Charles Durning: An appreciation of the SAG honoree

Along with Jack Klugman, character actor Charles Durning also passed away on Christmas Eve. He died of natural causes at his New York City apartment at the age of 89.

As with Klugman, his pursuit of acting had to be put on hold when he was drafted into the US Army during World War II. Durning served with distinction, despite injuries that resulted in three Purple Hearts, winning both the Silver and Bronze stars for valor. On D-Day, June 6, 1944, he was wounded in the leg while in one of the first units to land on Omaha Beach. He went on to fight in the Battle of the Bulge and was captured by the Germans at one point.

Following the war, he worked as a journeyman actor for decades, appearing in small roles in theater, film and television. His big breaks came one after the other in 1973. He was featured as Mayor George Sitkowski in Jason Miller’s Tony- winning play “That Championship Season” and as a corrupt police officer in that year’s Best Picture champ, “The Sting.”

Durning went on to reap two Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actor. The first came for playing an over-the-top governor in the 1983 film version of the Tony-winning musical “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas”. He lost that race to Louis Gossett Jr. (“An Office and a Gentleman”). He contended again the following year for his performance as a bumbling Nazi officer in Mel Brooks’ “To Be or Not To Be,” losing this time to Jack Nicholson (“Reds”). 

Durning racked up an impressive nine Emmy nominations throughout his career but never won. He was nominated for TV Movie/Miniseries Actor for “Queen of the Stardust Ballroom” in 1975. He also contended three times for TV Movie/Miniseries Supporting Actor for “Captains and the Kings” (1977), “Attica” (1980) and “Death of a Salesman” (1986). He got back-to-back nods for Comedy Supporting Actor “Evening Shade” in 1991 and 1992. And he was cited three times for Guest Drama Actor for “Homicide: Life on the Street” (19980, “NCIS” (2005) and “Rescue Me” (2008).

He was nominated for four Golden Globes, winning in 1991 in the catch-all TV supporting actor category for playing John Fitzgerald in “The Kennedys of Massachusetts”.

A year earlier, he had won his only Tony bid for his featured performance in a revival of Tennesse Williams‘ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” He played Big Daddy opposite Kathleen Turner as Maggie and Daniel Hugh Kelly as Brick. 

Durning capped off his career in 2008 with two big honors: the Life Achievement Award at the Screen Actors Guild Awards in January and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame next to that of his idol James Cagney in July. 

His life leading up to his acting career was one of hardship that seemed like the plot to a film that would feature him. Born in Highland Falls, New York in 1923, he was the fourth of ten children. His mother worked as a laundress at West Point because his father couldn’t work, having lost a leg in World War I. His father died when Durning was only 12 and his five sisters died of scarlet fever and smallpox while still in childhood.

He is survived by his second wife, Mary Ann Amelio, from whom he is separated but not divorced, as well as his three children: Douglas, Michele and Jeanine. He will be buried in Arlington National Cemetery during a private service.

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