Wed. January 2
Charles Durning: A War Hero–and an Actor
It was sad to read of the passing of a terrific character actor, Charles Durning, on December 24 at the age of eighty nine. But it was surprising and profoundly moving too because to read the obituaries of Durning’s life is to realize that his greatest accomplishments had little to do with the reason for his prominence, namely his fame as an actor.
Indeed, to read about Durning is to understand just how important his life was in spite of his acting, not because of it. His story is one of survival, hard work, and service to country.
Durning was fortunate to survive his childhood first of all. As the ninth of ten children, five of whom died of scarlet fever and small pox, reaching adulthood was no guarantee. After the death of his father when he was a teenager, Durning up and left his family in order to relieve his mother of the burden of one more mouth to feed.
To earn a living he worked as a farmhand and as the usher at a burlesque show, which is where he got bitten by the performing bug. But his acting career was still some two decades away.
Having lost his father to illness incurred while fighting in World War I, perhaps it was no surprise that Durning would enlist to fight in World War II. But the mere description of his experiences seems more likely to have come out of a war-movie script than real life.
As the New York Times’ obituary reads:
[Durning] was in the first wave of troops to land on Omaha Beach on D-Day and his unit’s lone survivor of a machine-gun ambush. In Belgium he was stabbed in hand-to-hand combat with a German soldier, whom he bludgeoned to death with a rock. Fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, he and the rest of his company were captured and forced to march through a pine forest at Malmedy, the scene of an infamous massacre in which the Germans opened fire on almost 90 prisoners. Mr. Durning was among the few to escape.
By the war’s end he had been awarded a Silver Star for valor and three Purple Hearts, having suffered gunshot and shrapnel wounds as well.
After the war, Durning said he “dropped into a void,” working an amazing variety of jobs over nearly a decade, including cab driver, dance instructor, doorman, dishwasher, telegram deliveryman, bridge painter and tour guide.
This is just not the type of stuff we expect to learn when reading the obituary of an actor. A long list of prior work experience having nothing to do with the entertainment industry? War hero? Durning’s accomplishments and valor prior to his becoming famous were much more meaningful and impressive than anything that earned him an Emmy or Oscar nomination. And yet, what followed from his wartime nightmare is clearly worth noting as well.
In 1962, he got his big acting break from Joseph Papp, founder of the Public Theatre, who invited him to audition. Durning remembered that he nearly missed his chance when he tried to be funny with Papp during their first phone conversation. “So I called him and he said, ‘Do you know Julius Caesar?’ And me, always ready with that idiot wit that cost me many a job, said, ‘Not personally.’ There was a silence on the other end, like he thought maybe he’d made a mistake,” Durning recalled.
And as for his acting skill, Durning deserves praise for his ability to play hard and soft, scary and endearing characters with equal verve and style. Did anyone not love to hate Durning in The Sting (1973)? And whose heart didn’t break just a little for Durning’s misplaced affections for Dustin Hoffman’s man-dressed-as-a-woman-soap-star in Tootsie (1982)?
We are left with the life story of an American war hero, who survived family trauma and poverty to emerge into the rarified air of Hollywood and Broadway stardom. Charles Durning then is that rare example of an actor truly deserving of admiration and praise.
Abby W. Schachter is a Pittsburgh-based journalist and blogger. Follow her on twitter.com/abbyschachter