The death of Ernest Borgnine aged 95, one of the last of a golden generation of Hollywood stars, prompts me to recall the star-spangled day in May, 2001, when “Ernie” arrived, in full octogenarian pomp, with his fifth wife, Tova Taesnaes, at BBC’s Broadcasting House. He cut an ebullient dash through the Second-World-War-style corridors of the Radio Arts department, there to conduct a career interview with me for Radio 4’s weekly film programme Back Row.
White-haired, gap-toothed, seemingly as broad as he was tall and zinging with Hollywood star power, he shook hands, posed for photos that hadn’t even been asked for, and – seriously – kept opening doors of offices and announcing his arrival to whoever was in there.
Needless to say, it was a career highlight for me to talk about Bad Day At Black Rock, From Here To Eternity, Marty and, for me most importantly, The Poseidon Adventure, with the man who’d starred in them all.
As a journalist specialising in films – as well as all the others areas I purport to “specialise” in – I have been fortunate enough to meet many of my silver-screen heroes over the years. Even if, in reality, the kind of stage-managed promotional interview you get to do with them rarely elicits anything above practised anecdotes and gushing platitudes (certainly with the Americans, at any rate), it’s nice to be able to tick them off like landmarks on a foreign city break.
Because The Poseidon Adventure is my favourite film, I was especially chuffed to meet Borgnine. I interviewed its director Ronald Neame as well, another movie veteran who also died at a ripe old age, 99, in 2010. But there my Poseidon roll-call ends. Only four of its principal cast survive – the young ones of the time: Stella Stevens, now 73; Carol Lynley, 70; Pamela Sue Martin, 59; and Eric Shea, 52 – so my odds are limited. They say you should never meet your heroes, but that is not a cast-iron rule. I loved meeting Ernie. And, even though it was a very brief meeting, I loved meeting Gene Hackman.
This was back in 1998. Fortuitously, I had been sent to Los Angeles to interview Marilyn Manson. They’d put me up in the Sunset Marquis. On arrival I found myself drinking a beer by the pool and who should I spy, alone, about to eat a meal, but Gene Hackman! I couldn’t believe my eyes. A legend. (This was kind of a parody of what you imagine LA to be like, I realise.) After a couple more beers, when Gene had been served a glass of red wine, but had not yet been given his food, I plucked up the courage to approach him. Not as a journalist, but as … a fan.
Some context: he rarely came over to London to do promo interviews – which you have to respect – so I calculated that my chances of ever meeting him professionally were very low. Anyway, I went up to him, smiled, apologised, and asked if I might shake his hand, as I believed (and I did believe) that he was “the greatest living American screen actor.” He smiled, thanked me, and we shook hands, at which I respectfully withdrew.
It was as if Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling had been re-enacted, with Adam and God’s hands replaced by mine and Gene Hackman’s. I have never once regretted this fanboy behaviour. No autographs. No photos. Just my word to you that it actually happened.
I hope Hackman – 68 when I met him; 82 in retirement today – lives to the same age as Ernie, or even better, Ronnie. RIP both.