Charles Durning overcame some of the most harrowing life experiences to become one of the most successful actors in movies, theatre and television for more than 40 years, playing everything from cops (both good and crooked) to priests, an assistant football coach on “North Dallas Forty,” to Dustin Hoffman’s clueless suitor in “Tootsie,” and so much more.
Born the 9th of 10 children on February 28, 1923 in Highland Falls, NY, Durning’s life was tragic from the start. His father, James, an Irish immigrant, had been sickened by mustard gas and lost a leg during World War I. He died when Charles was only 12, leaving his mother to support the family as a laundress at West Point. In addition, 5 of his sisters either died from scarlett fever or smallpox as children (three of them within two weeks).
After dropping out of school, Charles left home (“so his mother would have one less mouth to feed”), and stumbled about doing menial jobs including working as a farmhand and then usher at a burlesque theatre before enlisting in the army during World War II.
Durning was among the first wave of troops to land at Omaha Beach on D-Day (June 6, 1944), and ended up the lone survivor of his unit, which was caught in a machine-gun ambush. Then within months, Durning was taken prisoner during the Battle of the Bulge (December 16, 1944-January 25, 1945) and forced to march through the pine forest near Malmedy, where German soldiers opened fire on almost 90 prisoners. Although he was one of the few to survive the massacre, he was later stabbed in hand-to-hand combat with a German solider, whom he beat to death with a rock.
By the end of the War, Charles Durning had been awarded a Silver Star for Valor and two Purple Hearts for having suffered both gunshot and schrapnel wounds, as well as severe psychological trauma that saw him hospitalized for months. After which, he says he “dropped into a void for almost ten years,” before enrolling in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York.
However, the school threw him out within a year. “They basically said you have no talent and you couldn’t even buy a dime’s worth if it was for sale,” he told the New York Times in 1997.
Yet, despite life-long doubts, Charles Durning went on to become one of the most familiar (and beloved) actors both on screen and off, often “overshadowing” performances by “major” co-stars.
He is survived by daughters Michele and Jeanine Durning, as well as son Douglas Durning.