Charles 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. (Image: 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.”)
Charles Durning: Fell in love with Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie
Charles Durning’s second Oscar nomination was for his comic Nazi officer in Mel Brooks’ 1983 remake of Ernst Lubitsch’s classic black comedy To Be or Not to Be, with Brooks and Anne Bancroft in the old Jack Benny and Carole Lombard roles as members of a theater troupe. Although Brooks’ version was deemed inferior to the original, Durning received widespread praise. (Sig Ruman had played the Nazi officer in the 1942 original, delivering the then infamous line: “What he [Jack Benny’s character] did to Shakespeare we are doing now to Poland.”) [Photo: Tootsie Charles Durning, Dustin Hoffman.]
Among Charles Durning’s other key ’80s movies were Sydney Pollack’s Tootsie (1982), in which he fell for Dustin Hoffman in drag; Mass Appeal (1984), as a stern Catholic monsignor having trouble with priest Jack Lemmon and seminarian Zeljko Ivanek; Jeff Kanew’s Tough Guys, with Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas; and, playing an obstinate patriarch, Sam Shepard’s little-seen family drama Far North (1988), with Jessica Lange and Tess Harper.
For the most part, Durning’s late-’80s movies were less prestigious than those of the previous ten years. In the ensuing two decades, they would be mostly of the same – or even lower – caliber. The most notable exceptions to that rule were two Joel and Ethan Coen efforts: The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), with Tim Robbins, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Paul Newman, and O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), with George Clooney and John Turturro. Additionally, David Mamet’s State and Main (2000), earned several Best Ensemble awards for its extensive cast featuring the likes of Sarah Jessica Parker, William H. Macy, Alec Baldwin, Patti LuPone and others.
Charles Durning: More awards
For his TV work, Charles Durning received a total of nine Emmy nominations, including those for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or a Special for Volker Schlöndorff’s Death of a Salesman (1986), starring Dustin Hoffman; two nods for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series for Evening Shade (1991/92); and his most recent one, for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series for Rescue Me (2008). In addition, Durning won a Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Series, Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for TV for Lamont Johnson’s The Kennedys of Massachusetts, in which he played John ‘Honey Fitz’ Fitzgerald.
And in 2008, Durning received the Screen Actors Guild’s Life Achievement Award from the hands of Burt Reynolds, with whom he had been featured in seven films.
“My thanks to the Screen Actors Guild,” Durning said at the time. “There’s nothing more gratifying than having an Achievement Award from one’s peers. Over 50 years ago, I had the honor of working with some of the best actors, directors, and writers in our industry. It’s been a dream come true. A dream that began when I watched the movies of the great character actors of my time. Actors like: Claude Rains, Lee J. Cobb, Frank Morgan, and King Kong.”
Durning wrapped up his SAG Awards speech with the following: “I think I better get off before they turn the lamps down – and there’ll be a lot of mischief going on. And me among them. I’ll see you later.”
Tootsie Charles Durning, Dustin Hoffman photo: Columbia Pictures.
Charles Durning photo: © Screen Actors Guild.