Charles Durning, the beloved character actor who effortlessly inhabited roles from Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on Broadway to the Governor in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, from a police negotiator in Dog Day Afternoon to Tommy's ex-firefighter father on Rescue Me, died at age 89 yesterday. His agent said he passed away in Manhattan of natural causes.
The NY Times' obituary notes his childhood in poverty in upstate NY and his appeal:
Charles Durning may not have been a household name, but with his pugnacious features and imposing bulk he was a familiar presence in American movies, television and theater, even if often overshadowed by the headliners.
Alongside Paul Newman and Robert Redford’s con men, Mr. Durning was a crooked cop in the 1973 movie “The Sting”; starring with Nick Nolte; he was a dedicated assistant football coach in “North Dallas Forty” (1979); in the shadow of Robert De Niro, he was a hypocritical power broker in “True Confessions” (1981).
If his ordinary-guy looks deprived him of leading-man roles, they did not leave him typecast. He could play gruff and combative or gentle and funny. In the comedy “Tootsie” (1982) he was a little of each, playing Jessica Lange’s unsuspecting father, who falls for a television actor masquerading as a woman.
Durning also served in World War II:
His combat experiences were harrowing. He was in the first wave of troops to land on Omaha Beach on D-Day and his unit’s lone survivor of a machine-gun ambush. In Belgium he was stabbed in hand-to-hand combat with a German soldier, whom he bludgeoned to death with a rock. Fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, he and the rest of his company were captured and forced to march through a pine forest at Malmedy, the scene of an infamous massacre in which the Germans opened fire on almost 90 prisoners. Mr. Durning was among the few to escape.
At a National Memorial Day concert in 2005, Durning described being part of the first wave in Normandy, "It was scary...you're not thinking about anything, you're just thinking about you hope that shell, if this went off, isn't going to hit the boat. Even the guys who'd seen a lot of action before—and this was my first time—they were just as ashen as I was. And I was frightened to death. I was the second man off my barge, and the first and third man got killed."
His war experience left him a Silver Star, three Purple Hearts, and mental issues. A decade after leaving the army, he started acting and studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts (fellow classmates were Jason Robards. Colleen Dewhurst and Grace Kelly) but was kicked out. After various jobs, including doormam, cabdriver, boxer and telegram deliverer, he met theater producer Joseph Papp and started acting in his productions.
Here are some clips of Durning:
In The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas:
In The Sting:
In Dog Day Afternoon: