Ernest Borgnine, R.I.P.

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Like everyone else, I was saddened to learn of the death of Ernest Borgnine at the age of 95 yesterday.

An amazingly versatile actor, Borgnine worked right up to the end.

In the fall of 2010, he returned to his native Connecticut for a tribute at Sacred Heart University, and I had the pleasure of interviewing him for a feature that ran right before the event.

I think the feature works as a tribute as well as a glimpse of the actor’s thinking as he neared the end of a remarkable career and life and I decided to rerun it here in present-tense:

Depending on your age and your taste in movies and television, Ernest Borgnine is the star you remember from “The Wild Bunch” or “Marty” or “The Poseidon Adventure” or “McHale’s Navy.”

When an actor lives to be 93 and never stops working, he can accumulate an awesome list of credits and awards.

Name a genre and Borgnine has worked in it. Gritty urban dramas. Westerns. Screwball comedies. Disaster films.

How many Academy Award-winners have been eaten by a ravenous pack of rats in the closing scene of a hit horror picture? Borgnine was (in “Willard”).

Who spent years trying to convince every fellow Italian-American he met that he didn’t harbor a murderous rage for Frank Sinatra? Borgnine did (because of what he did to Frank in “From Here to Eternity”).

The actor even played an over-age hippie who takes off on a road trip with Bette Davis in a 1972 picture — he admittedly would rather forget — called “Bunny O’Hare.”

The Hamden native has been working steadily for a half-century and says he never knows which of his many films and TV appearances will come up when he meets a fan.

“I was a bad guy who turned into a good guy thanks to `Marty,’ “ the actor said in a recent phone interview from his home in Beverly Hills.

“I run into people who liked the Westerns I did and then there are railroad people who mention `Emperor of the North,’ “ the actor added of one of his most underrated performances, in the 1973 Robert Aldrich picture that paired him with his close friend, Lee Marvin.

In the wonderful 2008 autobiography, “Ernie,” Borgnine boils down his long and diverse career as follows: “`Marty’ was my Oscar winner. `The Wild Bunch’ was my classic. But `The Poseidon Adventure’ was a box-office colossus and the one everyone seems to remember and asks about.”

On Saturday in Fairfield, fans will have the chance to ask the star about their favorite Borgnine roles when the actor makes an appearance at Sacred Heart University’s American Legends Series.

Borgnine should be lots of fun to listen to and to question, because he is clearly a roll-with-the-punches guy, who likes to laugh at himself, as well as the world around him.

When I called the actor in California, he first insisted on being called “Ernie,” rather than “Mr. Borgnine,” and then shared the news that he hadn’t had hot water in his house for two weeks.

Why not?

“Lousy plumbers, that’s why,” Borgnine said, pausing a moment, before erupting into one of the many laughs that punctuated the chat.

The star said he was delighted to be speaking in Fairfield Saturday — he likes any chance he gets to come home.

“Connecticut is a lovely state to be from. I loved it then,” he said of his growing-up years. “And I still love it.”

Borgnine came to acting with more life experience than many of his peers — including a long stint in the Navy in the years leading up to World War II — and his size and his working class roots caused him to be type-cast as a “heavy” during the early years of his career.

“Once they peg you, it isn’t easy to get out of that. I could have been a bad guy for the rest of my days, but then along came Bob Aldrich,” Borgnine said of the director he worked with many times who put in a good word for his friend with the people who were making “Marty,” the 1955 classic about a lonely butcher in the Bronx who is looking for love.

When Aldrich said he thought Borgnine would be perfect for the part, the shocked producers replied, “He’s a killer!”

“No, he’s an actor,” Aldrich said, at the beginning of a casting process that would lead to the first of Borgnine’s many triumphs in his career.

“Bam! All hell broke loose,” the star recalled of the rave reviews and the awards that came his way from playing Paddy Chayefsky’s poignant character.

“Marty” was one of the biggest sleeper hits of the 1950s and Borgnine’s Oscar win remains a great underdog triumph in Hollywood history. (His competition was James Cagney, Frank Sinatra, James Dean and Spencer Tracy.)

Borgnine was so shocked when his name was called out, that he has always assumed his acceptance speech was not one for the ages. He didn’t watch the rebroadcast that night and he still hasn’t heard what he said to millions of television viewers after Grace Kelly handed him his statuette.

The star does remember thanking his hard-working mom and dad for not telling him he was crazy to pursue his dream as an actor. The rest of the speech is a blank.

Borgnine laughed when I suggested — politely — that he was at an age when no one would think badly of him for resting on his laurels. Instead, he’s still out there working in movies like the just-opened “RED” with Bruce Willis and doing voice work for the “SpongeBob SquarePants” TV series.

“I made up my mind a long time ago that I wasn’t going to retire. What the hell else am I doing here? I think it’s crazy to cut yourself off from everything you’ve done before. I know that if I was just out there playing golf, I’d be thinking, `Gee, I wish I was back at work.’ “

Joe Meyers

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