terms that, by golly, you couldn’t mention television while you were making a picture. It’s not that they necessarily felt it was direct competition. They just didn’t believe in it.”
He helped to bring the fledgling tube some legitimacy with his serious acting work on pioneering, quality shows like G.E. Theatre and The Philco Television Playhouse. Then, of course, he brought TV some well earned laughs with his breakout role on the 1962-1966 ensemble comedy McHale’s Navy and then co-starred two decades later in the action series Airwolf. In 2009, at the age of 92, Borgnine earned an Emmy nomination for his performances in the final two episodes of the longrunning NBC medical series ER. Tonight’s tribute celebrates something most actors can only dream about: a long and successful career.