The Buffalo and Ernest Borgnine
By Julie ClineAugust 20, 2012
I conceive of one inter-continuous nexus in which and of which all seeming things are only different expressions, but in which all things are localizations of one attempt to break away and become real things, or to establish entity or positive difference […] or unmodified independence — or personality or soul.
They were hardly a herd at the time — if anything, a drunkard’s dozen — but in 1924 they were relocated from the plains of Arizona to Catalina, an island 22 miles south-southwest of California. Though initially employed as background to a cast of cowboys and Indians in a silent film adaptation of The Vanishing American — one of the 3 billion novels written by Zane Grey — the formidable fourteen stayed on.
Buffalo begat buffalo.
By the seventies, the 21-by-8-mile rocky strip of land was home to roughly 500 American bison. And the western novelist’s house, built on the island in ’26, was a hotel.
In 1971, following their Western-themed wedding on the mainland, my parents took a helicopter from Long Beach Harbor and honeymooned at the Zane Grey. Room number: Desert Gold. My father, then a draftsman, had designed — or at least conceptualized — the costumes. She wore a high-collared antique-lace dress with a cameo brooch, and did her blonde hair in curls; he was in pinstripes and had cultivated, for the part, sideburns and a mustache. He never lost the mustache.
In 1923, a year before the buffalo made their modest debut, Ernest Borgnine was a sea-sick child aboard the Dante Alighieri, en route from Carpi, Italy, to Connecticut. In his autobiography, Ernie, the actor says he wore “little Fauntleroy clothes with a little flowing tie and a knickers suit, all hand knitted,” and subsequently “got a taste of what hell was like”: “strange looks from the rough-and-tumble kids traveling third class.” The question of looks, costume, and social standing — and of braving the sea — would be at stake for Borgnine for the next seven or eight decades. He would join the navy at 18, and would later become widely recognized as Quinton McHale in the TV comedy, McHale’s Navy. And he would win Best Actor for his role in Marty, a quiet, dialogue-driven film about an unattractive butcher, or, in the words of Marty when his mother begs him to “put on the blue suit”: “Blue suit, gray suit — I’m just a fat little man! A fat, ugly man!”
When Borgnine accepted a Lifetime Achievement Award last year for his performance in an alarming number of great films — The Wild Bunch, Johnny Guitar, The Poseidon Adventure, The Magnificent Seven, and on and on — he stood on stage at the Screen Actors Guild wearing a black tux and a pair of thick, black-rimmed glasses, fogged with tears:
There are millions of those in this world who would love to be in our shoes. We are a privileged few […]. I hope that we will always give the best we possibly can to our profession so that people may enjoy us in our later years.
Later years. It’s a term the actor’s very existence makes hard to define. By the time of his death last month at 95, Borgnine had played in 115 films, including the not-yet-released western, The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez. He had worked in Hollywood for seven decades, and belonged, without question, to a certain band of rough-and-tumble kids. He played dead on camera, he says, thirty times:
I’ve been shot, stabbed, kicked, punched through barroom doors by Spencer Tracy and Gary Cooper; pushed in front of moving subway trains, devoured by rats and a giant, mutated fish […]. I bounced around a capsized ocean liner, beat Frank Sinatra to death.
Eventually, people forgave him for the Sinatra thing.
Ernie v. Everybody
In 1955 alone, two of his films were up for Academy Awards: he won for Marty, but during the spring of that year, Borgnine also appeared in Bad Day at Black Rock, a beautiful western-noir hybrid directed by John Sturges and starring Spencer Tracy as an older, one-armed stranger. Upon arriving by train at a small southwestern town (to give you an idea, only one woman lives there), he is mistaken for a private detective. As it turns out, the townspeople are not far off: in their fear of Tracy’s uncovering a grim secret, they act, to say the very least, inhospitably — arousing in the war veteran his own suspicions.
To my mind, Black Rock is a better — and better-looking — picture than Paddy Chayevsky and Delbert Mann’s Marty, but it set the stage for Borgnine’s “metamorphosis” into a homely Italian-American looking for love. Marty was a breakout role because it dealt directly with personal rejection and responsibility, with the question of wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve, rather than with who deserves the Purple Heart. Borgnine’s archetypal moment, of course, was in 1952, in his role in From Here to Eternity as Fatso Judson, a character whose motivation is pure mystery: What is this dude’s problem? Why does the enormous figure pound a tiny Sinatra to death? But when we find him in Bad Day at Black Rock edging Tracy off the barstool, dumping hot sauce — or is it only ketchup? — into the older man’s bowl of chili, we get a response to the question Who does this guy think he is? It comes from Tracy: “You’re not only wrong, you’re wrong at the top of your voice.” That is, you are a bold signifier of wrongness.
In this role, Borgnine is merely one among several anxious cowboy-types pacing the lobby of the old hotel, sizing up the silent newcomer, waiting. Borgnine — and here I mean the actor, as well as his character — only individuates at the chili standoff, or more precisely, at the moment a fed-up Tracy delivers a karate chop to his face. Borgnine is sent backwards through the screen door, and The West is lost that year in film.
Put differently, Black Rock kinda shot itself in the foot there.
Spencer Tracy, too, was nominated for Best Actor, but, as rules are rules, there can only be one. (Sinatra, Cagney, and James freaking Dean were also up.) Tracy had already won an Oscar for Boys Town in 1932, though the legend goes that the statue was inscribed “Dick Tracy.” In his autobiography, Borgnine says that when asked if this were true, “Spence” did more than confirm the mishap: he said he was still laughing about it. Borgnine writes, “He took his work seriously, but not himself. […] I remember thinking that if I ever had the outlandish good luck to win an Academy Award, they damn well better get my name right.”
Like the buffalo on Catalina, Borgnine is both a stand-in for the wrong-headed, boisterous West, and the very picture of adaptability. Not just in redeeming himself from one long Bad Day by acting ethically in Marty, but in playing funny in McHale’s Navy and faithful in at least one Amish role, while “backsliding” in films like The Dirty Dozen — often with the loveable trickster, Lee Marvin, a close friend whose death he mourns openly in Ernie. In his many roles, in his words, and especially his actions, Borgnine was not so much like or unlike the “bad looking man” as he was a champion of the looking man. The man who looks around, and acts.
I met Ernest Borgnine last summer at a wrap party for The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez, set in a retirement home and billed as a family western. The director is a man (a kid? he looked very young) named Elia Petridis, and it appears that this is Petridis’s first film. It was Borgnine’s last.
Falcon on Sunset is a place I’d been a few times — for some forgettable, star-related events — but on this night I was there with my dad. Worlds, in a way, were colliding.
We spotted Ernie relaxing at a wood bench, taking in the scene. Leaning against an ivy-covered wall, his face lit by a thousand little lights that ran up and down the trees on the patio, he looked every bit the cross between Oscar the Grouch and Ernie (of Bert and Ernie) that I remembered him: mouth agape, heavy brows akimbo. Before we could get to him, we had to go through “That red-headed gal, Kelly — that’s the AD.”
Kelly was lit up, too. She ushered us to the actor’s table. “Ernie?” she said softly, bending to touch his arm. “Ernie, this is Jim, he’s the one who…”
As he listened, Ernie’s eyes grew wider and wider. In what seemed like momentary horror, he turned to look at Kelly. He raised his thick eyebrows — In anger? Confusion? — and gently squeezed her hand.
“I know who Jim is,” he said.
The look on Borgnine’s face, the gesture, appeared to contain two thoughts: 1.) “Don’t treat me like an old man,” and 2.) “Show some respect to this man.” The same thought, really.
And likely a projection. I was feeling overly protective, amidst these strangers who had put my dad in a retirement home.
Ernie turned now to Jim, eyes shining. “It’s good to see you,” he said, and grasped my dad’s hand with both of his own. “It’s good to see you again, Jim.”
After that, we milled about and sipped western-themed margaritas, which I was compelled to point out were already western-themed. Later, after Borgnine had gone and we were stationed within reach of the tapas, one of the grips sidled up to me. “It’s wonderful,” he said, “to work with actors from way back, true professionals like Ernest and your dad.”
I told my dad later, which got a laugh.
Jim Cline isn’t an actor, but he plays one: he’s in a brief but pivotal scene in The Man Who Shook the Hand. (I’d say more about it, but I haven’t seen it. And, in case it’s any good, I don’t want to spoil the film.)
In life, however, my dad is a retired builder, general contractor, and salesman of everything from used cars to room additions. Even peepholes, door-to-door. (How this works: You find a house absent a peephole; you walk up, knock, the occupant asks, "Who is it?" and the sale is done; the customer "will never again have to open that door to a stranger.") Now he spends his time fishing and playing guitar on a boat in San Pedro. And sitting on the line with Central Casting, listening for background work that fits: “This call is for a Brad Pitt type, 50—60.”
“It’s like fishing,” he says. “And when you work, it’s like a company picnic every day.”
Although he’s done this for the past couple of years, picking up a few gigs here and there, carousing with other extras, even landing a recurring role as a barfly, the words “Central Casting” are still a bit funny to me — like “ACME” or something — though not to my sister, who worked at MGM and knew that there was, in real life, such a place. She’s the one who told our dad, who was then 71, where to send his pictures.
But last year the opposite of fishing happened: Central Casting called him. He was on the boat when they asked if he was free to do a “photo double.” The next evening, a Wednesday, he called me at home in Echo Park: “You are not going to believe this…”
I didn’t believe it — I believed that it happened, yes — but what didn’t make sense, none at all, was how a close-up constituted “background” work. Sure, there was no talking, but wasn’t interacting with Ernest Borgnine, well… acting?
“Was it believable?” I asked. “I mean, isn’t that, like, the one thing you couldn’t learn from Stanislavski?
“Oh, I don’t know. I didn’t finish that book — it got to be so damned pretentious at the end. Anyhow, I did my best.”
This, too, was incredible: My dad not finish a book? He practically eats books for dinner. He’s always down at the library getting a fix, whether in Pedro or Riverside, where the house is. In fact, he had been reading Ernie: The Autobiography a few months before any of this.
Central Casting had mentioned nothing about the scene, other than where to go and when, but when the director “introduced” him to “Ernest Borgnine,” there was less nervousness, as my dad tells it, than there was the shock of recognition: here was his old buddy Ernie — from the book, from the movies, from his days at Camp Pendleton. (He’d enlisted at 17, when it was easy as pie to change a “7” to an “8.”)
“The guy’s old enough to be my dad,” he said. “But boy did we get along. I had him telling stories… He told the one about the chestnuts.”
Which one was that, I asked, though I had a few guesses as to the punch line. He said he’d let me borrow the book, but in the meantime, did I want to go to the party on Friday?
He was staying in Pedro, and my mom would be staying beside her own mother, who had recently become very sick. I knew I had to be there for this. I didn’t have television, and had been missing all the flashes of white hair on Justified or NCIS that my parents would recognize and call me about.
Once, when my dad called to recount the day’s events, he couldn’t contain his laughter for more than a few seconds. He had played “an old man — a geezer,” even though they had deemed him “too lively” for the part. He talked them into it. “You should’ve seen me,” he said. “I’ve got on this beanie hat pulled down low; I’m all hunched over this walker, you know, inching along.” He can’t tell it without cracking up, but the story is this: There’s a bank robbery. Old Man is sneaking out of the building. Off camera, he ditches the beanie and the walker, straightens up, dons a ball cap, and crosses back in front of the Savings and Loan — as Man in the Crowd.
You can see him in this year’s Spider Man as an onlooker at a funeral. Or you can’t, but he’s in there — somewhere beneath a dozen black umbrellas.
“That rain alone,” he said, “must’ve cost a million dollars.”
Bad Leroy Brown
Maybe it’s fate that picked my father out of a lineup, or maybe it was plain good sense: he looks like a cross between Spencer Tracy and, more so when I was a kid, Charles Bronson. The latter played in an adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s All the Kings Men, starring Broderick Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge. Borgnine says he doesn’t remember the film, except that “this wiry kid named Charlie Bronson had a small, uncredited part as a longshoreman.” He writes: “Talk about paying your dues: it would be another ten years before he achieved stardom in a picture called The Magnificent Seven.”
To his family, James Cline is Johnny Guitar, the “reformed gunslinger” in the talented Nicholas Ray’s 1954 film of the same name. (Mercedes McCambridge, too, is exceptional here: scrappy and high-pitched, she squares off against a cold Joan Crawford, dominatrix of the West.) In the opening scene, Johnny — played by Sterling Hayden — walks in, orders a drink, and then orders the bartender to “take good care” of his guitar. “The night is young,” says Johnny, “and I plan to be around for awhile.”
My dad’s mother taught him to play in Vincennes, Indiana. Since then, he’s been the man in the living room with a guitar; the man in the garage with an eight-track recorder and a guitar; the man with a cigarette in his teeth, doodling western scenes on a napkin at the kitchen table — with an Orlando acoustic, a Rickenbacker electric, or a ‘57 Fender Music Master (my guitar). The only thing different: he doesn’t smoke anymore.
“Folsom Prison Blues” was a standard. He also played Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” Elvis Presley’s “Guitar Man,” and Jim Croce’s “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.” I never questioned why he changed his name to Brown in this clearly autobiographical ballad, or his choice to quit a job down at the carwash, though I was curious as to what point in this motley past he quit carrying guitars in gunnysacks. Was it Folsom? Speaking of which, if he had shot a man in Reno, it probably wasn’t "just to watch him die.” Because for all his toughness he was — and is — sensitive: he had lived long enough to lose a dragon. (“Puff the Magic Dragon,” to this day, is my number one request.)
The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez premiered at The Long Beach Film Festival on April 7th. We didn’t attend.
Jim was on a stage at his brother’s funeral in Westminster, California, — playing music and talking about Ronnie, his best friend. They were less than one year apart; there were a lot of stories. There are a lot of verses to "Amazing Grace."
When it was time for the pastor to speak, my dad stayed up there on the stool behind the mic, off to the left of the podium. He hung onto his guitar, the acoustic, and looked around. He planned to talk and play some more when the pastor was done, but we expected that until that time he would take a seat with us. We’d left one open. What was he doing?
I patted at the empty seat to my right, and my mom nodded — up to my dad, then over to the seat. Up and over. Nothing. What was he doing? As the pastor began shuffling his notes, clearing his voice, my mom whispered, “Jim, come on. Come sit down.” He nodded at her, but he didn’t move; he knew what he was doing.
And then we knew: he was comfortable there.
After Ernest Borgnine’s death on July 8th, I went down to San Pedro, to the boat, to interview my dad about getting to work with him. Here, I made a few discoveries — chief among them: it is impossible to interview one’s dad.
We had some beers and talked about the major differences between seagulls and pelicans. Seagulls are fast but do not dive; pelicans do not flock, but you may see eight or ten in flight, in perfect formation.
I asked if Dwight and Louise were still around.
“Yeah. Dwight called about an hour ago, said Louise thought she might’ve left some turnips boiling.”
“She had. I turned them off.”
Somehow, we got around to Ernie. On set in hospital gowns, they had talked about the military, ex-wives, friends. Both were married for about forty years. Both had kids. Ernie kept up his “I’m nobody” routine and Jim said, “What are you talking about? You’ve been in more than a hundred movies!” But he was honored to have played the role of “reassuring” the legend. And disappointed that Ernie wasn’t there at the second screening of The Man Who Shook the Hand.
I got up for another beer from the mini fridge. “I forget — what kind of boat is this?”
“It’s a Pacemaker, 28 foot. I think it may have the best name in the harbor. In fact, I’ve been told it does… Can you bring me one of those?”
Returning to the deck with two Coronas and some lime, I whispered, “What’s the name? You gotta say it on tape.”
“Oh,” he said, and straightened up a bit in his chair. He leaned in close to the tape recorder on the table — the one with Soul Revival emblazoned across it in yellow cursive. In a deep voice, he said, “Soul Revival.”
My dad recently read a book on memory. He couldn’t sleep past 6am, so he dipped into his Friends of the Riverside Library bag. He's been doing these little games, making lists and putting things in rooms. He put 30 objects, he said, in 10 spaces at the Zane Grey: the honeymoon room; the pool; the office; the common area into which he placed a Buick…
“Something like a Buick is easy,” he says, “Because, man, what’s a Buick doing? I mean — how in the hell can you fit a Buick into that room? Sometimes I shrink it down. I’ll do a model of a Buick, put it on the coffee table. I’ll put three things in different parts of each room — different items, a buffalo and that — to the right and the left of me as I go through. I got 27 out of 30 the first time.”
"There’s already a buffalo in that office. Or the head of one."
“Is that right? That’s right. That’s not where I had it, though. Next list I got all thirty. So I want to start doing that with — well, with everything. To know you can set anything to memory? It’s really something.”
Today, Jim is a mentor to other actors beginning their careers — though his method, one could argue, is useful anywhere: “What’s the worst that can happen? You fall down? Okay. Get up. You take a bite of an apple you didn’t know was a prop? Say you’re sorry.”
Then maybe later, somewhere down the line, you get a speaking role, catch a halibut the size of a barn door, solve a crime. Maybe you’re given an award, inscribed to “Calvin.” Whatever happens, you’ll be in the movies. You’ll have stories. And you’ll play it again, Johnny Guitar.
Structured chronologically, by film, Borgnine's autobiography serves also as a catalog of friends he needed to thank. In this way, it is more aptly a procession of handshakes — not in the Hollywood sense, per se, but from a time when friendship had physical weight, when a firm grip meant a deal, when a hand itself held a charge. I believe it still does.
Maybe this is my problem.
In The Book of the Damned (and by "damned" he means "excluded,") Charles Fort writes:
A hand thought of only as a hand may seem beautiful.
Found on a battlefield — obviously a part — not beautiful.
But everything in our experience is only a part of something else that in turn is only a part of still something else — or that there is nothing beautiful in our experience: only appearances that are intermediate to beauty and ugliness — that only universality is complete: that only the complete is beautiful: that every attempt to achieve beauty is an attempt to give to the local the attribute of the universal.
All I know of The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez is that it was Ernest Borgnine's last film, a western, set in a retirement home — and that my dad dies silently, gripping Borgnine's hand.
And here is where Fort would say, "But that is only part of it." And I would say, "The worst part." And he would say, "That's what you think." And I would talk him into flipping a coin.
Julie Cline is a former editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. Her essays and reviews have appeared here and there. She is writing a nonfiction novel.
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