Charles Durning: Actor who played nearly 200 film roles

'I was the second man off my barge,' he said of D-Day. 'The first and the third men got killed'

Charles Durning was often called the ultimate character actor because of his ability to inhabit almost any role, from everyday working man to politician to priest.

He appeared in almost 200 films, numerous television shows and dozens of plays, portraying anything from Shakespearean fools to crooked policemen to military veterans haunted by the past. He was nominated for two Academy Awards and nine Emmys and won a Tony for his performance as Big Daddy in a 1990 Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

The short, thick-set Durning was virtually unknown until he was almost 50. He got his major break in Jonathan Miller’s 1972 Broadway play about the aging members of a high school basketball team, That Championship Season. A year later, he appeared as a corrupt police officer in The Sting.

 By then, he had accumulated a lifetime of real-world experience. He had held dozens of menial jobs and as an Army infantryman was one of the first to land on the Normandy beaches on D-Day in 1944.  He fought in the Battle of Bulge and, in hand-to-hand combat, killed a German soldier with a rock. He was bayoneted eight times.

He was one of 10 children, only five of whom lived to adulthood. His Irish immigrant father lost a leg in the First World War and died when his son was 12. His mother did laundry at the nearby West Point Military Academy.  Durning left home at 16 and worked as an usher at a burlesque house in Buffalo, where he first took the stage after a comedian didn’t show up for work. He sang in a dance band and held other jobs before joining the Army.  At Omaha Beach on D-Day, he said in one of his Memorial Day appearances in Washington, “I was the second man off my barge, and the first and third men got killed.”

He was among more than 100 US soldiers captured near Malmedy in Belgium. German troops opened fire, killing more than 80. Durning managed to escape but returned to help identify the victims. He was awarded the Silver Star, Bronze Star Medal and three Purple Hearts. He also helped liberate Buchenwald. It took years for him to recover. “It’s your mind that’s hard to heal,” he said. “There are many horrifying secrets in the depths of our souls that we don’t want anyone to know about.”

 After the war he studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York until he was thrown out.  “They basically said, ‘You have no talent,’” he recalled. He took speech lessons to overcome a stutter and attended dance class as a form of physical therapy. He became so adept that he became a professional ballroom dancer and teacher. His other jobs included comedian, night watchman, dishwasher, sightseeing guide, bridge painter, bricklayer, plumber’s helper, bartender and cab driver. At 30, he was delivering telegrams, while appearing in plays where his payment came from the passing of a hat.

In the early 1960s, Joseph Papp hired Durning for the New York Shakespeare Festival. He said Papp’s belief in him “opened up the gates of heaven for me.” Durning had 22 Shakespearean roles over a dozen years. But success still didn’t arrive for years. In 1964, he played a priest in a touring production of Fiddler on the Roof, but his role was cut before the play reached Broadway.

After the breakthrough of That Championship Season, in which he played a small-town mayor, Durning began to get steady work. Besides his Tony-winning role in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, described by critic Frank Rich as “an indelible hybrid of redneck cutup and aristocratic tragedian, of grasping capitalist and loving patriarch”, he appeared in such Broadway classics as Death of a Salesman, Inherit the Wind, and Glengarry Glen Ross.

He was nominated for an Emmy for playing the middle-aged suitor of Maureen Stapleton in the 1975 TV film Queen of the Stardust Ballroom and received Oscar nominations for his role as the over-the-top singing and dancing governor in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982) and for his Nazi officer in the 1983 Mel Brooks spoof To Be or Not to Be.

His range was huge. He tried to seduce Dustin Hoffman’s female persona in Tootsie (1982), won a Golden Globe as best supporting actor in 1991 as John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald in the TV film The Kennedys of Massachusetts, he was a police officer opposite Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon (1975), appeared in one-man roles as the baseball manager Casey Stengel and as Pope John XXIII.

He later had guest appearances on such shows as Homicide, NCIS and Everybody Loves Raymond and played the father of Denis Leary’s character in the FX fire-department drama Rescue Me from 2004 to 2011.

In all of his roles, Durning aimed for simplicity and sincerity, he said: “The simpler you are, the clearer it is to the audience.”

Charles Durning, actor: born Highland Falls, New York 28 February 1923; married firstly Carol (marriage dissolved; three children), 1974 Mary Ann Amelio; died New York 24 December 2012.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Ben Little, right, is a Labour supporter while Jonathan Rogers supports the Green Party
general election 2015
News
The 91st Hakone Ekiden Qualifier at Showa Kinen Park, Tokyo, 2014
news
Life and Style
Former helicopter pilot Major Tim Peake will become the first UK astronaut in space for over 20 years
food + drinkNothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
News
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
football
Life and Style
health
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
Life and Style
Buyers of secondhand cars are searching out shades last seen in cop show ‘The Sweeney’
motoringFlares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own