Sprinkled among the gold of Charles Durning’s vast resume — nearly 200 film and TV credits dating back to the mid-1960s — is plenty of ore. But what distinguishes SAG’s latest Life Achievement honoree is the craft he has exercised with each assignment, no matter how small the role or ephemeral the material.
Regardless of how often Durning plays certain types, especially cops and clergymen, he has never delivered the same performance twice, finding ways of spinning endless variations on a theme.
His stocky physique, a perfect tool for both intimidation and clowning, has served as an asset in this enterprise. So has his wondrously plastic face — molded for irony, sarcasm or befuddlement. This pitbull can also move with a dancer’s grace.
That’s no surprise to anyone who’s seen “Queen of the Stardust Ballroom” (1975), which earned him the first of eight Emmy nominations, or “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” (1982), which netted him the first of two Oscar nominations — the second was for Mel Brooks’ remake of “To Be or Not to Be” the following year.
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“I’m very happy,” says Durning, who turns 85 Monday, commenting on both the SAG award and his career in general. “I’ve had a good life, and I’m still using it.”
Durning’s good life wasn’t achieved easily. Early on, he wanted to be a singer, evidence of which shows up in various roles, most notably “Whorehouse,” where pretty much a single song-and-dance number brought him that Oscar recognition.
But after returning from World War II, the doors weren’t exactly flinging open for the would-be performer with his everyman looks. “When I came back, I said, ‘Nah, I don’t want to be a singer, I think I’ll be an actor,'” he recalls. “They told me I had no talent, but I did it anyway. ”
It was an uphill struggle. “There was a casting director named Marion Daugherty, and she said, ‘You’re a character actor, and you’re not going to be working until you’re 40.’ She was mostly right.”
At first, Durning found a home in theater under the tutelage of the legendary Joseph Papp in New York. Besides stage work, Durning had the odd guest role on TV, but it wasn’t until George Roy Hill’s “The Sting” (1973) that things really started to look up for the actor.
“That was my big break,” recalls Durning. “I was working with Joe Papp back then, and he wouldn’t let you leave a show, and if you did, he wouldn’t take you back. So I told him about ‘The Sting’ and who was in it and who was directing and all that, and he let me go. And then he said, ‘But you’d better come back right after!’ ”
Papp’s admonition went unheeded. “The Sting,” in which Durning played corrupt but dogged police Lt. Snyder out to get Robert Redford’s conman Johnny Hooker, proved just the confidence booster his film career needed. It was followed by such high-profile work as Billy Wilder’s “The Front Page” (1974); Sidney Lumet’s “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975), in which Durning also played a blustery cop, this time opposite Al Pacino; Robert Wise’s “The Hindenburg” (1975), opposite George C. Scott; and Robert Aldrich’s “The Choirboys” (1977).
Durning has returned to the theater over the years, and even today has special feelings for the stage. “What I love about theater is that it’s so immediate,” he says. “And if they don’t applaud, you know you have to work harder.”
The thought recalls a lesson he learned, from Burt Reynolds. He says he asked his fellow actor, “‘What’s acting about?’ And Burt said, ‘It’s about listening.’ And he’s right. If you’re not listening, the audience isn’t either.”
Through the rest of the ’70s and into the ’80s, Durning continued to up his game, particularly in television: He played father to Jennifer Jason Leigh in “The Best Little Girl in the World” (1981), a groundbreaking TV movie about anorexia, and earned an Emmy nomination as Charley in the celebrated version of “Death of a Salesman” (1985) starring Dustin Hoffman.
Curiously, he was passed over for on Oscar nomination for what may be his most memorable performance from those years: the role of lovestruck Les Nichols in Sydney Pollack’s “Tootsie” (1982), a movie that landed Jessica Lange, his daughter in the film, her first Oscar.
The 1990s found Durning in his first long-running series gig, as Dr. Harlan Elldridge opposite Reynolds in 77 episodes of CBS’ “Evening Shade” from 1990 to 1994. He would do more such work in the years to come: as Father Hubley in seven episodes of “Everybody Loves Raymond” from 1998 to 2002, and in Supreme Court drama “First Monday” (2002), which lasted a season.
Greater success awaited later this decade, when Denis Leary tapped Durning to play his roguish dad on FX’s “Rescue Me,” where Durning enjoyed a 24-episode arc before his character’s death this season.
The actor, however, has no immediate plans to follow his character’s example. “I’m gonna go out feet first,” he says. “In fact, I’m going to be acting under the sod, so if you’re passing by my grave, you may hear me talking — but I’m not planning on leaving anytime soon.”