At a recent reunion of the cast of the 1960s TV comedy "McHale's Navy," the actors were appalled at the arrival of their former commandant. A driver helped Ernest Borgnine from the car. The once-exuberant Lt. Cmdr. Quinton McHale was stooped over and walked haltingly, muttering gibberish.
His former ensign, comedian Tim Conway, rushed forward and exclaimed, "Ernie, what has happened to you?"
Suddenly Borgnine straightened up, threw out his massive chest and bellowed, "What's going on here?" followed by his signature high-decibel laugh.
Prankster Borgnine shows little evidence of aging as he turns 90 today. His round, pudgy face is little changed. His only concession to age was abandoning the bus he used to drive around the country, talking with local folks along the way.
"I gave up the bus when I was 88," he said. "I figured if I had an accident, I could be sued for plenty. Now I take cruises. I just returned from one that started in Auckland, New Zealand, and visited a lot of islands. I made a couple of speeches and had a great time."
Borgnine is preparing for a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie, but otherwise his film work has been scarce of late.
"I keep telling myself, 'You gotta go to work,' " he said. "But there aren't many people who want to put Borgnine to work these days. They keep asking, 'Is he still alive?' "
Borgnine talked about his life at his spacious aerie near Coldwater Canyon in the higher reaches of Beverly Hills. He bought the 14-room house in 1965 for $110,000 and has expanded it. It's now worth millions.
The Borgnine story is unique among Hollywood sagas because acting had nothing to do with it for nearly three decades.
"I never considered being an actor until I was 28," he said. "When I was home from the Navy after the war, my mother said, 'Have you ever thought of becoming an actor?' I decided to give it a try."
He joined a drama company in Hartford, Conn., then spent five years at the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Va., learning the actor's trade from the bottom up. He moved to New York, where he played a role in "Harvey" and appeared in television dramas.
Hollywood discovered Borgnine -- as a heavy. He was the vicious soldier who beat Frank Sinatra to a pulp in "From Here to Eternity" and the outlaw who menaced one-armed Spencer Tracy in "Bad Day at Black Rock." Then along came "Marty."
Rod Steiger had won plaudits for his role as the shy Bronx butcher in Paddy Chayefsky's original TV drama and was considered ideal for the film version. But he had already signed to play the villain Jud in "Oklahoma!" Chayefsky and director Delbert Mann scouted other actors, settling on Borgnine.
"Marty" was an Oscar phenomenon. The low-budget, black-and-white drama competed against such giants as "Picnic" and "Mister Roberts." A publicity campaign that cost more than the movie's budget blanketed the industry. Result: Oscars for best picture and for Borgnine, Mann and Chayefsky. Borgnine's salary: $5,000.
Borgnine will celebrate his birthday with a dinner with friends and family at a local bistro. Asked if he had any more mountains to climb, he replied: "I just want to do more work. Every time I step in front of a camera, I feel young again. I really do. It keeps your mind active and it keeps you going."