Ernie’s navy: Actor Ernest Borgnine’s first and finest role was as a Navy man

By Mike Scott

Ernest Borgnine knows all about duty.

So upon arriving at the National World War II Museum on a recent Friday morning, the 92-year-old actor — all bright eyes and broad smiles — followed protocol and did exactly what was expected of him, politely exchanging pleasantries with the museum dignitaries assembled to greet him, the journalists hovering about, the movie producers who had arranged for his visit.

Oscar-winning actor and World War II veteran Ernest Borgnine, photographed at The National World War II Museum in New Orleans on Friday, September 4, 2009. (Photo by Chris Granger/The Times-Picayune archive)

The Oscar-winning actor (for 1955’s “Marty”) and recently announced Emmy nominee chatted just long enough to avoid appearing rude, perhaps two minutes, then deftly slipped past the group and approached a foursome of gray-haired onlookers.

They had been standing shoulder-to-shoulder, quietly watching. Some wore military ballcaps announcing them as veterans. “And who are these gentlemen?” Borgnine asked, hand outstretched to shake theirs.

“These are friends of yours, Ernie,” said New Orleans movie producer Michael Arata, whose indie comedy “Snatched” had brought Borgnine to town for two days of shooting.

Just like that, the gregarious Borgnine — his inimitable, instantly recognizable voice as strong as his handshake — was in his element, back-slapping and small-talking as if he were, indeed, greeting old friends.

And in a way, that’s exactly what they were.

American audiences have known Borgnine for more than a half-century now. Forty-seven years ago, he became a TV star in “McHale’s Navy.” And, 56 years ago, he became a movie star with 1953’s “From Here to Eternity,” in which he starred with Frank Sinatra and Burt Lancaster.

But 74 years ago, before any of that, Borgnine became a Navy man.

“I was what they call a Depression sailor,” he said of his 10 years of military service that began when he enlisted in 1935 at age 18. “I went in when there was a Depression, just to get away, instead of hanging around the streets.

“I got in the Navy, and I served for six years, and after that the thing was over and I said, ‘Well, I’ll go back home.’ This was ’41. I was home for three months and — pow! — the war started and I was right back in again.”

Just like when he spins his Hollywood yarns, he recalls his Navy years with the warm, well-practiced ease of a seasoned storyteller and with a striking memory for detail. There are loud laughs, self-deprecating anecdotes, frequent sound effects (“Pow!” “Baboom! Baboom!”) and dismissive shrugs when his accomplishments are brought up.

“I did my war service, believe it or not, on a yacht,” he said. “It was a beautiful yacht. It was owned by old man Murphy, who used to make Murphy beds that come out of the wall. We had a three-inch-50 (caliber), six 30-caliber, air-cooled Brownings, a wide gun, because we didn’t go fast enough to let them off of the stern, you know, and a slingshot.”

Oscar-winning actor and World War II veteran Ernest Borgnine browses the Pacific Wing of The National World War II Museum in New Orleans on Friday, September 4, 2009. (Photo by Chris Granger/The Times-Picayune archive)

Strolling through the museum’s Pacific wing, the memories seemed to come flooding back to him with each new room.

Some of them brought chuckles, such as the sight of a set of military bunk beds: “We in the Navy used to sleep in hammocks when I came through,” he said. “They didn’t give us these things. It (would have been) like the Waldorf Astoria! … Man, I’ve heard so many people dropping to the floor — pow! — at 3 in the morning.”

Others prompted deeper reflection, tapering his booming voice to a near whisper: “I’ll never forget, I was in Charleston, S.C., on the sixth day of June when they landed (at Normandy), and all you could hear was the toll of the church bells — Bong! Bong! Bong! — Wow. Everybody praying.”

In another part of the museum, he encountered an oversized reproduction of Uncle Sam’s iconic “I Want You” military recruitment poster. “Hey, you had me, baby!” Borgnine said. “You had me!”

Borgnine’s visit to the World War II Museum was really more of a side trip during his recent visit to New Orleans. His real reason for coming to town was to report for duty on the locally shot, locally financed National Lampoon comedy “Snatched,” co-starring Andrew McCarthy and Jonathan Silverman. It is Borgnine’s 202nd feature film.

In it, McCarthy’s main character is a man who, after a surgical mishap, has to find a way to restore his anatomy and — without giving too much away — his manhood. Borgnine plays McCarthy’s wise, advice-dispensing father.

Despite that sophomoric setup, Borgnine said “Snatched” is a movie with a serious message. “It has a great moral thing behind it, where a man loses something and then figures that he’s lost everything, and it’s not so, because he’s still a man. Any way you look at it, he’s still a man.”

Oscar-winning actor and World War II veteran Ernest Borgnine, photographed at The National World War II Museum in New Orleans on Friday, September 4, 2009. (Photo by Chris Granger/The Times-Picayune archive)

“Sure it’s a Lampoon and all that, but still it’s something to be watched and understood. I’m very happy to be in it.”

“Snatched” writer and co-producer Alan Donnes jokes about his motivations for writing a part with Borgnine in mind. (“I figured this was my best chance at getting ‘Oscar-winner’ and my name in the same sentence,” he said.) But after seeing Borgnine in action, even the wisecracking Donnes was quieted.

“He’s such a pro,” Donnes said. “He talked to me for about 45 minutes about the character and the scene. And, as a writer, to hear my words coming out of his mouth …”

Borgnine shrugs at that sort of praise.

“This is the only way I stay young,” he said. “Working at it, working at my craft and meeting people, coming here, enjoying this. This is what keeps you young.”

If meeting people and staying active are, indeed, a source of youth, then Borgnine can expect to stay young for quite a while.

First, because of his habit of introducing himself to every smiling face and shaking every hand he encounters. During his visit to the World War II Museum, that included museum visitors, office workers, the volunteers at the information desk.

“They’ll talk about it for months: ‘Ernest Borgnine shook my hand!,'” he said, lapsing into a falsetto voice.

While he might move a bit slower than he did when shooting, say, “The Poseidon Adventure” or “The Wild Bunch,” Borgnine still maintains an impressive workload at 92. In addition to “Snatched” and a smattering of other recent film roles, he provides the voice for the animated geriatric superhero Mermaid Man, a recurring character on the Nickelodeon cartoon “SpongeBob SquarePants” that has earned him a whole new generation of fans.

Even more noteworthy: his work on the series finale of the NBC drama “ER.” That powerful turn as a grieving widower earned him an Emmy nomination this summer for outstanding guest actor in a drama series. (Also nominated: Michael J. Fox in “Rescue Me,” Jimmy Smits in “Dexter,” Ed Asner in “CSI: NY,” and Ted Danson in “Damages.”)

The winner will be announced on Sept. 20, but Borgnine isn’t consumed with adding hardware to his trophy case.

“If we win it, fine, and if we don’t — eh,” he said, shrugging. “I was put up again for a Golden Globe (in 2007 for the TV movie ‘A Grandpa for Christmas’), and some fellow over in France won it. I said, ‘Hey, at 90 I was nominated for a Golden Globe.’ What more could beat that? This is wonderful, this is great.”

This story was originally published in September 2009 by and The Times-Picayune.

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