27 December 2012
Acclaimed American character actor of stage and screen who was twice nominated for an Oscar
With a stocky frame but light on his feet, Charles Durning was as adept in genial comic roles as he was in portraying vicious authority figures. He was in his fortieth year when he first claimed wide public attention as an actor with his portrayal of Lieutenant Snyder, the snarling, corrupt policeman who harries Robert Redford’s grifter in The Sting (1973). He had broken through on the Broadway stage a year earlier and this was his big break into Hollywood. He soon became one of Hollywood’s pre-eminent character actors. Charles Durning was born in 1923 in Highland Falls, New York, near to West Point, where his mother was a laundress and his father a sergeant in the Army. He was the fourth of five children.
At the age of 12 he lost his father, an Irish immigrant who had been badly wounded in the First World War, and at 16 he left home, his first job being as an usher at a burlesque house in Buffalo, where he got his first taste of being on stage when he had to replace a comedian who was too drunk to perform.
During the Second World War he served with the 1st Infantry Division, landing at Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. It was the first time he had seen action. “I was the second man off my barge and the first and third men got killed," he recalled. He was dropped just short of the shoreline and found himself in 60ft of water with a 60lb pack on his back. He got rid of the pack and reached the shore without either a helmet or a rifle, but found plenty on the beach. Despite suffering machine gun and shrapnel wounds, Durning killed seven German gunners that day.
Three days later he was shot in the hip and the bullet remained there for life. Durning survived two further brushes with death. In Belgium he was stabbed eight times by a German soldier but managed to bludgeon his adversary to death with a rock. He was later taken prisoner and was one of only 21 men to survive the massacre of American PoWs at Malmedy, in which more than 80 soldiers were shot by machineguns mounted on the back of trucks. Subsequently he was brought back to the scene of the massacre to help identify some of the bodies.
He returned to the United States after sustaining a bullet wound in the chest and was discharged in January 1946. In the course of the war Durning received the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, the Bronze Star Medal, the Silver Star Medal, and three Purple Hearts.
For the next four years he was in and out of hospital, dealing with both the physical and psychological effects of the war. In the late 1940s Durning trained as an actor at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts but was thrown out “because I had not talent and no hope of buying any if there was any for sale". Also kicked out at the same time, again for having no talent, was Jason Robards.
Thereafter Durning spent many years performing in nightclubs and Off-Broadway productions while holding down various jobs as an iron worker, an elevator operator, a cabbie, and a waiter. He was even a professional boxer for a short while and fought at Madison Square Garden in New York. In his early years as an actor, when he was out of work he would supplement his income by working as a teacher of ballroom dancing at the Fred Astaire Dance Studio. “Dancing came easy to me," he once said. “Acting came hard. Well, it’s hard for everybody."
After playing in the national tour production of Civil War drama The Andersonville Trial, he joined Joseph Papp’s theatre company for the New York Shakespeare Festival and over the next 12 years he played numerous roles for Shakespeare in the Park as well as other roles which transferred to Broadway theatres. Typically, he was cast in all the Shakespearean clown roles, but he yearned to play more serious characters. Other Broadway stage appearances in the 1960s, away from Papp’s company, included a couple of musicals that lasted for a handful of performances only and one musical comedy, The Happy Time, which ran for 286 performances in 1968. Meanwhile, Durning was beginning to make guest appearance in TV shows such as The High Chapparal, Madigan and All in the Family.
His first film appearance was in Ernest Pintoff’s Harvey Middleman, Fireman (1965). A few years later, Robert De Niro, with whom he was friendly, got him a job, playing the superintendent of an apartment building in the Brian De Palma film Hi, Mom (1970).
But it was his role in The Sting that transformed his career. In 1972 he was playing the lead role in Joseph Papp’s production of Jason Miller’s Pulitzer-winning play That Championship Season on Broadway when he was spotted by the film director George Roy Hill, who decided to cast him in his next film, The Sting.
The Sting was a box-office phenomenon and Durning’s performance was notable alongside those of Robert Shaw and Madeline Kahn. Next up was a role in Billy Wilder’s remake of The Front Page, starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. His experience as a ballroom dancer came in useful in the CBS television movie Queen of the Stardust Ballroom (1973), in which he played a postman who woos a lonely widow, played by Maureen Stapleton, at a local dance hall, and for which he received his first Emmy award. He received another Emmy for his supporting role in the NBC television mini-series Captains and the Kings (1976), a saga about an Irish immigrant in the late 19th century.
Other notable roles in the 1970s included a policeman in Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Senator Stephen Douglas (Lincoln’s opponent) in the television movie The Rivalry (1975), O’Brien in Breakhart Pass (1975), Captain Pruss in The Hindenburg, Officer Murphy in the television series The Cop and the Kid (1975-76), a US President in Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977), another cop (Spermwhale Whalen) in The Choirboys (1977), and Coach Johnson in the American football film North Dallas Forty (1979).
In quick succession in the early 1980s he had three film roles that gained much attention and acclaim. In Tootsie (1982) he played Les, the macho father of Dustin Hoffman’s girlfriend (Jessica Lange), who falls for Hoffman’s secret transvestite alter ego as a soap As the Governor in the film musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982) he danced a two-step and also sang, for which he received his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role.
In 1983 he played “Concentration Camp" Erhardt in the Mel Brooks remake of the film comedy To Be or Not To Be, for which he was again nominated for a Supporting Actor Oscar the following year.
He played Catholic priests, prison wardens, congressmen, judges, mayors, and cops of various moral shades. In addition to a dancing Texas Governor (The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas), a dancing Mississippi Governor (O Brother, Where Art Thou?), and a US President, he has played a Supreme Court Justice (in the CBS television series First Monday) and a Pope (John XXIII in another television movie), and he also holds the peculiar distinction of having played Santa Claus in five television movies.
He formed a close acting bond and lasting friendship with Burt Reynolds, appearing with him in no fewer than seven films as well as in the television series Evening Shade (1990).
Durning never abandoned his roots as a stage actor, once urging young actors to do at least three or four years on the stage instead of getting a well-paid role in a television series early that will ruin them. His performance as the elderly father in On Golden Pond (1980) at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles persuaded Jane Fonda to buy the film rights for her father. His later stage career included the role of Big Daddy in Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1990), for which he received a Tony Award as Best Featured Actor, and acclaimed roles in Inherit the Wind (1996), The Gin Game (1997), Glengarry Glen Ross (2000), and Gore Vidal’s The Best Man (2000). He received the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Featured Actor in the 2005 Off-Broadway production of Wendy Wasserstein’s Third.
In 2004 he was invited by his fellow actor Ossie Davis, another ex-soldier, to take part in the National Memorial Day Concert to commemorate the 60th anniversary of D-Day. From that date he rarely missed participating in this annual event, in addition to which he frequently accepted invitations to participate in other events honouring US veterans. He was especially proud to have received the National Order of the Legion of Honour from the French consul in Los Angeles in 2008.
In 2007 he received the 44th Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award, and about 60 years after they kicked him our for having no talent, the American Academy of Dramatic Arts saluted him at a Legends of the Academy event along with Gena Rowlands and Anne Bancroft. He was nominated for a Golden Globe four times and won for his supporting role in The Kennedys of Massachusetts (1990).
He had three children with his first wife, Carol. They were divorced in 1972. He later married his high school sweetheart, Mary Ann Amelio. She survives him, with his children.
Charles Durning, actor, was born on February 28, 1923. He died on December 24, 2012, aged 89
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