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The Importance of Being Ernest: ERNEST BORGNINE Remembered

In February of 2007, I was about to start my fourth Hallmark Channel movie as a production assistant (it was filmed as BERT AND BECCA, but aired as A GRANDPA FOR CHRISTMAS). A week or so before production began, I was told I’d be picking up an actor at his home, bringing him to set, acting as a PA during the shooting day, then driving the actor back home when he wrapped.

“Sure thing. Who am I driving?”

“Ernest Borgnine.”

Beat.

“Did you say Ernest Borgnine…?”

“Yeah. Is that okay?”

Another beat.

“Yes. That’s okay.”

Are you KIDDING me?

Ernest Borgnine from MARTY, THE FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX, FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, THE CATERED AFFAIR, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK…..THE freaking WILD BUNCH?!

Yeah, that would be okay.

So, a week later, I pulled into Mr. Borgnine’s driveway, which has a terrific view of the Valley. I parked, hopped out to open the passenger door, and waited. Out walked Ernest Borgnine. He had just turned ninety, but he looked like he was in his early 70s at most.

“Hello!” he said.

I shook his hand and said, “Mr. Borgnine, my name is Dean. I just want to say that it’s a real honor and thrill to meet you.”

He waved me off. “Ohhhh, come on. Thank you. And it’s Ernie.”

I waited at the passenger door.

He said, “I appreciate it, but get in the car. I can close the door.”

With that, he let out his characteristic, infectious laugh.

We got along instantly. I was dying to ask him a million questions and gush about his movies, but remained as professional as I could.

We chit-chatted for a bit, then he said, “I’m sorry. What’s your name again?”

I gave my usual response. “Dean. Like Dean Martin.”

But instead of the “Oh” I’d received all my life up to that point, I heard Ernie say, “Oh, Dean Martin. Great friend of mine.” He then proceeded to tell me about their friendship.

After that, it became clear that he was not only willing but quite happy to talk about the movies he made, the actors and directors with whom he worked, even very personal times in his life. In other words, to a movie fanatic like myself, every drive in the car with Ernie was an absolute joy.

He spoke of his friendships with Bette Davis, Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, William Holden, Robert Aldrich, Frank Sinatra, Sam Peckinpah, Tim Conway, Kurt Russell – an incredible list.

A big surprise — to me, anyway – was that he was close with Elvis Presley. Every time Elvis gave a concert in LA, he’d make certain Ernie had front row seats. After the show, Elvis would invite Ernie to his hotel suite and would insist on sitting cross-legged on the floor and listen to Ernie’s stories from the chair.

“He was such a sweet kid. But it’s such a shame he got involved in the drugs.”

Ernie also talked about his very best friend, George Lindsey (who played Goober on THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW, and who passed away this past May).

Ernie said he was feeling really, really low after his fourth divorce, and was at a diner contemplating suicide. George, who didn’t know Ernie personally at the time, asked if he could sit with him. Ernie obliged, and George – who could tell Ernie was quite depressed – started telling Ernie jokes and stories. After a time, Ernie found himself laughing. Without once mentioning it explicitly, George had talked Ernie out of suicide, and they remained best friends until George’s death.

For the first two weeks or so of the shoot, I would greet Ernie in the morning while standing next to the open passenger door.

“Good morning, Ernie.”

And he would always greet me the same way. “Good morning. Get in the damn car!”

I eventually relented and let him let himself in the car.

When driving him home from set, we’d usually take the 405 South to the 101 South to the Van Nuys exit to his house. Once on the 101 after the 405, we had very little time to cross the five lanes to get to the exit, so Ernie would insist on rolling down his window, throwing his arm out to keep traffic at bay, and then giving me instructions.

A typical night at that point in the trip would go something like this:

“So Dean Martin walked up to John Wayne – – this is their first meeting – he says – Oh! We’re here.”
Window goes down, arm swings out.

“Okaaayyyyy…..GO! Okay, you’re clear, Dean, go! Okay…wait!”

A car would fly past.

“Ya crazy sonofabitch!!!”

He’d turn to me.

“On his fucking phone!”

He turned back to the road.

“ Okay, you’re good….GO! Annnnd…..GO! Phew! There we are. So anyway, Dean walks up to Wayne and says, ‘Duke is a dog’s name!’ A-HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!”

One morning Ernie got into the car and asked me how my night was.

“Good, Ernie. How was yours?”

“Oh, fine. I was flippin’ channels and came across THE EMPEROR OF THE NORTH.”

He shook his head.

“Boy, I was a MEAN son of a bitch!!”

If you’ve never seen this movie, do so. After a corny theme song, it becomes a truly terrific movie.

And Ernie was right: he’s one of the unsung, great screen villains.

Borgnine and Lee Marvin in The Emperor of The North

He’d like to occasionally take me inside his home. The first time was the first day I drove him.

“I’d like to show you my dog.”

“Okay.”

We walked into the foyer. He pointed to the floor.

“There he is!”

I looked down and saw a life-size wooden carving of a dog.

“He’s perfect. He doesn’t bark, you don’t have to feed him, he doesn’t pee on the rug. And look –“

He pointed to the dog’s posterior.

“The guy even carved him some balls! A-HAHAHAHAHA!”

Another night, he wanted to show me his “Lincoln Room”.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but as we walked in, Ernie explained that a good friend had bought him a biography of Abraham Lincoln on the off chance Ernie might find it interesting. He in fact become almost obsessed with Lincoln after reading it, and dedicated a room in his house to him. He had a replica of John Wilkes Booth’s pistol, several busts of Lincoln, even an actual front page of a NYC newspaper from the time announcing the president’s death.

Another time, I was about to drop him off, and he asked if I was going to eat when I got home.

“I’ll probably just have a tuna fish sandwich.”

“Oh, I love tuna! What brand?”

“I think it’s Starkist.”

“Hmmm.”

As we pulled into his driveway, he asked me inside.

We walked to his pantry, and he pulled out a can of imported Italian tuna.

“Try this!”

Needless to say, it was MUCH better than Starkist…

He also took me out to dinner several times, always insisting on paying, always insisting I order whatever I wanted. In addition to this generosity, he gave me a rather sizable (and quite unnecessary) tip near the end of filming.

“Oh, Ernie, thank you, but – “

“Come on! It’s just Fuckin’ Around Money!”

On our drives, we’d talk about our favorite actors and directors. His favorite directors, unsurprisingly, were Aldrich and Peckinpah. As for other actors, he tended not to like over-the-top performances – he preferred Clint Eastwood, William Holden, Jimmy Stewart and Charles Bronson.
There were a handful of peers he wasn’t too impressed with. I’m not going to talk out of school and name names, but one example was a story he told me of a famous movie star he worked with whom he felt had a bad attitude towards fans.

During a break in filming, Ernie and said star were relaxing and reading. A clearly nervous crew member approached the star, told him he’s a huge fan and asked for an autograph. Without looking up from his book, the star said, “Fuck off.”

Ernie said he was furious.

“I couldn’t believe it. Without the fans, we wouldn’t even be here, ya know?”

Ernie held this conviction. We were shooting in a neighborhood in Simi Valley one day, and an older couple approached me.

“What are you filming?”

“It’s a Hallmark Channel movie.”

“Oh, okay! Who’s in it?”

“Ernest Borgnine, Jamie Fa—“

The wife’s head swiveled to her husband.

The husband said. “Ernest Borgnine?! He’s one of my favorites!”

I excused myself and, during a break in filming, I mentioned the couple to Ernie.

“I wanna meet them!”

He walked up to them, and their faces lit up. I had to get back to set, but around 15 or 20 minutes later, Ernie was needed.

I walked over to him, and saw the three of them laughing hysterically. Upon saying his goodbyes, he gave them both big hugs and walked off. The couple had ear-to-ear grins.

In another extremely gracious move, Ernie remembered I had told him on one of our drives that my girlfriend’s cousin, Laura, had been in a serious car accident. He seemed genuinely concerned. I mentioned in passing that she was a fan of his.

The next day he presented me with a signed photo with a very sweet note hoping she recovered – he even remembered her name.

“Think she’ll like this?”

“Absolutely, Ernie. Thank you.”

“Sure. I’ll give one to you, if you ever ask me for one,” he said with a wink.

Ernie also had no time for divas and demanding celebrities.

On the second film on which I drove him (WISHING WELL), Ernie was changing his wardrobe on set while some of the crew were chatting. Somebody brought up the story about a very famous actress who demanded she receive a gift in her trailer every single day from production. Ernie turned to us.

“What kind of crap is that?!” He then comically grabbed his crotch. “You want a gift in your trailer?! I’ve got your gift right here, sweetheart!!”

We fell apart laughing.

Speaking of the crew, I was dismayed that the vast majority of the crews of both films had never heard of Ernie. There were exceptions, like my friend Brett Bell, the set medic, and the director of photography, Brian Shanley, who asked Ernie to autograph his original THE WILD BUNCH one-sheet.

But most of the crew had no clue. The good news is that after several days of knowing Ernie, the crew fell in love with him. He would get bored waiting for the next set-up and would help the grips or electricians move equipment.

Many protests ensued.

“No, Ernie!” “You relax, we’ve got it!”, Etc.

“Aw, come on. I’m bored! Let me help you fellas!”

Ernie worked only four days on WISHING WELL (as opposed to 22 out of 24 days on GRANDPA FOR CHRISTMAS for which he was nominated for a Golden Globe), but after his last shot was in the can, our First AD, Charity, called out, “That’s a picture wrap on Ernest Borgnine!”

The applause was thunderous. Only four days’ work, and the applause was more enthusiastic than anything that I’ve heard for most lead actors.

Just before I started work on WISHING WELL, Ernie became a YouTube sensation for an interview he did on Fox News promoting his autobiography, ERNIE (a great read, by the way). He was asked, at 91 years old, what the secret to his longevity was.

When I asked him about it, he said, “Hey! I’m just being honest! But I got a million hits or something! Who knew!”

Ernie once mentioned to me that his son, a documentary filmmaker, was in a remote region documenting a tribe that was completely unfamiliar with movies, TV, internet – mass media in general. Yet a tribal elder went to him and said that he knew that his father was someone who had touched many lives without actually meeting most of them.
Ernie’s son nodded yes.

“He will live to be 113 years old.”

Ernie laughed upon telling me this, shrugged, and said, “So there you have it. 113!”

Well, Ernie didn’t make it to 113. But as my girlfriend Emily pointed out yesterday, he easily packed 113 years worth of living into his 95 years.

I did eventually ask Ernie for a signed photo. He wrote, “To Dean, A few miles, A few laffs”


More than a few on both counts, especially the latter.Rest in Peace, Ernie. It was a pleasure and a privilege to know you.
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