“Ernest Borgnine On The Bus”: Filmmaker Jeff Krulik’s road trip reality TV series-turned-documentary

By on January 24, 2016

Today, on the 99th anniversary of actor Ernest Borgnine’s birth — he was born Ermes Effron Borgnino on January 24, 1917, in Hamden, Connecticut — we thought we’d take a look at filmmaker Jeff Krulik’s nearly hour-long 1997 documentary Ernest Borgnine On The Bus, which chronicled the time Krulik  spent in 1995 on tour with Borgnine and his son, Cris Borgnine, as they drove across the Midwest in Borgnine’s 40-ft luxury bus, The Sunbum.

Borgnine was always one of our favorite actors — he appeared in so many great films, including The Dirty Dozen, The Wild Bunch, Willard, Emperor of the North Pole, Johnny Guitar, Convoy, Escape From New York, The Devil’s Rain, Ice Station Zebra, Bad Day At Black Rock, The Poseidon Adventure and so many others, including his Academy Award-winning turn as Marty in 1956, taking home the Oscar for Best Actor — but it’s also a real treat to see the real Ernest Borgnine, who seems like he might have been one of the nicest guys to ever work in Hollywood. He truly seemed to love life, and certainly led an interesting one.

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Borgnine as Shack in Emperor of the North Pole, 1973

He also apparently had quite a sense of humor, an example of which would certainly have to include the time, in 2008, when he was promoting his autobiography and told the hosts of the Fox cable channel’s morning show “Fox and Friends” that masturbation was a key to his longevity.

Borgnine was married to Ethel Merman, his third of five wives, in 1964, for a total of 32 days. The perhaps-apocryphal story is that the marriage ended after Borgnine farted in bed and held Merman’s head under the covers, a technique commonly known as a “Dutch Oven.” He later said “”Biggest mistake of my life. I thought I was marrying Rosemary Clooney.”

Borgnine’s last marriage, however, lasted the longest: he was married for forty years to wife Tova Borgnine, the widow he sadly left behind when he died, age 95, on July 8, 2012.

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Bumbling bandit brothers Emmett (Ernest Borgnine, center), Rufus (Strother Martin, left) and Frank Clemens (Jack Elam, right) in Hannie Caulder, 1972

Krulik, you may recall — along with his friend John Heyn — had previously videotaped the partying tailgate parking lot scene at a Judas Priest/Dokken concert at the Capital Centre in Largo, Maryland, near Landover, on May 31, 1986, resulting in the famous 16-minute documentary called Heavy Metal Parking Lot. It’s just one of the many impressive film projects he’s been involved in (check out our previous post here).

Krulik shot pretty much everything that happened to Borgnine and his son, with a perhaps overly-ambitious idea of creating a reality TV series based on whatever happened. The only problem, perhaps, was that this idea preceded the reality TV craze by a good five years or so, and none of the networks he approached were interested in what happened to Borgnine on the road, so Krulik turned his footage into a documentary film instead.

Ernest Borgnine On The Bus screened at film festivals, and special events (we saw it at the Cinefamily screening — The Everything Is Festival III in August 2012 — where it was well-received), and it has aired on regional PBS stations on the east coast, and was eventually it was released on home video (copies are difficult to find now). You can watch 47 different raw footage clips at Krulik’s Youtube page.

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A few years ago, Krulik did an email interview with journalist Adam Wilson for the Des Moines Register — Krulik and the Borgnines had spent some time in a campground and small town in Iowa and was trying to get some publicity for the documentary — but the newspaper didn’t publish the interview.

Krulik has graciously allowed us to publish it here for the first time on Night Flight:

Where did the idea for the documentary come from?

My friend and Discovery Channel colleague Brendan Conway and I used to dream up ideas for TV shows we wanted to watch, which meant we also wanted to produce. These were the TV shows in our head. And they were always irreverent and fueled by pop culture. Our jobs at Discovery were fairly low level in the TV decision-making department, but we were among the early cadre of workers building that network, this was in the early ’90s, around ’92/93. Somewhere in our heads, we knew Ernest Borgnine owned a bus, and actually drove it, essentially like any other RV owner, except his was a luxury bus not unlike a rock band would tour around in.

So as Brendan and I threw ideas back and forth, this became one of our favorites: following Ernest Borgnine driving his bus, meeting people across the country, sharing show biz stories and hanging out with his show biz pals. Seemed like a no-brainer for us, but this was light years before “reality television” was a reality.

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Borgnine leading a group of survivors during The Poseidon Adventure, 1972

Did you know Mr. Borgnine before you started filming, or did you just land the gig somehow and hit the road with him and what seems to be at least 1-2 of his family members? (How did you get involved?)

So at some point, one of us dared the other to call his agent, and sure enough, when we got his agent at the time on the phone, she thought it sounded great and would run it by Ernie. Eventually, we arranged an in-person pitch meeting at the Plaza Hotel in NYC when Ernie was visiting the East Coast (Ernie’s wife Tova had regular cosmetic business on the QVC Channel and that was based in PA; I seem to recall that’s why he was in NYC). We made up t-shirts that said “Ernest Borgnine on Tour,” which was the original title for our TV-series, and Ernie couldn’t have been more accommodating and fun spirited; we knew it would work if we could somehow pull it together, and we essentially had Ernie’s blessing.

That was in Aug/Sept of 1994. The next summer came quick, and each and every July Ernie and Tova were the lead clowns in the Milwaukee Circus Parade. He drove to Wisconsin by bus, and that became our target for being able to pull this project together, we would take a self-funded flyer because no one was going to back our harebrained idea.

At the time, I remember having talks with “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” producers to have Andy Richter be on the bus with Ernie. That would have been cool, but it would have completely hijacked our idea, so we knew we had to go through with it ourselves. The plan was to fly a crew to Milwaukee, rent an RV, and shadow Ernie for a few days to a week in order to get a reel together to further sell the concept. My crew, Mike Peters and Harrison Moore, had all these new toys they wanted to try out, including a camera mount that could go on the windshield to shoot while Ernie was driving. And my brother Michael flew out at the last minute to save my derriere as I didn’t have a driver for the RV I rented.

But the bottom line was we were going to make it up as we went along, just to get enough footage for a demo reel. Our TV show concept was impossible to sell on paper. And of course, our employers Discovery Channel weren’t interest. Why would they be, reality TV was five years away from becoming a household word (“The Osbournes” on MTV).

Days before arriving in Milwaukee, we heard that Ernie’s son was traveling with him, and we thought ‘oh my gosh, how old was he going to be’ and how much was he going to be into our idea. Turns out Cris Borgnine was 29, around our age, and totally dug the project (Ernie was 79-years old in 1995). That’s how it luckily had a great father/son dynamic. His wife Tova didn’t travel on the bus, she flew.

If you didn’t know him before filming began, what type of man was he?

We knew he was a great sport the first time (and only previous time) we met him, while at the Plaza Hotel. He was very funny, and told great stories. He cracked us up when he told what he wanted the name of his autobiography to be: I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire, I Just Want to Keep My Nuts Warm (if you look it up on Amazon, that was indeed what the British version of his autobiography Ernie was called when it was published a few years ago).

Had you seen him or spoken to him much lately, or since the documentary was filmed?

I would call Ernie every year on his birthday in January. Most of the time I left a message through his assistant Joyce, but sometimes he would pick up the phone. When he visited DC in 2009 to sign his book at the US Navy Memorial (he was always a booster of the Navy), I brought my parents to meet him and he couldn’t have been more gracious. But he was always a class guy who remembered me and our project. I was very honored to have him include a few nice thoughts about Ernest Borgnine on the Bus in his autobiography.

On a side note: after we collected a lot of footage from our week following him driving The Sunbum, we created a reel that I took to the NATPE television programming convention in 1996. I got nowhere. Ultimately, Henninger Media made a deal with Good Times Home Video to put out a VHS version, marketed to the RV crowd. Hence the rechristening as Ernest Borgnine on the Bus and a 50-minute documentary that ultimately had some local TV screenings, as well as a short commercial run as a home video.

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And on another side note: I’ve always lived in Maryland, and our project was East Coast based (Discovery Channel HQ here). So we were not in Hollywood 24/7, but whenever I visited in CA I would check in with Cris and Ernie and onetime visited him on the set of “The Single Guy.”

How long did you guys stay on the road and, more importantly for my readers, how and why did you end up in Mitchellville (then Altoona)?

We spent two days at the campground in Milwaukee, waiting for Ernie to decide to take off. Like I said, we were making it up as we went along. We had no clear agenda, we were following his schedule. That being said, he knew we had to get something in the can, so we came up with doing the shoot at the shoe factory, and Miller Brewery. His good friend in Milwaukee, and the guy who brought him to the Circus Parade in the first place, was a veteran Miller PR guy named Ben Barkin, so he set everything in motion for us with these factories. He was a great help, a great advance man. And that’s also why we have a lot of random superfluous footage at the Wisconsin State Fair RV Park; we had nothing else to do!

Finally, Ernie decided to leave mid-week, on Wednesday. No wait, Thursday, we had to wait until Thursday to leave…Monday we shot at the shoe factory. Tuesday we poked around the RV park and taped Ernie with the Bird Man. Wednesday we taped at the Miller Brewery, and Thursday we finally hit the road. Good Lord, we were only literally on the road for a day and a half!! Ernie was heading back home to co-star in “The Single Guy” for NBC, and I was paying a crew their day rate, as well as expenses, and I couldn’t afford us to travel beyond Friday. So those two days, Thursday and Friday went something like this:

Thursday morning I interview him on the bus while driving, coming up with as many showbiz questions as I could think of off the top of my head. We have lunch at the truckstop along I-I80, you might recognize the place from the footage. Ernie is like the mayor everywhere he goes, and truckers love him, he has nothing but good words about their industry. And most everyone recognized him, and can’t believe he’s out there on the road behind the wheel of his bus.

After morning, I don’t interview anymore, we just shoot as they continue down the highway throughout Iowa after leaving Wisconsin. Cris is looking through a travel book, looking for campgrounds. It was completely random that Thomas Mitchell RV Park was picked. I had no idea that you needed a campground with a bus. I had no idea what RV camping even entailed. Like I said, we were winging it, and following Ernie’s lead. So they found Thomas Mitchell RV Park in the guidebook they were using, and that’s how we wound up there, that Thursday evening.

As you can see, Ernie continued to be a good sport and went along with all of our ideas, plus basically we just shadowed him throughout (which was our pitch to him in the first place). He never once told us to turn the camera off or not tape something. I wish I had taped more random encounters, but mind you, this was a professional two-person camera/sound crew, we wanted to have footage for that golden demo reel to sell our idea. This was way before everyone had an easily accessible/portable camera, much less a cameraphone, so I didn’t have a second camera, a small portable one, to get more subtle moments, such as diner reactions, that sort of thing.

Anyway, since we wound up in the Thomas Mitchell RV Park, we then went to dinner in Mitchellville, literally picking someplace out of the phone book (or perhaps someone at the campground recommended it, I can’t remember). After dinner, Ernie had a hankering for ice cream, preferably Dairy Queen, but we wound up in Altoona I believe, where the closest soft ice cream stand was. Again, our cameras were rolling as much as possible.

But by this time, word had traveled that Hollywood actor Ernest Borgnine was in these parts, and the local reporter showed up for an impromptu interview. Again, as you see the footage in the outtakes I posted, Ernie was a total, total trouper, and as friendly as can be. Plus, he was a great ham on camera, which was key for us.

The local newspaper reporter Denise McNamee and I stayed in touch. Last time we were in contact, she told me the ice cream stand is gone, as is Helen and Pats in Mitchellville, which is a shame. But with any coverage you provide, maybe the people who are on camera when we came through can finally get to see themselves. You can also see the footage of Ernie graciously giving a tour of The Sunbum back at the campground.

And the next morning, which was Friday, we left the RV Park, and finally had to break apart from Ernie and Cris after another truckstop lunch. They pressed on towards LA, and we had to drive back to Milwaukee to return the RV and take the absolute last flight out back to DC.

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How much of the Mitchellville/Altoona video made it into the final cut of the documentary?

Since that Thursday in Mitchellville and Altoona was a lot of the footage I had most dreamed of getting–Ernie randomly showing up with his bus in the most unlikely places–a lot of it made it into the final documentary. But now, with the ease and availability of online video, I decided to basically create my own channel with all the footage from the trip, so every bit of our journey through the Midwest could be seen.

And since Ernest Borgnine on the Bus was never officially released on DVD, I figure this is the next best thing; not only is the whole documentary online, but all that raw footage is as well, sort of my own DVD extras without the physical DVD. And it’s all free. I figure Ernie would have liked that. It was originally posted to honor his 95th birthday this past January [reminder: this interview was done four years ago], and now having it all online is so much more profound since he’s passed away.

If someone wanted to see the film, can you get it? Or is it best (most easily?) viewed on Youtube?

I know VHS copies are still for sale on Ebay and Amazon, but I guess they are collectors items now because vhs is an antique format these days. I’ll gladly provide a computer burned DVD for a nominal fee, but the best and easiest and most current way to see it is online.

For a little bit more info, Jeff, can you tell me how old you are now, where do you live, what you’re doing for work and any other film work folks around here might’ve seen?

I’m 51, and I was 34 [again, four years ago] when I went on the road with Ernest Borgnine. The footage was shot in July 1995. The first preview in a local DC theater, was in 1996, when it was still referred to as Ernest Borgnine on Tour. The documentary was released on Good Times Home Video as Ernest Borgnine on the Bus in 1997. And the documentary was screened on regional PBS in April 1998.

I’ve always lived and worked in tv/documentary/film in the DC area. I currently live in Silver Spring, MD, and I’m a freelance producer and film researcher. I have many other film titles under my belt but I’m uniquely proud of Ernest Borgnine on the Bus because it was such an ambitious, unprecedented undertaking, and we were onto something—we were clearly ahead of our time; it was a reality TV concept too early to capitalize on that now-tired genre.

I welcome anyone to stop by my website. Plus, there’s a link to the man Youtube channels which stream my work. I’m currently finishing a documentary called Led Zeppelin Played Here, about the emerging rock concert industry of the 1960s. Plus, I produce a regular horse racing short.

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.