Dead at 89: Tony-Winning, Emmy-Nominated, Oscar-Nominated Charles Durning

Charles DurningCharles Durning: Oscar-nominated, Tony-winning actor has died

Charles Durning, who romanced Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nominee for The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and To Be or Not to Be, and a Life Achievement SAG Award recipient, died of "natural causes" on Christmas Eve at his home in Manhattan. Durning was 89. (Photo: SAG Life Achievement Award recipient Charles Durning.)

According to reports, Charles Durning (born on Feb. 28, 1923, in Highland Falls, N.Y.) grew up in a large, poor Irish family, as his handicapped father was unable to get work. Five of his nine siblings succumbed to scarlet fever.

Other dramatic events in Durning’s life included his taking part on World War II’s D-Day invasion, being taken prisoner at the Battle of the Bulge, and, in an encounter not that different from a key scene found in Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front, using a rock to kill a young German soldier who had attacked him with a bayonet.

Charles Durning’s show business career began along the lines of a much lighter movie, 42nd Street, with Durning in the Ruby Keeler role. When one of the comedians at a Buffalo, N.Y., burlesque theater didn’t show up, usher Durning was called to go up on stage. His big break, however, would come only in the late ’50s / early ’60s, when producer Joseph Papp had him hired as one of the New York Shakespeare Festival players.

Durning continued working regularly in minor stage roles until his portrayal of an inept, bigoted small-town mayor in Jason Miller’s Pulitzer- and Tony Award-winning 1972 play That Championship Season, co-starring Richard Dysart and Paul Sorvino. Durning’s personal success in That Championship Season helped to jumpstart his Hollywood career.

Charles Durning movies

Charles Durning’s interest in movies reportedly began after he watched King Kong and several James Cagney movies. If so, he was about 10 or 11 — or perhaps in his mid-teens, in case he watched the 1938 King Kong rerelease — when he decided to become a film actor. He then had to wait about four decades for his big film break: a supporting role as a corrupt cop in George Roy Hill’s 1973 Best Picture Oscar-winning blockbuster The Sting, starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford.

Following The Sting, Durning’s film career would remain in high gear for another 15 years, during which time he became a popular and well-regarded supporting player in dozens of movies.

As found on the IMDb, Charles Durning movie appearances of the ’70s include those in Billy Wilder’s The Front Page (1974), with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau; Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (1975), starring Al Pacino, and for which Durning received a National Board of Review Award for Best Supporting Actor and a Golden Globe nomination; and Robert Wise’s The Hindenburg (1975), a role he particularly liked, opposite George C. Scott and Anne Bancroft. ("I did a few movies with Anne Bancroft, and that ain’t chopped liver," Durning later recalled to then Screen Actors Guild president Alan Rosenberg. "She’s a good lady and she went to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, like I did, but she graduated. She had talent.")

Also: J. Lee Thompson’s The Greek Tycoon (1978), with Anthony Quinn and Jacqueline Bisset; Brian De Palma’s The Fury (1978), with Kirk Douglas and John Cassavetes; Alan J. Pakula’s Starting Over (1979), with Burt Reynolds and Jill Clayburgh; and Fred Walton’s horror thriller When a Stranger Calls (1979), as the cop who rescues Carol Kane in the nick of time.

In Colin Higgins’ 1982 box office hit The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas ($69.7 million in North America, approx. $188 million today), Charles Durning played The Governor, a corrupt politician with nimble feet. The musical comedy based on the smash Broadway hit starred Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton, but Durning — a former dance coach — was the one who stole the notices and earned an Oscar nod for his efforts. (Durning apparently also stole the show at a party at Burt Reynolds’ house, when Fred Astaire asked him to dance. "So I danced with him," Durning told Alan Rosenberg. "He led me and I led him, and he patted me on the shoulder. Really nice man.")

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Charles Durning photo: © Screen Actors Guild.

Continue Reading: Charles Durning: From Nazi Officer to Falling in Love with Dustin Hoffman

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