Ernest Borgnine interview: Importance of being Ernest

ESTABLISHING SHOT: THE RITZ Hotel, London. Cut to interior: a lavish suite, quiet as a church and as heavily gilded. Publicist, journalist and photographer pace the carpet.

From the edgy, forced pleasantries, it's clear someone is expected and overdue. A hotel employee whisks in and out trying to locate the star of our drama, Ernest Borgnine. At 92, he is the oldest living Oscar recipient, having won for his magnificent portrayal of Marty in the eponymous 1955 movie about a lonely butcher who spends every Saturday night of his life looking for love.

He is somewhere in this hotel. Specifically, somewhere between floors One and Three, the member of staff is reliably informed. Tension mounts. Messages arrive at speed. Mr Borgnine is coming. Mr Borgnine is missing. Where is Mr Borgnine? Has something happened to Mr Borgnine? This is turning into a thriller.

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Then we hear that voice. Relief sweeps the room, along with something else. To me, raised on television's McHale's Navy, that unmistakable bellow is the sound of my long-ago childhood. For the photographer, it's the sound of her nine-year-old son's present day, for Borgnine is the voice of Mermaid Man on the cartoon SpongeBob SquarePants.

"I'm here," he booms from the doorway. Trust a star to know how to make an entrance.

He flashes the famous gap-toothed smile, so wide it bisects him, sending sparks upwards, making his eyes twinkle as if fired by Klieg lights. He's famous for playing heavies, but actually Borgnine's ever so cuddly. And while I haven't met many nonagenarians with whom to compare, he's bursting with enough vitality to pass for much younger.

I shouldn't be surprised. Appearing on a chat show last August, he was asked, live, on-air, for the secret of his longevity. Turning to the man next to him he stage whispered, "I masturbate a lot".

Borgnine flew over to appear at Birmingham's Autographica fair, followed by a week in London promoting his autobiography, entitled: I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire, I Just Want to Keep My Nuts Warm. It's hours before lunchtime, but he's already been on QVC – his wife, Tova, sells her successful line of beauty products via the network – where he sold out their entire stock of 1,000 copies in a breathtaking eight-and-a-half minutes.

Borgnine, the son of Italian immigrants, was born in Connecticut, but lived with his mother's family, near Modena, Italy, when his parents were briefly separated. Following their reconciliation the family – now including younger sister Evelyn – settled in North Haven, Connecticut, where his dad was a jack of all trades.

Like many youngsters, Ernie joined the Boy Scouts, and he credits the organisation with teaching him how to be "self-sufficient and observant". When the Boy Scout Circus came to town, his rendition of an overgrown baby brought the house down and just like that, he was bitten by the acting bug. Inspired, he worked harder at school to qualify for the drama club. But when a teacher suggested acting as a career, he scoffed. "I remember thinking, 'Are you crazy? That's no way to make a living.' "

He enlisted in the navy, and what with one thing and another – namely the outbreak of the Second World War – spent ten years in uniform. So he was 28 before it occurred to him (prompted by his mother, who didn't fancy a grown man moping around underfoot) to give acting another try.

Yale drama school was down the road, and would have taken him, but there was a catch. "The professor said I'd have to do two years of undergraduate study – geometry, trigonometry, calculus." Borgnine laughs. "All the things I hated!"

He followed a friend to Abingdon, Virginia, home of the Barter Theatre, where he worked his socks off behind the scenes, learning all he could about the mechanics of theatres. He studied how the actors approached their roles, quietly critiquing their performances and absorbing ideas. It was a tight-knit group, and an integral part of the local community. Borgnine once said that when farmers couldn't pay cash they bartered food, so the actors often ate the box office.

More than 50 years later, Borgnine says his was the best possible training. "We did everything. We did Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, Our Town by Thornton Wilder, every possible play. I was one of the fortunate few who flew to Denmark to put on Hamlet at Kronborg Castle. I loved it!"

He admits he's made good films and bad. He's also worked with every name you can imagine, from Spencer Tracy, Kirk Douglas, and Sam Peckinpah, to Joan Crawford, Montgomery Clift and Michael Curtiz. He's the only actor to have appeared in all the Dirty Dozen movies, and you'll also know him from such films as The Poseidon Adventure, From Here to Eternity, Escape from New York and Willard. He even features in the final episode of ER.

He writes, "I've died onscreen almost 30 times. I've been shot, stabbed, kicked, punched through barroom doors … pushed in front of moving subway trains, devoured by rats and a giant mutated fish; blown up in spaceships, melted down into a Technicolor puddle, jumped into a snake pit, and I perished from thirst in the Sahara Desert. I bounced around a capsized ocean liner, beat Frank Sinatra to death, impaled Lee Marvin with a pitchfork, and had my way with Raquel Welch."

For my part, I'm fresh off a repeat viewing of Marty and still wiping away tears. How on earth did he finesse a performance so heart-wrenchingly real that it hardly seems like acting?

"Let's blame the writer, Paddy Chayefsky," he says, reminding me without spelling it out that the playwright's name is synonymous with "kitchen sink realism". "A lot of people have tried to do it and can't. It's a thing of heart, you've got to have a lot of heart for it and love for it."

Is he a method actor? Borgnine's eyes widen alarmingly. "Never! It's the worst thing in the world to be a method actor. All you're doing is spouting lines. Whereas if you use your heart and your head, that's all you need. We're acting right now, listening to each other and answering each other. It's one of the wonderful things that happens between two people. But when they bring in these method actors – I can't stand them. The worst part yet is they speak like this," he whispers the last two words. "You can't hear them. In my day you had to use your voice to carry out to the 35-cent seats."

The trick to finding your character, he reveals, is figuring out exactly what the writer wants you to say within the story and then putting it inside your mind. "If you can find that, you've got the picture. It's that easy. But they make such a big deal out of it. (And] the eyes are the most expressive things in the world. If you can't express yourself with your eyes, and your body, you're not acting at all."

On the subject of great actors, I know from his book that we're united in admiration for Gary Cooper and Bette Davis. When I mention their names, incredible as it seems, his grin widens even further and the voltage of his twinkle threatens to short out the hotel. "One of the greatest actors I've ever seen, bar none – and that includes Spencer Tracy – is Gary Cooper. He listened. You could watch him listening and reacting. Usually actors are just waiting for the end of the line to come, when they'll answer, but not him.

"One time we were riding to the set together while making Vera Cruz. I was quiet, because I was in awe, and he said, 'You know, I sure wish I could act like you.' I said, 'Sir! You've got two Oscars.' He said, 'Got them for saying Yup.' But don't you believe it! He was a wonderful man. Whenever I catch him on TV I'm entranced. I love all his films."

Bette Davis has a reputation as a termagant, but Borgnine, a fan long before they made The Catered Affair and Bunny O'Hare, disagrees. "What a sweetheart. Oh, she was wonderful. Working with her was one of the best experiences. What I remember most about Bette Davis was her big, explosive laugh and the fact that she never went anywhere unless she was 'put together', as she described it."

He was so in awe of Spencer Tracy that he blanked out just prior to shooting their first scene in Bad Day at Black Rock. "I went, 'My God, I'm working with Spencer Tracy and I've got a fight to do with him, as well!' In he comes, playing the one-armed man. As he came toward me I forgot every line I ever knew, including my name. All I could see were two Academy Awards coming toward me. But suddenly it all boiled down and I said my line and we did the scene – boom-bam-bim. Cut. Print.

"Afterwards, Tracy said, 'You look a man right in the eye, don't you, when you're talking to him?' I said, 'Isn't that what we're supposed to do?' And he said, 'You bet. You and I are going to get along just fine.' "

Borgnine was filming Black Rock when he read for Marty, and Tracy joked that he was too big a star to audition. "I said, 'Out of your mouth to God's ears'. The next morning I came back with a great big smile and he said, 'Got the part, right?' And the next year I beat him out for an Academy Award!" He lets out a room-filling belly laugh.

Marty cleaned up. Not only did Borgnine scoop best actor, but Paddy Chayefsky won for his screenplay, and it took best film. What does winning feel like? "I had no idea I was going to win. I was watching the house and my wife nudged me and said, 'they called your name'. A couple of years later I happened to be in Monaco and her Royal Highness, Princess Grace (aka Grace Kelly]), asked, 'You still got that little trinket I gave you?' I keep it on the television set with my Bafta and my parents' and sister's pictures.

Though he's been married five times, Borgnine's book is short on scandal. Is that because he kept his nose clean, or because he's a gentleman? "I really didn't do anything to kiss and tell. I'm not ashamed of my life at all. I'm not the kind of person to do things behind my wife's back. I always said I'm the kind of person that you'd be very happy to be married to, and if you like me, fine, but this is the best I have to offer."

Then he chuckles. "Poor Merman, God bless her. Ethel Merman – 32 days. I said to her at the end of the 31st day, 'I'm sorry but I've had it.' "

He was the Broadway diva's fourth husband, she was his third wife. They met at a party in 1964 while he was riding high as the star of McHale's Navy. When she stood at the piano and belted out a few tunes he was smitten. They courted long distance for nearly a year before marrying in a lavish do in his California garden. "It was beautiful. We did everything, even letting out the white pigeons. But listen, it was for her – she was wonderful, you know. On our honeymoon we went to Hawaii and Japan and Hong Kong. And every time we went somewhere I was recognised.

"But nobody recognised this poor soul until I'd tell them her name. By the time we got back she was ready to commit murder. We went to a party and she put me through the mill in front of all her friends. I walked out. She had a wonderful voice; she was a talent, believe me, but you couldn't live with her. She had one fella that threw himself out of a window, killed himself."

Borgnine reckons he got off lightly. The page in her 1978 autobiography headed "Ernest Borgnine" is utterly blank. He's still giggling. "At least she didn't say anything bad about me."

He met Tova through mutual friends and they've been married for 37 years. As a divorcee, I say, I am keen to learn the secret of a long, successful marriage.

"Let me tell you something. You know, we forget to talk to each other after a while. We get so used to each other that we forget there's two people here and you've got to talk, even if it's the worst talk in the world. I want to know what you're thinking and you've got to know what I'm thinking. It really works."

Of course it doesn't hurt, he jokes, that they spend chunks of time apart, with Tova living at their second home in Chester, Pennsylvania, while filming for QVC. In her absence he reads, exercises, and, as we've seen, continues to work.

I am curious: he mentions God frequently and closes his book with the words "God bless." Is he a religious man?

"I'm not, and this is how it came about. My mother's family had their own church in Italy. Her father was a count, the financial advisor to King Victor Emmanuel. My mother never told me this, it came from my father. I wanted to be an altar boy and she said, 'No! Period!' I wanted to know why but nobody was saying a word.

"One day my father told me that this priest in the family's church attempted to rape her. She turned against the church like a madwoman. To make a long story short, when we used to go to church with my uncle she'd say, 'You see those trees out there: that's your church. See those beautiful fields and those flowers: that's your church. This is what you worship.' "

His religion now, he says, is Freemasonry. "I am very happy to say that I'm a 33rd degree Grand Cross Master Mason in the Scottish Rite. We believe in one thing, God. We believe in another thing: to help your fellow man. Be as kind as you can be to everybody. We support and take care of our own hospitals; we have a retirement plan, charities. You don't have to go to church. If you can do good like that, what's better?"

He seems very much at peace with himself. "I am now, because I've got a good woman and a couple of dollars in the bank, but not that much. People think he's got millions, because look at him, he's still working – but I could use the money."

And it keeps him alive and fires up the little grey cells, right? "That's exactly right, that's why I do it. But I could also use the money."

Still laughing, we move into the next room for the photos, and Borgnine is soon chatting away in Italian to the photographer's assistant. With enormous grace he signs our books and DVDs, and poses for informal snapshots. (What can I say? We're all hopelessly star struck.)

Warm goodbyes are exchanged and then Borgnine, half in, half out the door, surprises me by returning, unbidden, to a much earlier question. "Every night, before you go to sleep, make sure to turn around and kiss each other. Never go to sleep without a goodnight kiss."

You see. Our little film was a love story all along.

• Ernest Borgnine: I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire, I just Want to Keep My Nuts Warm, My Autobiography, is published by JR Books Limited, priced 17.99.