Sunday, December 30, 2012

Charles Durning 1923-2012

Charles Durning
When Charles Durning died last week at the age of 89, the stories of his life sounded like something Dickens would've written. He had one heck of a journey, that's for sure. Larger than life in all his roles, Durning made it through childhood poverty, incredible war service, Shakespeare with Joseph Papp, a stint as a dance teacher, and then more television and film roles than you could throw a stick at, including nominations for Tony, Oscar and Emmy Awards. He won a Golden Globe for his appearance as John Fitzgerald (AKA Honey Fitz) in 1990's TV miniseries The Kennedys of Massachusetts, a Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

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.


  1. It doesn't seem to be online, so I have to quote from memory, but his Tony acceptance speech for "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" was inimitably him: something like "Some of you may feel that I don't deserve this award... well, I've got arthritis, and I don't deserve that either."

  2. Did you see that performance? I never would've guessed at the Shakespeare with Joe Papp thing. Durning kept getting the eye of the people he needed to keep pushing ahead just a little at a time, even if his roles also kept supporting other actors who were more noticed, like George C. Scott and Julie Harris, all the way back to Robert Goulet and Paul Sorvino.

  3. I did see the performance, though not on Broadway -- the play had its rehearsals and tryout here in Wilmington, so I just had to drive 20 minutes to get to the theater. He stood out above everyone else for me, though Polly Holliday was also excellent, and Daniel-Hugh Kelly quite good. (We'll leave Kathleen Turner, and the way the role seems to get misplayed, for another time.) I guess I knew about the Shakespeare connection from the theater histories I'd read; it was the dance-instructor thing that was news to me! (I guess, in that period, it would ballroom dancing, for something like an Arthur Murray franchise?) I always enjoyed his "Sidestep" number, but figured it for an old-trouper bit of knowing how to put it over, not realizing he had actual background in movement.

  4. I also love him in "Queen of the Stardust Ballroom" with Maureen Stapleton. So bittersweet.

  5. I didn't see that, either, but it's a perfect role for him. (Including dancing!) And I love Maureen Stapleton. *Her* speech (winning an Oscar for REDS) I remember. There was a part about Joel McCrea being her inspiration that was just adorable and then she said, "I just want to thank everybody I ever met in my entire life!"

  6. Okay, so I looked it up and Joel McCrea came *after* the "everybody I ever met" part.

  7. Branching out, I just read a touching and rather surprising tribute to her, in a book of interviews with actors. Zoe Caldwell was asked about actors for whom she had a special admiration, and she named Ralph Richardson and Maureen Stapleton. She said something like "Maureen tries to pass herself off as a silly Irish drunk, where in fact she is a Great. Artist. Like Ralph, she doesn't do anything onstage that seems like 'acting' -- she just lives within the role, and we feel we have learned something true about ourselves."