The following is my entry in the What a Character! 2014 blogathon, taking place from Nov. 16 through 18 at the blog “Once Upon a Screen.” Visit the blog at http://aurorasginjoint.com, and get some fascinating insights into well- and lesser-known character actors throughout the history of movies!
Do you have a favorite actor who brings you pure joy as soon as you see him on the screen? For me, that actor is Charles Durning. And versatile? Name another actor who has worked with The Muppets, Mel Brooks, Norman Lear, and the Coen Brothers.
And if ever there was an actor who had a lot to crow about but never did, it’s Durning, starting with his stint in World War II. In 1944, he participated in the Normandy Invasion and was wounded by a German mine there. As a result of his valor in battle, Durning received the Silver Star, Bronze Star, and Purple Heart medals, among countless other accolades.
Durning began his acting career in 1951 and eventually became known in his field as “the king of character actors.” He ended up performing in work from some heavy hitters, including playwrights Sam Shepard and David Mamet. He also prided himself on being a top-notch ballroom dancer, which no doubt led to his turn in the 1975 TV-movie Queen of the Stardust Ballroom opposite Maureen Stapleton.
Having been born 10 years after Durning started acting, I was not aware of him until I saw him in a guest-starring role on “All in the Family,” where he played an insensitive cop who grilled Gloria Stivic (Sally Struthers) about her near-rape that she had reported to the police.
For quite a while, that solidified my take on Durning as a portrayer of very nasty people. He had notable movie roles at that time that were quite similar, as when he played a crooked cop in the Paul Newman/Robert Redford period piece The Sting.
There was also his turn as The Muppet Movie’s Doc Hopper, who wants to use Kermit the Frog as the spokesman for his fried-frog-leg restaurant chain. (Kermit’s repulsed response: “All I can see are millions of frogs on tiny crutches.”)
I don’t know if something happened in Durning’s personal life to turn him around in 1982. But from that point on, he seemed to lighten up considerably. That year brought Durning two of his most delightful film roles. First there was Tootsie, the superb comedy in which Dustin Hoffman’s character, a desperate actor named Michael, dresses up as “Dorothy” to land a role in a TV soap opera.
Durning played the father of Michael’s co-star, who falls in love with Dorothy not knowing of his/her history. Like the movie, Durning eschewed cheap laughs and showed genuine affection for this “woman” before he found out the truth about Dorothy.
Then there was Durning’s brief but sterling turn in the movie version of the musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. With the number “Sidestep,” where Durning’s oily politician literally dances around every question he’s asked, Durning stole the show — no mean feat in a movie that features Dolly Parton at her most bosomy.
Durning was nominated for an Oscar for his role in Whorehouse, as well as for his following role as a flustered Nazi in Mel Brooks’ remake of Ernst Lubitsch’s famed WWII black comedy To Be or Not to Be.
Nearly a decade later, Durning was featured at his most sanguine in Burt Reynolds’ sitcom “Evening Shade.” Durning played laconic small-town doctor Harlan Eldridge and got laughs in every scene where he appeared, sometimes by seemingly doing nothing more than showing up. He went on to do recurring roles in other sitcoms, including “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “Rescue Me.”
Never far from Durning’s forefront, though, was his shattering experience in World War II. For more than a decade, Durning was an honored guest speaker at the National Memorial Day Concert broadcast each year on PBS. Every year, Durning would appear and tell stories about his fellow soldiers, many of whom never made it home from the war. With each passing year, you could tell the toll that it took on Durning to perform this task, but he carried on with it as a tribute to his late comrades.
Durning’s WWII years also served him well in a superb TV appearance. On a 2005 guest role on “NCIS” — for which he was, most deservedly, nominated for an Emmy — he played a WWII veteran who insists upon turning himself in for the murder of a fellow soldier during combat in Iwo Jima. As the episode progresses, Durning’s quiet ferocity eventually moves many people on the NCIS staff — not to mention more than a few TV viewers — to tears. It was definitely one of Durning’s (many) finest hours.
Like all outstanding actors (character- or otherwise), Durning won over his peers and his audiences by playing every role truthfully, whether it meant that we liked him or hated him. Here’s how Durning summed up his modus operandi:
“There are many secrets in us, in the depths of our souls, that we don’t want anyone to know about. There’s terror and repulsion in us, the terrible spot that we don’t talk about. That place that no one knows about — horrifying things we keep secret. A lot of that is released through acting.”
Durning died of natural causes in 2012, at age 89. Luckily for us, his wonderful work lives on.