Charles Durning

Charles Durning

Born Feb. 28, 1923 in Highland Falls, NY, Durning was reared solely by his mother Louise after his father, John, died when he was very young, leaving Louise to support her and her son by working as a laundress at the nearby West Point military academy. As a teen, Durning displayed the tenacious nature that would later earmark many of his film and television roles by working as an usher at a burlesque theater in Buffalo, NY. He even took to the stage there after a comic was relieved of his job for drunkenness. He also did time as a professional boxer, construction worker, elevator operator, cab driver, nightclub singer and ballroom dancer before making his stage debut in Buffalo. Unfortunately, like many men just starting out their lives at the time, world events proceeded to get in the way. When America entered World War II, Durning was drafted into the Army as a rifleman and was present at the invasion of Normandy on D-Day in 1944. The event was by all accounts a horrific one for him: among the first wave to land on Omaha Beach on June 6, he suffered machine gun wounds to his right leg and shrapnel injuries over his entire body. He also received eight stab wounds from a German soldier, whom he killed with a rock in hand-to-hand combat. As the lone survivor in his unit, Durning was immediately shipped to England to recover, and returned to the frontlines for the Battle of the Bulge in late 1944. He was once again wounded and taken prisoner by Axis forces, and was one of only a handful of POWs to survive the brutal massacre at Malmedy, in which German forces machine-gunned an engineering battalion that had been caught behind enemy lines after the American retreat and who were surrendering at the time. Durning was shipped back to the United States and received treatment for his injuries as well as psychological trauma from his involvement in these two bloody ordeals; eventually being discharged in 1946 with three Purple Hearts and the Silver Star. Durning would later be a regular figure at events honoring World War II vets, but did not speak about his experiences until his "Evening Shade" co-star, Ossie Davis, suggested that he appear at the annual National Memorial Day Concert on the 50th anniversary of D-Day in 2004. In interviews, Durning revealed that he still struggled with the lingering physical and mental effects of his experiences. In 2004, his story was incorporated into an episode of "NCIS" (CBS, 2003- ) in which he guest-starred as a veteran who turns himself into the authorities for the accidental murder of a fellow GI at Iwo Jima.After the war, Durning returned to his entertainment career. Despite injuries to both legs, he found regular employment as a nightclub and ballroom dancer, as well as an instructor at Fred Astaire Studios. With the help of the recent GI Bill, he also enrolled at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and began landing stage roles in regional and touring productions. By the early 1960s, he was an in-demand performer on the New York stage, with 35 performances for Joseph Papp's Shakespeare Festival and turns in Broadways comedies and musicals. His first on-camera parts came during this period as well. He made his TV debut in 1963 in an episode of the acclaimed drama "East Side/West Side" (CBS, 1963-65); his first film appearance came two years later in the experimental comedy "Harvey Middleman, Fireman" (1965). For the next few years, Durning alternated between stage productions, television guest shots and TV movies, most notably the Emmy-nominated "Look Homeward, Angel" (1972). He also had supporting turns in features, including two appearances in early films by Brian De Palma: 1970's "Hi Mom!" for which he was billed as Charles Dunham, and 1973's "Sisters." During this period, Durning divorced his first wife, Carol, and married Mary Ann Amelio - reportedly, his childhood sweetheart - in 1973.His profile on stage and in film was elevated considerably by his turn in the 1972 Broadway run of Jason Miller's "That Championship Season." Director George Roy Hill saw the show and tapped Durning to play a corrupt police lieutenant in "The Sting" (1973). That film's box office success assured Durning of regular work in features, and for much of the 1970s, he essayed pugnacious types with police and military backgrounds - most notably as the hostage negotiator who must deal with Al Pacino's bank robber in "Dog Day Afternoon" (1973), which earned him a National Board of Review award and a Golden Globe nomination, and an American president held hostage by rogue military men in Robert Aldrich's "Twilight's Last Gleaming" (1978). There were lighter roles during this period as well; Durning's gleefully malevolent turn as Doc Hopper, owner of a chain of frog's legs restaurants, was one of the highlights of "The Muppet Movie" (1979). He also lent his considerable comic talents to films like "The Choirboys" (1977), "North Dallas Forty" (1979), and "Starting Over" (1979) - his first of numerous collaborations with Burt Reynolds. Durning could also be vulnerable and enormously sympathetic, as his Emmy-nominated role as a lonely postman who finds romance with a widow (Maureen Stapleton) in "Queen of the Stardust Ballroom" (1975) could attest."Queen" marked a long period of accolades for Durning in the late 1970s and 1980s. He also received nominations for his supporting performances in the miniseries "Captain and the Kings" (1977), "Attica" (1980), and "Death of a Salesman" (1985), in which he starred as Willy Loman's neighbor Charley. He also earned two Oscar nods for a pair of full-bodied performances; the first, as the governor in the otherwise glum film version of "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" (1982) and the other as a lustful Nazi officer in the Mel Brooks remake of "To Be or Not To Be" (1983). One role that should have brought him an Academy Award nomination was as Jessica Lange's father, who falls for Dustin Hoffman's female alter ego in "Tootsie" (1983). His response once he learns that Dorothy is, indeed, a man after putting his heart on the line was one of the most touching scenes in the film. But there were few, if any pictures in which Durning did not give a solid and entertaining performance. Indeed, his presence could be counted on to lend credence to even the most forgettable projects like 1985's "Stick," the failed John Cassavetes comedy "Big Trouble" (1986) and "Brenda Starr" (1989).Durning had reached his mid-sixties by the 1990s, but his productivity continued at the same breathless pace. He won Tony and Drama Desk Awards as Big Daddy in an acclaimed production of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" on Broadway in 1990, and continued to appear in notable theater productions throughout the decade. These included the 1997 revival of "The Gin Game" (opposite Julie Harris), which brought him the Drama League Distinguished Performance Award, and a 1996 revival of "Inherit the Wind" with George C. Scott. He also remained remarkably busy at the movies; he was Chief Brandon in Warren Beatty's colorful epic "Dick Tracy" (1990); the president of Hudsucker Industries, whose cartoonish suicide sets the screwball plot of "The Hudsucker Proxy" (1994) in motion; and Holly Hunter's big-hearted father in "Home for the Holidays" (1995).Even with his big screen successes, his television output was even more expansive. He earned a 1990 Golden Globe as Joseph Kennedy, patriarch of the political clan in "The Kennedys of Massachusetts," and was a series regular or recurring character on no less than four shows during the decade, including "Cybill" (CBS, 1995-98), as Cybill Shepherd's father; the short-lived "Orleans" (CBS, 1997), "Everybody Loves Raymond," as the Barone's long-suffering parish priest; and most notably "Evening Shade," for which he earned two Emmy nominations as slow-witted town doctor Harlan Elleridge. The character was so well-liked that a pilot for a spin-off series, "Harlan and Merleen," was shot by "Evening Shade" star Burt Reynolds in 1993. Durning also picked up Emmy nominations for a 1998 guest appearance on "Homicide: Life on the Street" (NBC, 1993-99), and enjoyed a side career as Santa Claus in no less than five TV movies, including the Emmy-winning musical "Mrs. Santa Claus" (1996), with Angela Landsbury in the title role.The new millennium saw almost no slowdown in Durning's career, despite his advancing age. He remained active on stage in productions of Broadway's "The Best Man," as well as "Glengarry Glen Ross" and "Sweet Bird of Youth." During this time, he won the 2006 Lucille Lortel Award for Wendy Wasserstein's "Third at Lincoln Center" and also recounted his stage career in the documentary, "Broadway: The Golden Age" (2004). Notable film appearances during this time included the unctuous Southern governor Pappy O'Daniel in the Coen Brothers' "O Brother Where Art Thou?" (2000) - in which he did a memorably jolly jig in the film's final concert scene - and David Mamet's comedy "State and Main" (2000), which brought him and the rest of its stellar cast a National Board of Review Award in 2001. Television remained a constant as well, with Emmy nods coming for the aforementioned episode of "NCIS" in 2005, and regular appearances on "Family Guy" (Fox, 1999-2002, 2005- ) as Peter Griffin's hard-boiled adoptive dad, and "Rescue Me," as Denis Leary's ex-firefighter dad.In 2007, Durning was recognized as a "Legend" by the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and in 2008, the 84-year-old actor was awarded with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Screen Actors Guild. Upon receiving a thunderous standing ovation from the star-filled audience, Durning approached the podium, and with the same mix of twinkling charm and streetwise bravado he brought to all his roles, quipped, "Is that it?" Always busy, Durning continued performing well into his eighties, maintaining a steady presence as Leary's cantankerous father on "Rescue Me" right up until the show ending its run in 2011, while landing supporting turns in offbeat films like the British-made comedy "A Bunch of Amateurs" (2009) and the critically derided black comedy "Unbeatable Harold" (2009). But even a performer as prolific as Durning eventually slowed down, which he did in the following decade. Then on Dec. 24, 2012, he died in his Manhattan home of unknown causes at 89 years, the same day Hollywood lost another icon, veteran television actor Jack Klugman.By Paul Gaita


Guest Appearances