Interviews: Hollywood Legends Ernest Borgnine, Bruce Dern
CHICAGO – The wonderful bonus of the Hollywood Celebrities & Memorabilia Show is the opportunity to meet the real stars of past film eras. Ernest Borgnine and Bruce Dern were there during the show in March of this year.
Both actors carved out character careers during the period of the 1950s to the present. They have often explored the cowboy genre, and each starred opposite some legendary movie gunslingers. Ernest Borgnine appeared in one of the greatest westerns of all time, “The Wild Bunch” (1969). Bruce Dern starred opposite John Wayne in “The Cowboys” (1972).
The Hollywood Celebrities & Memorabilia Show is a biannual event that brings celebrities to Chicago to meet, sign autographs and interact with their admirers. Hosts Ray and Sharon Court announced at the March show that the upcoming October show would be their last, as they are retiring.
HollywoodChicago.com got the chance to interview Borgnine and Dern, and Joe Arce captured their photographs at the event.
Ernest Borgnine, “From Here to Eternity,” “Marty”
Ernest Borgnine is a an ageless, familiar star of over two generations. The 94 year old actor made his big splash in 1953, punching out Frank Sinatra in the classic “From Here to Eternity.” Two years later, he won the Best Actor Oscar for the unforgettable “Marty” (1955). From there it was a memorable career, known for both television (”McHale’s Navy,” “Airwolf”) and film (”The Dirty Dozen,” “The Poseidon Adventure,” “Red”). In the current era, he did an amazing turn in the Sean Penn directed short in the movie “September 11” (2002) and continues to entertain the kids as the voice of Mermaid Man in “SpongeBob Squarepants.”
Photo credit: Joe Arce of Starstruck Foto for HollywoodChicago.com
HollywoodChicago.com: What is the main difference that you observe between a movie set today, and let’s say, a movie set in the 1950s or ‘60s?
Ernest Borgnine: Nothing that I know of. That has stayed pretty much the same. I think it’s that way because that’s one thing you don’t fool around with, you’ve got a set and that’s what you have to go by.
HollywoodChicago.com: Since you received the lifetime achievement award this year from the Screen Actors Guild, how important has that union been to your career?
Borgnine: It meant working or not working. That guild has been everything an actor could ever ask for, because for the simple reason that those are the people that keep you going. They go out and fight for you, and everything else. Sometime you feel like they don’t, [laughs] but actually it’s true that they really do. It’s wonderful to have somebody behind you saying ‘hey, you can’t do that, because our actor knows what he’s doing.’ It isn’t so much a union, as a guild, and the guild takes care of its own.
HollywoodChicago.com: What was most exciting for you in the days of early television, and which network was the best to work for?
Borgnine: NBC was always best, because that’s who I worked for the most. [laughs] CBS, back in the old days, would do casting calls. We used to call it a ‘cow call.’ All the people would flock in there, and CBS would get free readings for nothing, while the director was making up his mind about who he was going to use. And then they would say, ‘don’t call us, we’ll call you.’ [laughs] NBC was always very nice to me, and appreciated the work that I did.
HollywoodChicago.com: What performance have you been most satisfied with in the last ten years? Which one was the hardest work, in stretching yourself as an actor?
Borgnine: Well, for me, right now I can only remember ‘Red.’ [laughs]
HollywoodChicago.com: How about the ‘September 11’ film, where Sean Penn directed you in a short film representing the USA?
Borgnine: That was actually an easy job. Sean Penn is a genius. He’s a wonderful guy and great director. plus a musician, plus everything else. One of those guys I like to work for, because he is always thinking ahead. I was astounded by the result of that film. It frustrates me that it is hardly shown here in the United States, people don’t really know about it.
HollywoodChicago.com: Who was the best actor’s director you’ve worked for, and what type of instruction made them so different?
Borgnine: Bob Aldrich, in my estimation, I made several movies with him. I remember we were working on ‘Emperor of the North’ . He asked me if I’d ever worked on a train before. I said, ‘No sir.’ Well, he told me then I’d be working from the caboose to the engine, so I said okay. Then he said you’ll be running on top of the train from the caboose to the engine. I said okay again. He then told me to get dressed, and added, ‘Remember, you’ve been on this train for 30 years, and when you run on the train you don’t look down.’ [laughs] I said to myself, this man is crazy. I became like my old actor buddy Jack Elam, with his crazy one eye up, one eye down when I did that stunt. [laughs]
HollywoodChicago.com: What do you most look forward to when you get up in the morning to start your day?
Borgnine: The sun. If it’s a nice day I say to myself, thank God I made it. There are always things to do, and I try to get a smile on my face. If things go right, then everything is good. I always say to myself, ‘hey man, you’re breathing.’
HollywoodChicago.com: I end this interview like I did the last one, ‘What do you want to do tonight, Marty?’
Borgnine: That’s it. Breathe.
Bruce Dern, “Coming Home,” “Big Love”
Bruce Dern has had a career revival of late, doing a significant role on the just-completed HBO series “Big Love,” as Frank Harlow. He began his career in television, taking various character parts in early 1960s television, with regular roles in “Wagon Train,” “The Virginian” and “The Big Valley.” He made his film debut in the horror classic “Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte” (1964), and went on to character roles in such diverse films as “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They” (1969) and “The Great Gatsby” (1974). He was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in “Coming Home” (1978).
Dern has Chicago roots, having been born here. His grandfather was George Henry Dern, governor of Utah. His great uncle was famous poet Archibald MacLeish, and because of the family’s political roots, met both Eleanor Roosevelt and presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, who was his godfather. He was married to actress Diane Ladd, his daughter from that marriage is Laura Dern.
Photo credit: Joe Arce of Starstruck Foto for HollywoodChicago.com
HollywoodChicago.com: You were born in Chicago and have a deep lineage in the arts and public service. What have you learn personally from people like your governor grandfather, your other grandfather Bruce MacLeish and your godfather Adlai Stevenson?
Bruce Dern: Even though I had problems with the people in my own household, in terms of my choice of career, they were big, big people, and did big things, but not showy things. You know when they say in baseball, when you finally get to the big leagues, you’re going to the ‘show’? Well, Adlai Stevenson was the show. He was big stuff.
Also in my generation of actors, we were lucky, because we still had the chance to work with the legends. These people in my life were my legends. And I had a chance to grow up with them. And this year, when my daughter, ex-wife and I all got stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In my speech, I thanked my parents for giving me an opportunity to be raised in such a way, that I could see the different paths to take. Like a jerk, I took the Yogi Berra path, ‘When you come to a fork in the road, take it.’ I didn’t really go right or left.
It’s not that I didn’t appreciate it. It wasn’t until I got away from home when I realized how big these people were. How my grandfather Bruce MacLeish was Chairman of the Board of Carson, Pirie, Scott [Chicago retail store] for 40 years. The MacLeishes were the origin company of Carson’s. My great grandfather brought the store from Glasgow [Scotland] to Chicago. They changed the name but kept 51% of the company. And now it’s gone.
HollywoodChicago.com: Your early career was marked by westerns on episodic television. What was the atmosphere for an actor during that era and what was the best and easiest method for scoring a guest role on those westerns?
Dern: This was part of getting to work with the legends. We’re not legends, the closest thing we have to a legend is Clint [Eastwood], because he looks good on a horse. [laughs] No, we’re not legends because the people I worked with in the early days were bigger than life. John Wayne is bigger than life.
HollywoodChicago.com: For someone in my generation you’re bigger than life.
Dern: Yeah, but somehow they were physically bigger people as well. I was lucky enough to work with Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Bette Davis and Olivia De Havilland early in my career. When I was doing ‘That Championship Season,’ [with Mitchum in 1982] Marty Sheen, Stacy Keach, Jason Miller, Paul Sorvino and I just sat at Mitchum’s feet, hearing his stories for ten weeks.
To get roles in Westerns, it was the same way you get roles for anything else. When you go in the room, you’ve got three f*cking minutes. And in those three minutes, you’ve got to show them you have game. You have to leave that room after those three minutes, and they can’t forget that they spent that time with you.
In my first interview, Lynn Stalmaster [legendary casting agent] threw me out of his office, because I came in and he was on the telephone. And I said, ‘I have two and half minutes left on my career and you’re on the f*cking telephone!?’ Whoever he was talking to, I don’t care. If it was a girl, I could get him a better girl than who he was talking to. What about me? So he threw me out of his office. Jack Nicholson and Harry Dean Stanton were outside, and they also had pretty bad attitudes.
When I came up, it was Clint, Redford, Burt Reynolds, Richard Beymer, Warren Beatty and Gardner McKay. They were more natural leading men. Jack, Harry and I weren’t like that. So because of the Westerns on TV, we had an opportunity to show ourselves, even if we ended up being ‘fifth cowboy on the right.’ When I first came to Hollywood in 1961, Universal Studios had 14 hours of Westerns on TV every week. Now there are none.
HollywoodChicago.com: You spent a lot of your early career playing bad guys. Who do you consider to be great bad guys?
Dern: Well, he’s right over there [pointing to Ernest Borgnine]. Not unlike me, we both played pricks in the first part of our careers. He’s one of the best bad guys I’ve ever seen. There were two great bad guys in movies during my early era, besides Richard Widmark, who was in a category all his own. That was Charlie Bronson and Ernest Borgnine.
HollywoodChicago.com: You participated in two very classic films early in your career; ‘Marnie’ and ‘Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte.’ What was the difference between the styles of directors Alfred Hitchcock and Robert Aldrich that you noted as a young actor?
Dern: Hitchcock was a genius, I worked with him twice [also in ‘Family Plot’]. Robert Aldrich was a terrific guy, he had been considered the greatest First Assistant Director that ever worked in Hollywood. So he brought that with him. They also were both huge men, both over 300 pounds.
I was in awe when I worked with such people. When I quit school in Philadephia to become an actor, my three goals were to go to New York, become a member of the Actor’s Studio and work for [Elia] Kazan. And I did all three. The five actors Kazan put under contract were me, Rip Torn, Pat Hingle, Lee Remick and Geraldine Page.
HollywoodChicago.com: You seem like the type of actor that constantly evolved. What is the most recent thing you’ve learned in your education as an actor?
Dern: That I am about half way through the learning process. And that I have a lot of moment-to-moment behavior and realism in the roles I do. But I’m at about 50% after 50 years. So I’ve got to go another 50 years to get where I want to be. [laughs]