NEW YORK, (Reuters) – Charles Durning, a World War Two hero who became one of Hollywood’s top character actors in films like “The Sting,” “Tootsie” and “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” has died, a New York City funeral home said today. He was 89.
Durning, who was nominated for nine Emmys for his television work as well as two Academy Awards, died of natural causes at his New York City home on Monday, his agent told People magazine. Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel in Manhattan confirmed Durning’s death to Reuters.
Durning also was an accomplished stage actor and once said he preferred doing plays because of the immediacy they offered. He gained his first substantial acting experience through the New York Shakespeare Festival starting in the early 1960s and won a Tony Award for playing Big Daddy in a 1990 Broadway revival of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
Durning did not start amassing film and TV credits until he was almost 40 but went on to appear in more than 100 movies, in addition to scores of TV shows.
Durning’s first national exposure came playing a crooked policeman who gets conned by Robert Redford in the 1973 movie “The Sting.” He got the role after impressing director George Roy Hill with his work in the Pulitzer- and Tony-winning Broadway play “That Championship Season.”
Durning had everyday looks – portly, thinning hair and a bulbous nose – and was a casting director’s delight, equally adept at comedy and drama.
Durning was nominated for supporting-actor Oscars for playing a Nazi in the 1984 Mel Brooks comedy “To Be or Not to Be” and the governor in the musical “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” in 1983. “Whorehouse” was one of 13 movies Durning made with friend Burt Reynolds, as well as Reynolds’ 1990s TV sitcom “Evening Shade.”
Other notable Durning movie roles included a cop in “Dog Day Afternoon,” a man who falls in love with Dustin Hoffman’s cross-dressing character in “Tootsie,” “Dick Tracy,” “Home for the Holidays,” “The Muppet Movie,” “North Dallas Forty” and “O Brother Where Art Thou?”
He was nominated for Emmys for the TV series “Rescue Me,” “NCIS,” “Homicide: Life on the Street,” “Captains and the Kings” and “Evening Shade,” as well as the specials “Death of a Salesman,” “Attica” and “Queen of the Stardust Ballroom.”
Durning was a fan of Jimmy Cagney and after returning from harrowing service in World War Two he tried singing, dancing, and stand-up comedy. He attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts until he was kicked out.
“They basically said you have no talent and you couldn’t even buy a dime’s worth of it if it was for sale,” Durning told The New York Times.
He worked a number of make-do jobs – cab driver, dance instructor, doorman, dishwasher, telegram deliveryman, bridge painter, tourist guide – all while waiting for a shot at an acting career. Occasional stage roles led him to Joseph Papp, the founder of the New York Shakespeare Festival, who became his mentor.
“Joe said to me once, ‘If you hadn’t been an actor, you would have been a murderer,'” Durning told the Times. “I don’t know what that meant. I hope he was kidding. He said I couldn’t do anything else but act.”
Durning grew up in Highland Falls, New York, and was 12 years old when his Irish-born father died of the effects of mustard gas exposure in World War One. He had nine siblings and five of his sisters died of smallpox or scarlet fever – three within a two-week period.
Durning was part of the U.S. force that landed at Omaha Beach during the D-Day invasion in June 1944. A few days later he was shot in the hip – he said he carried the bullet in his body thereafter – and after six months of recovery was sent to the Battle of the Bulge.
Durning, who was wounded twice more, was captured and was one of the few survivors of the Malmedy massacre when German troops opened fire on dozens of American prisoners. In addition to three Purple Heart medals for his wounds, Durning was presented the Silver Star for valor.
At an observation of the 60th anniversary of D-Day in Washington, Durning told of the terror he felt and carnage he saw when hitting the beach on D-Day. He said he had to jettison his weapon and gear in order to swim ashore and saw mortally wounded comrades offering themselves as human shields.
“I forget a lot of stuff now but I still wake up once in a while and it’s still there,” he said. “I can’t count how many of my buddies are in the cemetery at Normandy.”
Durning was married twice and had three children.