Podwit Profile: Charles Durning, American Hero

Posted: January 6, 2013 by Dion in Podwit Profile
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Many people know him by sight, but not by name. Sadly, Charles Durning, the iconic character actor who honed his craft so well he made it look effortless, passed away Christmas Eve at the ripe old age of 89.

You may know him from films like Dog Day Afternoon, The Sting, Tootsie, The Final Countdown, O Brother Where Art Thou? and The Muppet Movie; or most recently on TV as the crotchety father to Dennis Leary in Rescue Me or as Peter Griffin’s dad in Family Guy. For a man who didn’t step in front of a camera until he was past 40, he earned over 200 credits on the stage, television, and the silver screen.

charles-durning

But like other Podwit profiles, we are not here to discuss his lengthy resume as a thespian, but instead his life leading up to his segue into the career that put his name on the map. It’s wild, unbelievable, frightening and sad, but as the old adage goes, sometimes fact is stranger than fiction.

Durning with Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon

Durning with Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon

Durning was born into poverty in upstate New York in 1923 and was one of ten children. His mother was a laundress for West Point, and his father an Irish immigrant and a disabled veteran who lost his leg in combat and was sickened from exposure to mustard gas in the First World War. He passed away in 1939, when Charles was 16. Five of his sisters did not survive childhood, dying from smallpox and scarlet fever, three of them within two weeks.

Charles_620_122612-1He got his first taste of acting as an usher at a theater in Buffalo, volunteering to take the stage in place of a performer who showed up too drunk to go on—and said that was when the acting bug first bit him. Though audiences were used to his rather large frame and bell-like stomach because they didn’t get to know him until he was in his 50s, it is little known that early on he was actually a dance instructor, and would fall back on those skills when he couldn’t find work. He also practiced judo in the 1940s, long before it was generally popular in the States.

He was even, briefly, a professional prizefighter and actually shared a card with actor Jack Warden one night at Madison Square Garden.

Durning with Steve McQueen in the largely unknown Enemy of the People

Durning with Steve McQueen in the largely unknown Enemy of the People

Then Durning was drafted and entered World War II, and with it a chapter in his life he would seldom discuss. It wasn’t until recent years that it became widely known.

He was with the first wave who landed on Omaha Beach during the Normandy Invasion and was a witness to the slaughter that happened on those beaches on June 6, 1944. He recounted:

 This guy in the boat, he turned to me and he threw up all over me, and I got seasick. He was scared. You’re not thinking about anything, you’re just thinking about, you hope that shell that just went off isn’t going to hit this boat. Even the guys who had seen a lot of action before, and this was my first time, they were just as ashen as I was, and I was frightened to death. I was the second man off my barge and the first and third men got killed. First guy the ramp went down, the guy fell and I tried to leap over him and I stumbled and we both slipped into the water. We were supposed to be able to walk into shore but they didn’t bring us far enough. And I was in 60 feet of water with a 60 pound pack on, so I let it all go…

I came up and I didn’t have a helmet, a rifle, nothing. I hit the beach, the guys pulled me in who were already there, I’d lost everything; but they said ‘you’ll find plenty of them on the beach, rifles, helmets, that belong to nobody’. Nobody knew where we were supposed to go, there was nobody in charge, you were on your own. All around me people were being shot at, I saw bodies all over the place; but you didn’t know if they were alive or dead, they were just lying there… 

….We got behind this tank to protect ourselves; we’re holding our own when they called us over to them. I asked the sergeant ‘you want me to go first or you go first?’ He said ‘you go first, I’ll be right behind you’. I heard an explosion, and I turned around, and his torso was here, and his body was over there.”

Nine days after the invasion, Durning was wounded by a mine and evacuated to a hospital in England with shrapnel in his head, chest, right hand and both thighs. He recovered and was deemed fit for duty and was sent back (by glider!) on December 6 of that year, just in time for the final counterassault against Hitler’s new Tiger tank divisions that ended up a turning point in the war—the Battle of the Bulge.

While trapped in the Ardennes Forest, his company was captured by the SS and forced to march into a field at Malmedy, where the Germans then opened fire on close to 90 American prisoners, killing most in the process. The Malmedy Massacre as it was to be called, was dramatized in the underrated 2003 film Soldiers and Saints. Only a handful of prisoners escaped, Durning included.

Durning along with a young Lance Henrikson in Dog Day Afternoon

Durning along with a young Lance Henrikson in Dog Day Afternoon

If all that was not enough, in his last few years Durning related the heart-wrenching story of crossing a field and encountering a young German who could not have been older than 15, carrying a rifle and bayonet. Durning said he froze at that moment because, to him, this was only a child and he could not open fire. A struggle ensued where Durning was stabbed seven to nine times, until he was able to pick up the closet weapon—a rock—and hit the German soldier in the head until he was dead. He said he then just sat there with the boy in his lap for an unknown period of time and cried.

He finished out the war and was awarded the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, three Purple Hearts, the World War II Victory Medal and eventually, in 2008, the National Order of the Legion of Honor Award, for serving with distinction in France.

But he would never speak of any of this.

He came home and was treated for “shell-shock,” like most vets at the time, and released. Even up until the 1990s, when asked about his World War II service, he would politely decline because, he’d say, they weren’t there to see him cry.

After the war, he endured a decade of obscurity, where he took odd jobs including cab driver, boxer, dishwasher and doorman. He taught ballroom dancing, something that would lead him to his future wife; all the while getting a small part on stage here or there.

O' Brother Where Art Thou?

O Brother Where Art Thou?

And it was not until the early 1960s, when Durning was in his early 40s, that he joined the New York Public Theater and started to get more parts, which eventually got him noticed. And the rest is history.

So the next time you are watching When a Stranger Calls,  The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Dick Tracy or Mel Brooks’ To Be or Not to Be, and you see the jovial, boisterous, round-bellied character actor Charles Durning come onto the screen, you can stare in astonishment, because he made it all just seem so darn easy.

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