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Obituary: Charles Durning

Charles Durning

Obituary by Jack Foley

CHARLES Durning, the acclaimed character actor of films such as The Sting and Tootsie, has died at the age of 89.

The real-life war hero passed away on Christmas Eve (2012) at his New York home of natural causes, according to long-time agent and friend Judith Moss.

A prolific character actor and multiple award winner and nominee, Durning has a long and enviable list of credits spanning stage, TV and film to his name.

What’s more, he was also the recipient of a Silver Star and three Purple Hearts for services to his country during World War Two, during which he was actively involved in the D-Day landings.

Born on February 28, 1923, in Highland Falls, NY, Durning was the son of an Army officer but developed a passion for the arts at an early age, taking classical dance lessons in his youth.

After high school, however, he served in the Army’s 1st Infantry Division during World War II and was part of the D-Day invasion.

After the war and his subsequent discharge, he took on several jobs, including a cab driver and dance instructor as well as a boxer, even fighting on the same card as another future actor, Jack Warden, in Madison Square Garden.

But it was his time spent working as an usher for a burlesque establishment that he was asked to deputise for a drunken actor on stage and so took the first steps towards his real passion.

A prolific theatre performer, especially off-Broadway, Durning eventually attracted the attention of Joseph Papp in 1962, who subsequently cast him in 35 plays as part of the New York Shakespeare Festival. This, in turn, helped to raise his profile throughout the industry and he was able to take on work in television too, including playing a police chief in the NBC soap opera Another World.

In 1965, he made his big screen debut in Harvey Middleman, Fireman and went on to work with Brian De Palma on Hi, Mom! in 1971 before landing a key part in the Tony Award-winning That Championship Season in 1972 and coming to the attention of influential director George Roy Hill, who then offered him a plumb role opposite Robert Redford and Paul Newman in The Sting as a crooked cop.

From there, Durning never looked back and, according to IMDB, has 207 film and TV appearances to his name. Some of his most notable films include Dog Day Afternoon, alongside Al Pacino, Breakheart Pass with Charles Bronson, The Greek Tycoon with Anthony Quinn, True Confessions alongside Robert De Niro and Robert Duvall, Tootsie with Dustin Hoffman and Dick Tracy for Warren Beatty (as Chief Brandon).

He also contributed two eye-catching supporting performances to the Coen brothers’ movies The Hudsucker Proxy and O Brother, Where Art Thou?.

Still in film, he achieved the rare feat of earning back-to-back supporting actor Oscar nominations in 1983 and 1984 – the first for playing a comically corrupt governor in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and the second for his portrayal of a Nazi colonel in To Be Or Not To Be, starring Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft.

On TV, he served as a regular on the Linda Bloodworth-Thomason sitcom Evening Shade and had a recurring role as a priest on Everybody Loves Raymond.

More recently, he won widespread acclaim for playing Denis Leary’s grouchy father in the firefighter drama Rescue Me.

His awards haul extended to a Tony for his portrayal of Big Daddy in >Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1990.

In 2008, the Screen Actors’ Guild awarded Durning its Life Achievement Award in recognition of his prolific career, and he was honoured with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2008, which was placed next to that of James Cagney, one of his idols.

As if to underline his worth as a performer, the Los Angeles Times in its obituary of the acting great labelled Durning “the king of character actors”.

He is survived by his daughters Michele and Jeanine and a son, Douglas.