Ernie Borgnine in Love

Ernie Borgnine in Love

Ernest Borgnine was at Bravo Gianni, a Italian restaurant on East 63rd Street, where you can always get a table and there’s always someone there like Anthony Quinn, Ben Gazzara, Don King or, once upon a time, John Gotti.

The 82-year-old actor was just back from Milwaukee, where since 1972 he has served as the head clown at the Great Circus Parade. Now he was wearing a blue serge Brioni jacket, regal-looking Versace tie and black glasses. He’d just consumed a meal of antipasto, roast potatoes, mushrooms with garlic, mixed fried fish, clams, mussels, fried oysters, soft shell crab and a little white wine. A bowl of pasta was on the way.

“My mother was the one who said to me, when I first came home from the Navy and I was going around looking for work and one day I came home rather disgusted and disgruntled, she said, ‘What’s the matter, Ernie?’ And I said, ‘Mom, for two cents I’d go back in the Navy and do my other 10 years and get a pension–at least I’ll have something coming.’ And out of the clear blue sky she said, ‘Have you ever thought about becoming an actor?’ And I looked up and I said, ‘Mom, that’s what I’m going to be.’ I was 28 years old, having done 10 years in the Navy. And 10 years later I had an Academy Award–ha-ha-ha!”

He won it for Marty in 1956.

“You know, I saw the picture not too long ago and, by golly, it stands up. I’m very happy for that.”

His fifth wife, whom he married in 1972, came over. Tova Borgnine, possibly in her late 50’s, is the Norwegian-born chief executive of Tova Corporation, a cosmetics company, and author of the book Being Happily Married Forever , in which she advises, “He’s the lion, king of the jungle: Let him be the leader of your pack.” She was wearing a sea green Armani suit and a heart necklace.

“She’s been honored with the Fifi,” Mr. Borgnine said, “which is the highest award you can possibly get in perfumes, believe it or not.”

They met on a blind date in 1972.

“He was going through a terrible divorce,” Mrs. Borgnine said. “I didn’t know it. But the minute I met him, saw him, I fell in love with him, and that was 26 years ago. I know this is so anti what 1999 is about, but I can tell you that I have more love, more respect, and I would do anything for him.”

“And she does,” he said. “I’ve had that feeling all along. The idea is that it was such a terrible time going through my last divorce that I said to myself, ‘I quit women. I quit because I’ve been through four terrible marriages.’ I never got married to get divorced, I got married because I’m a family man and I love my family–I want kids around me and everything else, but it just didn’t seem to be my thing. So I said to hell with women. I said, as a matter of fact, I’m going to take up with men! That’s when Marty Allen, my good buddy, said, ‘Look, you gotta come to my birthday party and bring a girl.’ I said, ‘Are you kidding? I wouldn’t come with a woman for nothing.’ He said, ‘No, no, no.’ He said, ‘Listen, you’ve been married so many times to people who are your boss, you need a woman.’ I said, ‘Yeah, where do you find ‘em?’ He said, ‘We’ve got one for you. I want you to pick her up at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Bring her over to Chasen’s.’ I said, ‘O.K.’ And I went over and … I was sitting there alone and suddenly this redhead walked through the door and I looked at her and something happened. From then on, we forgot everybody around us. Didn’t we, honey? We forgot everybody around us. That night, I took her home–and of course that’s another story unto itself.”

His wife took up the tale.

“At that time, they still had elevator operators. So now I’m inside the elevator, he’s outside, we’re shaking hands.”

“À la Marty ,” he said. “I said, ‘We’re shaking hands à la Marty ,’ right? Ha-ha-ha!”

“Ernie is the best audience. With Ernie, when he sees the flag, he gets emotional. When he sees a sunset, he explains it, and wants you to appreciate it.”

“I want to tell you something,” Mr. Borgnine said. “You gotta listen to this. You know, I have just written the story of my life, from the time that I was born to the time that I was in the Navy, the time I got started in show business, and everything else. And I have entitled it”–a woman in a straw hat, Francine Farkas, came over to say how beautiful Mrs. Borgnine was–”after a thing that actually happened to me while I was walking up 10th Avenue one day bemoaning my fate, saying, ‘Why did you ever become an actor? Why?’ I mean, hell, I could act rings around Charlton Heston any time, you know that. This was way back in 1951, ’52, ’53. I wasn’t working, you know what I mean? You could only appear once a week on television because people said, ‘Oh, if you’re seen too many times, they get disgusted with you, you know?’ And I’m saying ‘Why?’ Charlton Heston was appearing every day. So were other people, but not me because, hey, I wasn’t well known. And suddenly, coming up that 10th Avenue, I smelled hot chestnuts, and it reminded me of my mother, who used to put those chestnuts on the stove after having cut them a little bit, and you smelled all this beautiful chestnut smell in the house and it permeated all the way through, and I walked a little closer, not to buy any, because I didn’t even have any money to buy a chestnut, but just to smell, because of the remembrance. And I walked up closer and I saw a sign on this vendor’s cart that became my philosophy of life. And the title of my book which nobody wants to buy now because they said, ‘Well, we got so many books already about people’s lives, it doesn’t amount to anything.’ But the title is to be: I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire, I Just Want to Keep My Nuts Warm.”

– George Gurley

Brian Lane on Directing

We spoke with noted director Brian Lane, whose films include Assassins Again , Today and The Fault . His latest film is Awkward Hill . He is staying at the Osgood Hotel on East 47th Street.

Q. What is Awkward Hill ?

A. Awkward Hill is a coming-of-age story about two peasants in northern California. All day, they work the land and in the evening they play the lute.

Q. They both play the lute?

A. No. You’re right. One plays the lute. Paul is his name. The other one sings. He invents songs about his environment. Sheep. The local farmers. The smell of grapes. Then a cataclysm happens and their lives change.

Q. What is the cataclysm?

A. I can’t tell you.

Q. Please.

A. No. It must remain a secret. Every film has a secret. Even a naval training film. Sometimes I’ll be watching a movie which I believe has no secrets, then I’ll notice a name in the credits that surprises me–a name like Bruno Helzog. That name is the secret of the film.

Q. How do you decide to make a certain movie?

A. First I decide not to make a movie. When I finished my last movie, I spend a month trying not to make movies. I go to bodegas every day–those little corner stores–and stare at cans of soup and flypaper and plastic forks. For some reason, they don’t seem to mind someone standing there for hours. Sometimes I buy a small bottle of aspirin. At the end of the month, I suddenly want to make another movie.

Q. Do you have a theory of directing?

A. All my movies are based on the New Testament. Now and don’t get me wrong, I’m not a believing Christian. One day, I was in a hotel in Paris and I began reading the Bible. Since then, the New Testament has been my main influence. For example, Awkward Hill was based on the Book of Mark. I try to imagine how Mark would make a movie. I know it sounds crazy, but that’s what I do.

Q. Did you ever have any funny mishaps while directing a film?

A. I got hepatitis while filming Lost Window in Algiers. That was tricky.

Q. What is your favorite movie?

A. Tug Kerdraw’s The Maze .

Q. Thank you so much, Brian.

A. It was my pleasure.

–Sparrow