A lesson from Ernest Borgnine: Good things come to those who don't wait.
Last spring, the producers of The Single Guy asked the gap-toothed veteran actor to read for the part of Manny, the goofball doorman. Reluctantly, Borgnine drove to the casting office and waited. And waited. Until finally, after half an hour and several muttered curses, he left, fed up with the delay. ''They called up the next day,'' remembers Borgnine, while taking a breather in his Studio City, Calif., dressing room. ''They said, 'We're terribly sorry! We want you. You're in, automatically.' I said, 'That's the easiest job interview I ever had.' ''
And boy, does this man know from job interviews! Now 78, his familiar belly ever round, Borgnine has appeared in more than 80 movies even more than film slut Michael Caine including From Here to Eternity and The Poseidon Adventure. His mantel boasts an Oscar for his role as the average-joe butcher in Marty. He was the first film client of a fledgling agency called CAA (he's since moved on), and he's been enshrined on a Trivial Pursuit card (players now know his license plate: BORG-9). You want television? Borgnine has played everyone from the jolly con artist Lieutenant Commander McHale in 1962-66's McHale's Navy (''Everyone wanted to work with our show we were such a happy crew'') to the nefarious Nargola in the 1949-56 kiddie program Captain Video (''Kids would throw rocks at me comin' home from work'').
For the last four years, however, Borgnine's been a bit camera shy. He's kept busy tooling around in his 40-foot motor home with his fifth wife, cosmetic exec Tove, glad-handing his fans at RV parks, and doing an annual stint as a clown in a Milwaukee parade. But, remembering his glory days of watching Jimmy Cagney tap-dance between takes during the filming of Run for Cover and tickling the ivories with Frank Sinatra while making From Here to Eternity, he has refused to lower himself to appear in ''puke'' (his word). ''I turned down more pictures than you can shake a stick at,'' he says, ''simply because I refuse to swear in motion pictures.''
Will his small-screen comeback be the start of a Borgnine renaissance? ''If it's not, I'll be shocked!'' says Single Guy executive producer Brad Hall (the former Saturday Night Live player). ''Shoot, with the exception of the voice, what has Tony Bennett got that Ernest Borgnine doesn't?''