- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 25, 2009

Mortality took a heavy toll of notable movie people in 2008. Among the performers: Paul Newman, Charlton Heston, Richard Widmark, Cyd Charisse, Van Johnson, Suzanne Pleshette, Roy Scheider, Anita Page, Bernie Mac, Edie Adams, Mel Ferrer, Harvey Korman, Ivan Dixon, Evelyn Keyes, Nina Foch and Heath Ledger. Among the filmmakers: Kon Ichikawa, Sydney Pollack, Anthony Minghella, Robert Mulligan, Jules Dassin, Abby Mann, Michael Crichton and Stan Winston.

These losses make it especially gratifying to encounter a jovial Ernest Borgnine, two days after his 92nd birthday, in a “Private Screenings” interview appearance with Turner Classic Movies’ host Robert Osborne. Their conversation will bracket a 9 p.m. TCM revival of Mr. Borgnine’s happiest showcase as a film actor, his portrayal of the endearing title character of “Marty,” a lovelorn Bronx butcher who appears to discover romantic consolation in a shy schoolteacher.

Expanded from an acclaimed one-hour television drama on the live anthology series “The Philco Playhouse,” this 1955 sleeper was initially envisioned as a low-budget tax loss by Burt Lancaster’s new and successful production company, Hecht-Hill-Lancaster. Irresistibly exceeding expectations, “Marty” won Academy Awards for best movie, direction (Delbert Mann), screenplay (Paddy Chayefsky) and actor (Mr. Borgnine, triumphantly repossessing a role originated on TV by Rod Steiger).

In addition to securing sustained careers for several people who were new, or relatively new, to the movies, the film created a vogue for dramatic material that had been tested on television, a potential training ground and gold mine unwisely neglected and resented by most major film companies in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Mr. Borgnine’s prolonged career and upbeat personality would justify renewals of these birthday conversations as long as he remains a vigorous old-timer. With the death of Charlton Heston, Mr. Borgnine became the only living best actor winner from the decades before 1960.

Robert Osborne never gets around to the subject of the actor’s participation in live TV drama, although some key professional associations began in that phase. According to the recent autobiography “Ernie,” Mr. Borgnine was introduced to his breakthrough director, Delbert Mann, by Robert Mulligan when all three were active in New York-based television production.

Curiously, Mr. Mann was also invited to observe the shooting of the Lancaster-Gary Cooper Western “Vera Cruz” on its Mexican locations, as a primer for making his film debut with “Marty.” Since Mr. Borgnine was playing a heavy in “Vera Cruz” (about half his first 20 film roles were in Westerns, usually as heavies), he recrossed paths with Mr. Mann at a fortuitous juncture.

Robert Aldrich, the director of “Vera Cruz” (and later “The Flight of the Phoenix” and “The Dirty Dozen,” which also featured Mr. Borgnine), made a point of recommending him to Mr. Mann as the optimum choice for Marty Piletti, a sterling example of cinematic foresight. An optimum Borgnine revival program would probably make room for one of his pictures with Mr. Aldrich.

Monday evening’s roster is a little capricious. “Marty” and “From Here to Eternity,” the 1953 Academy Award-winner in which Mr. Borgnine made his first major impact, playing the sadistic non-com “Fatso” Judson, are indispensable credits. The 1955 Western “The Last Command” — one of the forgotten depictions of the siege of the Alamo, with Sterling Hayden as Jim Bowie — and the 1958 submarine melodrama “Torpedo Run” — are iffy choices, made iffier by the fact that they’re never mentioned during the Osborne-Borgnine conversation.

I’d prefer a rediscovery of the one musical in the actor’s long, long resume: “The Best Things in Life Are Free,” a Fox biographical tribute to the songwriting team of DeSylva, Brown and Henderson, impersonated by Dan Dailey, Gordon MacRae and Mr. Borgnine. It does come up in the TCM chat, when Mr. Borgnine recalls director Michael Curtiz fondly. It might be worth prompting him about the film’s dance stars, Sheree North and Jacques d’Amboise, who shared the movie’s highlight production number.

It might also be entertaining to bring up Rod Steiger, a cast member with Mr. Borgnine in the Western “Jubal,” released a year after “Marty.” Directed by Delmer Daves, “Jubal” starred Glenn Ford as a drifter befriended by Mr. Borgnine, a big-hearted rancher cursed with a faithless wife, Valerie French, and a treacherous foreman, Mr. Steiger. Before “Marty,” Mr. Borgnine might have been cast as the menace rather than the nice guy. In its aftermath, Mr. Steiger seemed a better fit as the sorehead.

In a phone conversation, Mr. Borgnine recalled that Mr. Steiger “didn’t want to have anything to do with me” while they were on location for “Jubal,” although he fails to mention this chip-on-the-shoulder aspect in his book. On the contrary, he portrays Mr. Steiger as a good sport. Evidently, he had not seen the Steiger performance as Marty but possessed some incriminating inside information along with his freshly minted Academy Award prestige: Paddy Chayefsky’s confidential plea that Mr. Borgnine be less “blubbery” than Mr. Steiger had allegedly been in the TV version.

To enhance the intrigue brewing behind “Jubal,” there had been a direct rivalry between Marty I and Marty II. Fred Zinnemann, the director of “From Here to Eternity,” auditioned both actors for the role of Jud Fry in his movie version of “Oklahoma!,” which proved a huge commercial success in 1955 but somehow failed to make the finals as a best movie nominee — and potential stumbling block for “Marty.” Mr. Steiger had won the Jud competition, of course. Moreover, his memorably insidious and potent characterization deserved an Oscar nomination as supporting actor, where he might have threatened Jack Lemmon in “Mr. Roberts.” If the Academy membership had been voting with a choice sense of humor on that occasion, both Martys could have emerged with Oscars.

An awesome amount of movie history is embedded in an acting career that can link quality pictures of different generations. In the case of Ernest Borgnine, longevity can bridge the distance between “From Here to Eternity” and “Gattaca.” One session isn’t enough. “Private Screenings” would be enhanced by further recollections with Mr. Borgnine as long as time permits.

WHAT: Ernest Borgnine Night on Turner Classic Movies.

WHEN: Monday starting at 8 p.m.

SCHEDULE: “Private Screenings” interview with host Robert Osborne, 8 p.m.; “Marty” (1955), 9 p.m.; repeat of interview, 11 p.m.; “The Last Command” (1955), midnight; “From Here to Eternity” (1953), 2 a.m. (Tuesday); “Torpedo Run” (1958), 4:15 a.m.

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