Thesp won Tony for 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof' and earned two Oscar noms
Charles Durning, who often brought an edge to good-natured characters and did memorable turns in “The Sting,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” and “Tootsie,” among many other films, died Dec. 24 of natural causes at his home in New York City. He was 89.
The character actor, who was equally at home playing rural men or blue-collar urbanites, pulled down Oscar nominations for supporting turns in “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” and “To Be or Not to Be.” The portly actor astonished audiences with his nimble work in a musical number in “Best Little Whorehouse”; few knew he had been a professional dancer decades earlier. He also shone in “Tootsie” as Jessica Lange’s dad, who falls in love with Dustin Hoffman in drag; their scenes together were both amusing and touching.
He was also a key presence on the smallscreen for decades, appearing with Maureen Stapleton in classic telefilm “Queen of the Stardust Ballroom” and on the series “Evening Shade,” “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “Rescue Me.” The actor earned a total of nine Emmy nominations.
He started in show business at age 16, after leaving home in Highland Falls, N.Y., where he had been born into a professional military family. His first assignments were as second banana in burlesque in nearby Buffalo.
Durning served in the Army during WWII, receiving the Silver Star and three Purple Heart medals. He was among the first troops to land at Omaha Beach on D-Day and later recovered from serious wounds to serve in the Battle of the Bulge. (In a touching, resonant episode of “NCIS” in 2004, he played a veteran of Iwo Jima suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.)
For a time he hosted his own radio show in Newburgh, N.Y., and appeared as part of a dance team.
On the G.I. Bill he attended Columbia U. and NYU and studied briefly at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where he was let go because he was too short and insufficiently talented, he later recalled. During the ’50s he worked as a cab driver, elevator operator, bartender and dance instructor. He even sang with a band. All the while he was doing plays for a small Brooklyn theater.
In 1962 Durning landed a role in the touring company of “The Andersonville Trial.” Theater impresario Joe Papp spotted him in “Two by Saroyan” soon after, and he became a regular in Papp’s American Shakespeare Theater company, appearing in 35 plays, including 22 Shakespeare productions. He co-starred with some of the finest established and up-and-coming actors including Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Colleen Dewhurst and James Earl Jones.
He appeared in Broadway productions such as “Indians,” “The Happy Time,” “Pousse Cafe,” “Drat the Cat” and “Poor Bitos.” Stardom came in 1972 via “That Championship Season,” for which he won the Drama Desk Award. It was followed by David Rabe’s “In the Boom Boom Room” and “The Au Pair Man” with Julie Harris.
After appearing in independent movies like 1965’s “Harvey Middleman, Fireman” and Brian De Palma’s 1970 effort “Hi Mom!” (later he was in De Palma’s “Sisters”) as well as some studio productions such as 1970’s “I Walk the Line” and 1972’s “Dealing,” Durning got a plum role in the Oscar-winning “The Sting” as a crooked cop and soon thereafter became a reliable character actor in movies. He was in “The Front Page” with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon and a standout in “Dog Day Afternoon” with Al Pacino. Other notable roles in the ’70s included “Twilight’s Last Gleaming,” “The Muppet Movie,” “Starting Over,” “North Dallas Forty,” “The Fury” and the surprise independent horror hit “When a Stranger Calls.”
He also worked regularly in television. The 1975 series “The Cop and the Kid” (which later resurfaced as “Diff’rent Strokes” without Durning) was short-lived but nonetheless brought him an Emmy nomination, as did “Queen of the Stardust Ballroom,” in which he got to show off his nimble footwork and turned in one of his finest performances. He also appeared in the miniseries “Captains and Kings,” “Crisis at Central High,” “Attica” (for which he drew an Emmy nomination), “The Best Little Girl in the World” (another Emmy nom), “Casey Stengel,” “Dark Night of the Scarecrow” and “The Kennedys of Massachusetts.” He starred in a 1985 TV production of “Death of a Salesman” with Hoffman, played the pontiff in 1987’s “I Would Be Called John: Pope John XXIII” and starred in a TV adaptation of David Mamet’s “The Water Engine.”
On the bigscreen during the 1980s, Durning did noted turns in “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” “To Be or Not to Be” and “Tootsie” as well as “True Confessions” and “Mass Appeal,” but as the decade progressed, his films got weaker, such as “Brenda Starr,” “Solarbabies,” “Tough Guys,” “V.I. Warshawski.”
He still took on the occasional flashy role such as in Warren Beatty’s “Dick Tracy” in 1990 and “O Brother, Where Art Thou” in 2000.
But he took solace on the stage, appearing in the L.A. production of “On Golden Pond” with Julie Harris. He won a Tony on Broadway in 1990 for playing Big Daddy in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” He also starred on the Rialto in revivals of “Inherit the Wind” in 1996, “The Gin Game” in 1997 and “Gore Vidal’s The Best Man” in 2000.
He was a series regular in the Burt Reynolds sitcom “Evening Shade” (1990-94), playing town doctor Harlan Eldridge and drawing two Emmy nominations; recurred on “Everybody Loves Raymond” as the family’s parish priest, the long-suffering Father Hubley; guested on a 1998 episode of NBC’s “Homicide: Life on the Street,” drawing another Emmy nom; played one of the Supreme Court justices on the brief 2002 series “First Monday”; guested on a 2004 episode of “NCIS,” drawing another Emmy nom; and recurred on FX’s “Rescue Me” as Denis Leary’s retired firefighter father, receiving yet another nom, in 2008. He also did voice work on Fox animated series “Family Guy.”
Durning was still busy on the bigscreen: In 2008, at the age of 85, he earned five feature credits and in recent years kept up a steady stream of work of indie films. IMDb lists “Scavenger Killers,” still in production, as the actor’s last credit.
In 2008 Durning received the Life Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild as well as a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Durning and his first wife had three children before divorcing in 1972. In 1974, he married his high school sweetheart, Mary Ann Amelio.
He is survived by his children, Michele, Douglas and Jeannine. The family planned to have a private family service and burial at Arlington National Cemetery.
Daughter Jeanine Durning is a well-known New York-based modern dance performer and choreographer.