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.