One of Burt Young’s earliest onscreen roles came on M*A*S*H
Soon after, the "Ernest Borgnine of the '70s" snagged an Oscar nom for Rocky.
In the second season MAS*H episode “L.I.P.,” celebrated character actor Burt Young guest starred as a visiting lieutenant who at one point shares a martini with Hawkeye in the Swamp.
About halfway through the episode, Young asked the burning question that audiences had long been wondering: “What’s in this stuff?”
“Oh, a little bit of this, a little bit of that, a lot of dreams,” Hawkeye jokes.
For Young, clinking “Cheers!” with Hawkeye might as well have been toasting to the start of his critically acclaimed career.
After his appearance on MAS*H, critics couldn’t stop praising the actor dubbed the “Ernest Borgnine of the Seventies.”
The very next year, Young made the jump from small TV roles to the big screen, appearing in Chinatown. The director of that film told newspapers that Young featured in the film’s best scene, but we’ll never see it because the movie had been deemed “too confusing” already and that particular scene got cut.
Young thought it was the right call, but always regretted that scene never airing.
He had nothing to fret in regards to his acting future, though, because a few years later, he was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his appearance in Rocky.
Playing Rocky’s best friend Paulie, Young gave an extremely moving performance. The budding actor said he knew instantly when he read the script that he had to do the part, no matter how little money it paid.
In fact when he received the paltry offer, he told The Calgary Albertan in 1977 that his reaction was to say: “Big deal. That’s the Battle Cry of the industry. We Don’t Have Much Money. But I read it anyway, Stallone’s script, and it stood tall as a sonovagun. I knew it was a winner. I told my people, get what you can [as payment] – but don’t blow this job.”
After Rocky, Young became Stallone’s protégé, developing as a screenwriter for movies and TV while being very selective when it came to the roles he accepted as an actor.
“I turned down a lotta things, even when I was nowhere,” Young said. “That’s the hard part, see, because that’s when they come back at you with the money. That’s when they bait the hook. With a picture like Rocky, they let you read the script and you say, ‘Please let me do it.’’ And you do it for nothing. Then something comes along, you say, ‘No, this is no good,’ and they offer you a ton of money.”
For Young, the money had to be tempting, but his resolve to steer his career right was stronger.
Growing up in Queens, before he started acting, Young described himself as a “lightweight thief” and heavy-weight fighter.
He was scrappy, and he did what he could to survive, eventually joining the Marines, then attempting to launch a few failing businesses that left him bankrupt.
He only turned to acting by chance, from the suggestion of a waitress who was also an actor.
After his success with Rocky, Young never had to worry about money again, and he moved his family from a cramped New York apartment to a comfortable Beverly Hills estate.
Since the Seventies, Young has remained a prolific character actor, perhaps most memorably in more recent times giving a guest performance on The Sopranos. Today at the age of 82, he continues to appear in movies.
Although he swapped coasts to reside in California, Young never really left behind New York, though.
“If you blink, I’m gone,” Young said, explaining that he left California for Queens every chance he got because he missed being around his own people: “The motley crowd I grew up with. We still share everything. All these mugs, they’re like me – they’ve always chased a buck instead of a vocation.”
Although Young was glad that acting meant he never had to go back to heavy weight fighting or any other less secure way to scrape by, he said that there was one part of acting that he never quite got used to over his long, prolific career.
“I cringe when I see myself do emotional things on the screen, because I’m so exposed,” Young said. “Because I’m not that open in real life.”