by Shannonn Kelly
10:20AM, EST December 26, 2012
Christmas eve angels were on double duty as another terrific character actor, Charles Durning died. He was 89 years-old.
In 2003, I worked on the set of a fairly forgettable MOW called “A Very Married Christmas” that starred Joe Mantegna, Jean Smart and Charles Durning who played a “a volunteer Santa”that helped the two lead characters get together.
I remember at one of the first evening meals, I kept watching Mr. Durning hoping he would be the wonderful person I thought he was. He did not disappoint. Warm. Genuine. Accessible.
On the same day, 90 year-old actor Jack Klugman also died. Klugman was best known as Oscar Madison on TV’s “The Odd Couple“.
Durning and Klugman had much in common as they shared successes on TV, in Film and on Stage as revered character actors.
Charles Durning is at the top of my list as one of my favorite character actors. Durning was excellent in “The Sting“opposite Paul Newman and Robert Reford (1973); director Billy Wilder’s “The Front Page” (1974) with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau; “Dog Day Afternoon” with Al Pacino (1975) for which Durning won for Best Supporting Actor from the National Board of Review; “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” co-starring Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton (1982) and “Tootsie” (1982) opposite Dustin Hoffman.
What set Durning apart from other character actors for me was seeing him and Maureen Stapleton in the wonderful MOW called “Queen of the Stardust Ballroom” (1975). Durning played Al Green an overweight postman who dances like Fred Astaire and woos retired, newly widowed Bea Asher played by Stapleton. It was a sweet movie with the agile, light-footed Durning turning this into an unexpected treat. Sure enough I learned later that Durning was a trained dancer and had been a master dance instructor.
What makes his dancing prowess even more incredible is that Durning’s legs were severely injured during his stint in WWII.
According to Wikipedia:
Durning was wounded by a German “S” Mine on June 15, 1944 at La Mare des Mares, Normandy. He was transported to the 24th Evacuation Hospital and by June 17 he was in England at the 217th General Hospital. He was severely wounded by shrapnel in the left and right thighs, the right hand, the frontal head region, and the anterior left chest wall.
Durning recovered quickly and was determined to be fit for duty on December 6, 1944. He arrived back at the front in time to take part in the Battle of the Bulge, the German counter-offensive through the Ardennes Forest of Belgium and Luxembourg in December 1944.
Subsequently, Durning was at one point captured by the Germans and reportedly narrowly escaped a massacre of prisoners.
After being wounded again, this time in the chest, Durning was returned to the United States. He remained in Army hospitals until being discharged with the rank of Private First Class on January 30, 1946.
Here’s a cute music video directed by Sean Penn for “Dance With The One That Bought You” by Shania Twain, featuring Charles Durning.
Nominated 13 times for various awards including an Academy Award®, SAG® and the aforementioned NBR, Durning was nominated four times for a Golden Globe®, winning his last nomination in 1991 for his role as Massachusetts mover and shaker John Francis “Honey-Fitz” Fitzgerald in the TV mini-series “The Kennedys of Massachusetts” (1990), that also starred Casey Affleck.
To read a thoughtful obituary on the wonderful Charles Durning, by Robert Berkvist at the NY Times, please Click here.