Taking a cruise with Hollywood legends

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Nick Thomas

The tragic Jan. 13 capsizing of the Costa Concordia cruise ship off the Tuscan island of Giglio in Italy probably has some potential passengers thinking twice about embarking on a future cruise. But these floating luxury “hotels” make thousands of trips each year without incident, and the cruise ship industry has an excellent safety record.

This is one of the reasons why some 2,000 people from across the U.S., Canada and Europe made their way to Miami on Dec. 8 in order to take a four-day, round-trip cruise to Cozumel, Mexico.

But it wasn’t the golden beaches or sparkling blue waters that united this dedicated band of travelers. It was the onboard events and list of eminent guests.

While celebrity cruises are nothing new, this one truly was a classic: the inaugural Classic Cruise hosted by the cable channel Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which brought film fans together with their favorite Hollywood legends on the Celebrity Millennium cruise ship.

Celebrity shipmates included Ernest Borgnine, Eva Marie Saint, Tippi Hedren and director Norman Jewison, as well as TCM hosts Robert Osborne and Ben Mankiewicz.

With the average age of the four special guests being around 87, this was a vacation that appealed to seniors, and many passengers recalled attending film premieres by the stars in the ‘40s and ‘50s.

Star power 

After boarding, there was the compulsory lifeboat drill. At the time, the crew demonstrating safety procedures was forced to compete for the crowd’s attention when Ernest Borgnine appeared and was mobbed by well-wishers trying to shake his hand. (In the wake of the Concordia incident, I imagine people will be listening more closely to safety instructions going forward.)

 Borgnine himself was overwhelmed by the response of the passengers. “Oh my goodness, I couldn’t have been treated better by the TCM folks or fans,” said a humble 95-year-old Borgnine, when I spoke with him later during the cruise. “I don’t know why, because I certainly don’t deserve it.

“It’s one thing to like an actor, but the kind of love people have shown me is amazing. I just want to be one of the gang on the ship,” said Borgnine, an Academy Award-winning movie actor who is perhaps most widely known for the TV series McHale’s Navy. (By the way, he knows his way around a ship, having served for 10 years in the Navy prior to taking up acting.)

Borgnine was typical of the celebrities on board. Far from retiring to their cabins and emerging only to fulfill their obligations, they regularly roamed the decks — mingling with the passengers, eating at the buffet, chatting and posing for photographs.

In addition to snagging a much sought after celebrity snapshot, serious film enthusiasts were able to enjoy a selection of scheduled events that TCM had planned: movie screenings, often preceded by introductions from the stars who were in the films, Q & A sessions with the stars, and panel discussions with Osborne and Mankiewicz.

Surprise guests included veteran game show host Wink Martindale, who hosted movie trivia contests, and Chelsie Hightower and Louis Van Amstel from “Dancing with the Stars.”

OK, so they weren’t Fred and Ginger, but they did put on a dazzling dance display. And when Ernie and Eva Marie came out on stage for a whirl around the dance floor with the youngsters, the crowd went wild.

Behind the scenes stories

Although the ship docked at Key West and Cozumel for passengers to go ashore and see the standard tourist attractions, these were merely an added bonus. Probably the most anticipated events were the celebrity presentations prior to film screenings.

Eva Marie Saint talked about the making of North by Northwest. Ernest Borgnine discussed The Poseidon Adventure (an odd film to show on a cruise ship, yes). Tippi Hedren spoke about The Birds, and Norman Jewison featured his film The Thomas Crown Affair

While some of their stories had been told before in autobiographies or previous interviews, it hardly mattered to the devoted throngs of admirers who hung on every word and were thrilled just to be seated a few feet from some of their favorite film personalities.

A much-anticipated event was the appearance of both Saint, 89, and Hedren, 83, as the “Hitchcock blondes” in a discussion with Osborne. Saint was in good form, as evident by her playful sense of humor.

“If you look at the Hitchcock catalog,” Osborne began, “Ingrid Bergman was not a blonde, Teresa Wright [Shadow of a Doubt] was not a blonde, Tallulah Bankhead was not a blonde.”

“So why are we here?” quipped Saint to the laughter of the audience. Appreciating the humor, Osborne wondered if the general belief that Hitchcock favored blondes was just a myth.

Saint wasn’t sure, but Hedren suggested that blondes have both an innocence and a sense of mystery about them, which she thought might have appealed to Hitchcock.

Saint’s sense of humor was also apparent when I interviewed her and she talked about Osborne, 79, who has been primetime host and anchor since TCM made its on-air debut in 1994. “I call him the rock star of the classic movie world. I love my husband of 60 years, then Robert Osborne!”

For his part, Osborne said, “I’ve only been on one other cruise in my life, and that was years ago to Acapulco, so I’m really enjoying this trip and being around so many film fans.”

Osborne added that TCM is seriously looking at having another movie star cruise later this year. Cabins (which went for around $800 to $2,500 per person) sold out within about two months for the inaugural cruise. Announcements of any future cruises will be made on its website, www.tcm.com.

Nick Thomas is author of the recently released book, Raised by the Stars: Interviews with 29 Children of Hollywood Actors, and can be reached through his website, www.raisedbythestars.com.