When Ernest Borgnine unexpectedly died earlier this month at the age of 95, I immediately thought of Larry Delrose, a local businessman who was a producer — and had a hand in writing — NIGHT CLUB, the last film in which Mr. Borgnine was featured as a leading man. The story about a USC kid reluctantly working the night-shift of an assisted-living facility to help pay for his tuition showcases Mr. Borgnine as a vivacious and dominant figure in the facility who teaches the kid needed life lesson.

Recently, I asked Mr. Delrose to recall working with Borgnine. Here is a portion of our conversation:

What was your first impression working with Ernest Borgnine?

It was heaven working with Borgnine. We are both Italian so we bonded immediately. We hugged everyday. We told stories, we laughed, we sang. He was one of the
warmest human beings I ever met.

What was he like off screen?

Off screen he was extraordinary. One time we had a problem with SAG and he stepped up and came to our aid without us even asking him. He told SAG: “Give these guys a break. They can’t operate like a big studio, they’re independent filmmakers they trying their hardest. They’re
good people. I vouch for them.”

Was he demanding?

He was the opposite of demanding. For instance, one night we were still shooting at midnight — Borgnine started at 11 am that day! — and the Director says, “Let’s speed things up and get Mr. Borgnine home.” Well, Mr. Borgnine spurts out, “Don’t worry about me. I’m fine. No problem. I got all night.”

Another time, a Producer says, “Go ahead Ernie, take a rest and sit in the Director’s chair.” Ernie says, “No, I’m fine. I’ll just sit over here in a regular chair.” We offered him his own chair but he didn’t want one. He had that old time respect, that, if you hired him he owed you his time and attention to do the best job he could. Some of the newer actors make it seem like you’re lucky to have them and you should cater to them. Borgnine caters to you! Unbelievable!

Many other actors big and small I dealt with were often difficult. Ernest Borgnine definitely gets the distinction of being the best with whom I ever had the pleasure of working.

At his advanced age, did he have a problem memorizing is lines?

He was impeccable at remembering his lines. Everyday he carried the full script with him in a special binder he used for many years and he would go off in a corner and review his lines. He was almost 94 when we shot “Night Club” and he never stumbled once. He was like working with a 50 year old. On days he worked, a driver we provided picked him up and took him home. One day when he wasn’t scheduled to work he came by to check on us and make sure everything was going well. And he drove himself! He said he was going to Costco and wanted to stop by because he missed

Did he improvise at all?

He did not improvise much except for a word here and there. When he was asked to do 3 takes in a row, each take would be a little different. He might change a word or two or pause a little differently. And guess what? Each take was fantastic. If he did 3 takes, there was never a bad one — they were only one good, very good and absolutely perfect.

Any more personal observations about the man himself?

I worked with Ernie almost 2 weeks and I was thrilled everyday to see him. He lit up the room and made me feel like I knew him all my life. His energy was unbelievable. And he never complained once.

And there’s one more thing I noticed. The other actors’ performances were always enhanced automatically by just appearing in a scene with him because the way he acted was absolutely magic. He’s been quoted as saying: “Every time I step in front of the camera, I feel young again.”

Since his death the movie is back on the studio’s radar screens. Hopefully he will get the recognition he deserves
for his performance in “Night Club.” It was the last film he appeared in as a leading man. I hope people get to see this iconic movie legend’s last performance in movie theatres or on television.

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A few months ago, I had a chance to see a very rough cut of NIGHT CLUB. I was impressed by a robust Borgnine’s energy and charisma. Every scene he’s in jumps off the screen with a vitality, focus and charm that’s hard to believe – especially for a nonagenarian. I hope the film gets a final cut and release that does justice to this screen icon’s legacy.

Of all the films and TV shows in which Ernest Borgnine has been featured, the most-mentioned of course are his Oscar© winning performance as the lonely, heavy set, “ugly” Italian-American Bronx butcher in MARTY (1955) and his indelible supporting portrayal of the vicious bigot Coley Trimble in John Sturgis’ noir western thriller BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK (also 1955). And who can forget THE DIRTY DOZEN (1967) and THE WILD BUNCH (1969) also come to mind.

But for me, the single Borgnine performance that lingers longest in the mind and one apparently forgotten by many writers and critics, is EMPEROR OF THE NORTH.

Robert Aldrich’s 1973 film, set in the depression, is about the quest of hobo Lee Marvin, who calls himself “A” Number One, to become a local legend and survive a train ride under the vicious, relentless and sadistic attack of Ernest Borgnine’s Shack, a train conductor who vows that no free-loading hobo will ever survive a ride on his train. This brutish portrayal by Borgnine unleashes a primal, visceral power that dwarf’s most screen performances and is about as bad a villain I’ve ever seen. And that’s good.

Ernest Borgnine, 1917 – 2012. RIP.

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Listen for my movie updates every Friday am on Michael Knight’s 94.3 KNWZ show. Comments? RobinESimmons@aol.com

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