The 93-year-old icon has been working on stage and screens big or small since 1951. He got his big break alongside Frank Sinatra in 'From Here to Eternity' before going on to win an Oscar and Golden Globe for his lead role in 1955's 'Marty.' Since then, he has been nominated for one Daytime Emmy and three prime-time Emmys, including one as a husband-made-widower in the final episode of 'ER.'
He has joined the all-star ensemble cast of the much-anticipated 'Red,' based on the Warren Ellis graphic novel about a retired black-ops CIA agent who must re-assemble his old team after being targeted by an assassin. While peers like Sean Connery have announced their retirement, and Doris Day hasn't appeared in the public eye for years, Borgnine continues to knock out film after film. Moviefone caught up with him just as it was announced that he will be receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2011 SAG Awards.
First of all, congratulations on your SAG lifetime achievement award.
Well, aren't you nice. God bless you. I really appreciate that.
How does it feel to be recognized in this way for your storied career?
Well, I tell ya, normally when I get awards I think, "I've got enough awards. Now, just send money." But this award is a little bit different. This award concerns my peers and they've already chosen me for the Oscar. I'm so beyond words.
How does winning this compare to winning the Oscar?
Well, just about even. When your peers pick you out, vote for you and say, "Hey, you're the one we like," what more can you possibly say except, "My goodness, thank you so much!"
While others your age and younger have simply stopped making movies and retired, you continue to work. Do you have a secret to your longevity in show business?
No, I just like to keep going. I think it keeps me young longer. And not only that, but I'm still alive and kicking and I think, "What the heck? As long as I'm with it and in good shape -- and I am -- I'd like to be working."
I'm sure you still love it very much, right?
Hey, it's my chosen profession and I feel that if you choose a profession, it doesn't become work -- it becomes a joy after a while.
One of your most anticipated roles is in 'Red.' How does it feel to be a part of the comic book movie craze we've got going now?
Not too shabby, huh? I tell ya, I got to know Bruce Willis and he was everything that I always imagined because when I saw him a long time ago working on that first television show with that girl [WRITER'S NOTE: Of course, "the show" was 'Moonlighting' and the girl in question was Cybil Shepherd], I said, "Man, this guy's gonna make it big." And sure enough, what'd I tell ya? He became a great big actor, like a big, big guy, and a wonderful guy -- that's the best part of it. He is a real great actor. I tell ya, it was a joy working with him."
Did you also get to work with Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman and John Malkovich?
No, I didn't. I came and left long before they got there.
That's too bad.
It was too bad, but I've met Morgan Freeman and I've spoken to him and he's a lot of fun.
Can you talk a little bit about the character you play?
[Bruce Willis' character Frank Moses] comes to me in my office, which is in a building with a huge safe containing the most secret files of the F.B.I. And I'm in charge. This is what he comes looking for, because he knows he can get something from me because we're buddies. That's it. I've said as much as I will get to tell you, but, believe me, we shot it in an old bank building over there in Toronto. My goodness, I tell ya, I've never seen a safe the likes of which that building has. Wow, it was scary!
It takes you back to the Depression-era gangster days, eh?
[Laughs] It sure did. It was really something. I was really concerned, because they didn't have a way to get it open. And when they finally did, it took three men to try and close it, believe it or not. If anything gets stuck in there that's a good way to get rid of it.
Did you read the graphic novel that the movie was based on?
No, I never did. I had no idea it was based on anything. I thought it was just one of those ... you know, scripts that come up. I never read the comic. But, believe me, I'm sure [the film is] going to be a scorcher, because everyone who has seen it loves it!
You're going to be at the big Fan Expo convention in Toronto at the end of August. Why is it important for you to connect with your fans on such a grand scale?
Well, I'm greeting the public and it's the public that buys the tickets, you know? They will come out and they're very happy to see you. Believe me, I stand in awe as I greet all those people that come just to see me, because I say, "My God, they came to see me because of my pictures and this and that?" I think it's wonderful. It's marvelous that we could be living in a day like this when people can say, "Hey, I love the guy."
How would you compare the film industry now to when you first started? Do you enjoy it more now than you did at the beginning of your career?
No, I'm sorry to say, I don't enjoy it that much. There aren't that many good scripts around, you know? I don't know why [sighs], but it seems that everything has just about been redone. I watch television now, the Turner [Classic Movies] Channel especially, to see grown people working at it. Those are the people I admire, the guys who I used to work with -- Jimmy Stewart and the rest of them. It was just wonderful to see and such an honor to be in their company. It's too bad. It's not the same business it used to be. People used to go to the pictures to be entertained and today, they call killing somebody entertainment, and I'm sorry, but I don't call that entertainment at all.
I know. Movies can get pretty violent, I guess.
Exactly. They find the people that are attracted to violence, even beating on women, and the next thing you know, you've got nothing but violence on the screen. I think it stinks!
Yeah, but that's what America is. Everybody has their freedom of expression.
Yeah, I think so, but it's an awful lot different than watching Turner Classics.
Do you approach a role differently nowadays, or is your acting process the same as it always was?
I'll tell you one thing, it all depends on how the script hits me. If I'm interested in reading it, and I can't wait to get to the next page, I know that I've got something pretty good. But if I yawn during the process, believe me, it's no good. I remember back then, when I used to get a script I'd say, "Oh my goodness! I don't care what part I play, just as long as I play." Now, the process is more discriminating and you find yourself actually working as an actor while you're reading the script and the first time you know, you say, "Hey, call up that agency and let's get that part, because it's a beauty." This is what counts. They don't come like that anymore, unfortunately. Nobody does 'Marty' anymore, nobody does 'The Wild Bunch' anymore, nobody does anything except makeovers and lookalikes and things like that, but that's about it.
I think it's getting more and more expensive to produce original programming and that's why the industry is turning to reality shows.
Exactly. It's the reason the reality shows are so popular. But I don't care how popular they are, I hate reality shows.
You've been around so long, and maybe because you could be getting to the end of your life, you're getting this lifetime achievement award and people want to remember you for so many things. What do you think is most important to be remembered for?
I think Bruce Willis said it quite simply, actually. He said to me, "If you can make one person happy in the span of 24 hours, you've accomplished a great deal." And I think that's what I try to do. If I can make one person happy somewhere along the line, then I have accomplished a great deal. I hope that people have looked at [my work] and feel good about it.
I'm very happy in the sense that I've tried to bring as much enjoyment as I have to people. I remember I was at a television radio show and I was astounded when they said, "You can say anything you want, Mr. Borgnine. You can pitch anything you want." And I said one thing. I said, "Folks, we're in the midst of a depression, let's hang in there. Let's all work together and see what we can possibly do to help each other, to be good to each other and make sure we work so that we can get out of this depression." They were astounded that I would say something like that, but that's the way I feel, that's the way I am toward people and that's the way I want people to feel toward me.
You can catch Mr. Borgnine at Fan Expo in Toronto, or you can see him in 'Red,' which is scheduled for release on October 15, 2010.