I last spoke with Ernest Borgnine about two years ago, just before his megahit action flick RED was released.
"We shot it all in about two or three days, and that was it," he said. "Then I was home, countin' my money!"
Borgnine laughed-that huge, hearty laugh that was as much his trademark as his big gap-toothed grin and generous girth.
Virtually until the end of his life on June 8, Borgnine never stopped working. Throughout his 60-year career, he made it look easy-but he confessed that was sometimes deceptive.
"You make it look effortless," he said, "so people will say, 'Oh, he did that real good!' But they don't realize you were pushing the block a little bit, you know? That's what counts. If you can keep pushing, and do it right, hey, you've got it made."
Besides RED, in the past two years Borgnine played pivotal roles in two independent films, Night Club and The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez. In both films he played guys who were in retirement or nursing homes, both of whom mistakenly felt the world no longer had any need for them. One thing he wanted to prove, he said, was that older people have a real role to play in the world.
"Just because we're old doesn't mean we're useless," he said.
I mentioned my dad, a year younger than Borgnine. Like him, he never seemed content to slow down.
"Why the hell should you?" Borgnine said, bellowing the words. "Why give up? What the hell, you're just getting started!"
Although his later roles didn't often give him the opportunity to truly exercise his acting chops, Borgnine clearly grabbed each part with both hands. He seemed genuinely touched when I suggested he was still the fine actor who won an Oscar in 1955 for the classic film Marty.
"Well, bless your heart," he said. "I thank you very much for that. But I still have my moments when I kind of say to myself, 'My goodness, have I lost it?' You want to keep up as best you can.
"The older people probably say, 'Hey, by golly there's Ernest Borgnine again! Isn't that wonderful!' That's fine. But there are probably kids out there saying, 'Oh, get rid of this old bunch!'"
Even in his most lightweight roles, Borgnine took the acting craft seriously, and he appreciated other actors who felt the same way.
"I tell you, a good example is Bruce Willis ( his costar in RED). He's a marvelous actor. You can tell that he does his homework every day, and that's wonderful to see. But there are some people who come in and just read it. And that's when it leaves you cold."
As he neared the end of his long career, Borgnine reflected on his early days, struggling in small character roles before breaking through as Sgt. Fatso Judson in From Here to Eternity in 1953.
"I look back at some of my first work and I say to myself, 'Why were you so frightened?"
He laughed again, loudly-I'm not sure there was a gentle chuckle in Borgnine's emotional vocabulary.
"I was runnin' like a scared rabbit, you know what I mean? I was about 20 when I learned a great lesson from Spencer Tracy: 'Try to remember the words and don't bump up against the furniture!'"
This was one of those conversations I didn't want to end, partly because I knew I'd most likely never get another chance to speak with Ernest Borgnine. But I'd taken enough of his time.
"Alright, Partner," he said. "Take care.
"And say hello to Dad!"