Charles Durning 1923-2012
This titan of character actors was born in Highland Falls, NY., one of 10 children of Louise and James Durning who were Irish immigrants. The son of an Army officer, Charles Durning left home at 15, supporting himself with an odd assortment of menial jobs including boxing, ironwork and construction. Durning got his first taste of acting as an usher at a burlesque theater in Buffalo, NY when he was asked to take the place of one of the comedians who showed up too drunk to perform. He recalled years later that he was hooked as soon as he heard the audience laughing.
A decorated war hero, Durning served in the Infantry Division in World War 2 and landed at Omaha Beach on June 6th, 1944 (D-Day) and was one of the few who survived. He was awarded a Combat Infantry Badge, a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and 3 Purple Hearts. After serving his country he returned to New York attending Columbia and NYU to study acting under the G.I. Bill.
After working in the industry during the 1960s in small television roles and stage work, Durning’s breakout performance occurred on Broadway in 1972 having the starring role in That Championship Season where he was noticed by George Roy Hill who cast him his multi award-winning film The Sting 1973 with Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Durning was equally entertaining in the Billy Wilder production of The Front Page 1974 whose cast included Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Susan Sarandon and Carol Burnett. He supported screen tough guy Charles Bronson in the suspenseful western Breakheart Pass 1975. He appeared in Dog Day Afternoon 1975 with Al Pacino and featured as “Spermwhale Whalen” in the story of unorthodox police behavior in The Choirboys 1977 with Louis Gossett Jr and Perry King.
The versatile Durning was equally adept at comedic roles and demonstrated his skills as “Doc Hopper” in The Muppet Movie 1979, a feisty football coach in North Dallas Forty 1979 with Nick Nolte and a highly strung police officer berating maverick cop Burt Reynolds in Sharkey’s Machine 1981. He played the love interest in Tootsie 1982 with Dustin Hoffman, Jessica Lange and Teri Garr, and a light-footed, dancing Governor (alongside Burt Reynolds once more) in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas with Dolly Parton and Dom DeLuise the same year. In 1983 he did To Be or Not to Be with Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft and Dick Tracy 1990 with Warren Beatty and Al Pacino. Durning continued a regular on-screen association with Burt Reynolds appearing in several more feature films together and as “Dr. Harlan Eldridge” in the highly popular TV series Evening Shade. On par with his multitude of feature film roles, Durning was always in high demand on television and guest starred in Everybody Loves Raymond, Monk and Rescue Me. He also played Santa Claus 5 times in TV movies.
On the craft of acting, Durning shared these dark yet fascinating thoughts, “There are many secrets in us, in the depths of our souls, that we don’t want anyone to know about. There’s terror and repulsion in us, the terrible spot that we don’t talk about. That place no one knows about — horrifying things we keep secret. A lot of that is released through acting”. He offered this lighthearted view of seldom being the lead character ” Of course, I’m not often the top dog, but sometimes it’s better not to be top dog, because you last longer. If a movie or play flops, you always blame the lead. They say: “He couldn’t carry it.” They always blame him. But they rarely blame the second or third banana”.
A beefy character actor, often in tough dominant roles, Charles Durning’s career spanned more than 50 years where he appeared in well over 200 film, television and theatre roles. He earned 9 Emmy Award nominations, 2 Oscar nominations, won a Tony for the role of Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on Broadway in 1990, was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from The Screen Actors Guild in 2008 and was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame next to his idol James Cagney the same year. Well respected and loved by everyone who knew and worked with him, Durning passed away on Christmas Eve of natural causes in Manhattan.