Durning was born in Highland Falls, New York, a small town whose only other claim to fame was that Billy Joel lived there for awhile in the 70s. Durning's family was large, but poor, and five of his nine siblings died in childhood. According to the New York Post, his first experience with theater came when he worked as an usher at a burlesque show in Buffalo, New York. When one of the comedians showed up soused to the gills, Durning supposedly went on in his place, basking in the laughter and finding his place in the world.
But then he was drafted into the U.S. Army, serving among the troops rushing Omaha Beach on D-Day. All around him, his fellow soldiers were going down, but somehow Durning survived, the only member of his unit to make it. With wounds in his legs, hands and head, he was patched up and sent back, just in time for the Battle of the Bulge. For his military service, Durning received three Purple Hearts and a Silver Star. He didn't talk much about those days until an appearance on PBS's Memorial Day television celebration in 2007. You can hear what he had to say in the clip linked here.
After that, he returned to New York, taking a job as a dance instructor. He supposedly said that dancing was easy, but acting was hard. By the early 60s, Durning was appearing regularly in Shakespeare productions with Joseph Papp's Public Theater. He also began to get roles on Broadway, like the musicals Drat! The Cat! and Pousse-Café, two shows that played for 11 performances combined. The Happy Time with Robert Goulet was more successful, although Durning's role wasn't one of the ones that got a lot of notice. It was in That Championship Season, Jason Miller's Pulitzer Prize winner, that Durning really began to break out. Another Joseph Papp production, the play transferred from Off-Broadway to Broadway's Booth Theatre in 1972, winning the Tony for Best Play to go with the Pulitzer. Durning earned a Drama Desk nomination for his role as George Sikowski, one of the reunited basketball players who has traded on his former sports success to become the mayor of their town, even though his wife is cheating on him with one of the other players and his political career is in serious jeopardy because he's so bad at it. It was the kind of role Durning did best, as an authority figure with cracks in his facade, an uneasy jocularity, and a sense of warmth and vulnerability even when playing unpleasant roles.
Durning had done more than twenty TV and film appearances by the time The Sting came along in 1973, but his performance as Snyder, the bulldog of a cop who keeps coming after Robert Redford's Johnny Hooker, really put him on the map. He also got noticed for another cop role in 1975's Dog Day Afternoon, picking up an award from the National Board of Review and a Golden Globe nomination.
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982) showed off his singing and dancing skills, earning him an Oscar nomination in the process. You can watch him "Do a little sidestep" in the clip below.
Durning was nominated for an Oscar again in 1984 for his role as a bumbling Nazi colonel in Mel Brooks' remake of To Be or Not to Be, plus he picked up numerous Emmy nominations, including two for his work on Evening Shade, where he played a small-town doctor alongside pal Burt Reynolds, his costar from Whorehouse.
Back on Broadway, he played Big Daddy in a 1990 revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, taking home the Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Play. Durning was Matthew Brady opposite George C. Scott in Inherit the Wind, the other half of The Gin Game opposite Julie Harris, and the ex-president in the 2000 revival of Gore Vidal's The Best Man.
But my personal favorite performance from Durning is in the Coen Brothers' film The Hudsucker Proxy, where he played Hudsucker himself, setting the plot in motion when he jumps out a window from the very top of the Hudsucker Industries Building. You can see the dancing man, the joy of performance and the wonderful character actor in his Hudsucker scenes. Here he is, as an angel, in the scene below.
The life of Charles Durning, with his Oliver Twist beginnings, his heroic military career, his rise to fame and fortune, would've made a great movie. It's just too bad he isn't here to star.