Thesp talks on the Pope and acting 'Eternity'

This year’s SAG Lifetime Achievement honoree, Ernest Borgnine, is no different than any other working (or not-so working) actor.

Every part — past, present or future — represents this thesp’s holy grail.

I mean, the guy just turned 94 and when I asked him if there was a role that got away. It took him less than a nano-second to name it:

“The Pope.”

Assuming he’s been up for quite a few roles since he played Hu Chang in Ray Nazarro’s “China Corsair” in 1951, it’s striking to have that instant recall, but even more impressively, to speak about it in the present tense.

“It’s a hell of a part,” says Borgnine “and I think I could make a damn good pope.”

Want to know how to stay in the acting game for six decades? Don’t let 10 years in the Navy or the fact you’re Ermes Effron Borgnino from Hamden, Conn., or that you spent decades earning the lion’s share of your SAG credits playing sadists, bullies, mobsters and outlaw cowpokes dissuade you from your steadfast belief that you were born to play His Holiness. If you believe it enough, Hollywood miracles, if not otherwordly ones, can happen.

And never stop believing it, even if the pope part you lost was in a movie that was released the month Nixon was elected president.

The first time.

“Morris West, who wrote the novel ‘The Shoes of the Fisherman’ wanted me for the part,” recalls Borgnine “and it was all set. But then my agent told MGM they had to take six of his other clients on the film to get me. And Anthony Quinn got the part.”

Which leads us to perhaps the reason why a wide competitive streak isn’t such a bad — or rare — thing for an actor.

“Morris called me after they were done filming,” says Borgnine, “and he said, ‘We should have hired you. By the end of the shoot, that bastard Quinn was asking me to kiss his ring.’ ”

Borgnine’s laughter and mile-wide grin lights up the offices of the Screen Actors Guild where he appears to be enjoying all the attention coming his way as that august organization is about to bestow Borgnine with its highest career kudo on Sunday night.

Back in the middle of the Eisenhower administration, he won the Oscar, Golden Globe, BAFTA, New York Film Critics Circle and more for his sensitive turn in Paddy Chayefsky’s timeless tale of an Italian-American butcher’s quest for love, “Marty.” His competition? Cagney, Dean, Sinatra and Tracy.

Cut to 2011, and thanks to that actorly need for speed or some magic ingredient in his wife, Tovah’s, famed cosmetics, Borgnine is getting those parts that Quinn is missing out on, including a nice spin in the senior assassins romp “Red” — which has grossed a neat $165 million internationally, or about 165 million times more than “China Corsair” and maybe a few more of his less memorable ’50s outings combined — as well as nailing the role of Mermaid Man in “SpongeBob SquarePants.”

One picture on the memorable side of the Borgnine canon is “From Here to Eternity,” in which his character famously beat the living tar out of Sinatra’s Private Maggio. Though that classic established Borgnine’s thesping bonafides, it was only one of several ’50s titles in which Borgnine played indelible roles, the others being “Bad Day at Black Rock,” “Vera Cruz,” “Johnny Guitar,” “Jubal,” and a small film that won Borgnine the lead actor trophy at the Locarno Film Festival in 1959, “The Rabbit Trap.”

Borgnine didn’t exactly sleepwalk through the ’60s and ’70s either, starring in megahits like “The Poseidon Adventure” while making tough edgy actioners for Robert Aldrich including “The Flight of the Phoenix,” “Emperor of the North” and “The Dirty Dozen,” such small gems as Ivan Passer’s woefully underseen comedy “Law and Disorder” and, of course, Sam Peckinpah’s revisionist Western masterpiece, “The Wild Bunch.”

Which is where Borgnine’s steeltrap recall again comes into play.

“Do you remember that scene where the Mexican general slashes (actor) Jaime Sanchez’s throat in front of all his soldiers and the Bunch?” he asks. And I nod without saying, “You mean the pivotal moment in what I think is the greatest Western ever made? Yeah I remember it.”

“Well I went to Sam before we shot the scene and said, ‘What if nothing happens after he slashes his throat and there’s a long silent pause and then a little chuckle and then all hell breaks loose?’ and Sam said ‘Great idea’ and then he filmed it that way.”

So here I am sitting with the legendary, iconic Ernest Borgnine and he’s taking credit for something that I assume my favorite director in the world in all his genius dreamed up, and I’m wondering if it’s true until he clinches it for me when he says, “Unfortunately they screwed the whole thing up in the editing.”

Now here’s a violet that never learned how to shrink.

Not to mention an actor who’s life-affirming, versatile, inspiring and deserving not only of lifetime achievement kudos … but damnit, someone cast this guy as The Pope!

After all, he’s the right age for part, and I’ll bet you won’t have to take his agent’s other six actors to get him.

More from the SAG Awards:
Scene stealers among stars | SAG honors Ernest Borgnine | SAG merger with AFTRA a priority | Harmon to Tweet from SAG kudofest

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