Charles Durning, who was often called the ultimate character actor because of his ability to inhabit almost any role, from everyday workingman to politician to priest, and who saw some of the fiercest combat in Europe during World War II, died Monday at his home in New York City. He was 89.
His agent, Judith Moss, confirmed his death to the Associated Press but did not disclose the cause.
Durning appeared in almost 200 movies, numerous television shows and dozens of plays, portraying a range of characters from Shakespearean fools to crooked cops to military veterans haunted by the past. He was nominated for two Academy Awards and nine Emmy Awards and won a Tony Award for his performance as Big Daddy in a 1990 Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
But the short, thick-bodied Durning was virtually unknown until he was almost 50. He got his major break in Jonathan Miller’s 1972 Broadway play about the aging members of a high school basketball team, “That Championship Season.” A year later, he appeared as a corrupt police officer in the con-man caper movie “The Sting,” with Paul Newman and Robert Redford.
By then, Durning had accumulated a lifetime of real-world experience. He had held dozens of menial jobs and, while serving as an Army infantryman, was among the first soldiers to land on the Normandy beaches during the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944.
He was wounded in battle three times, captured by Nazi troops and escaped the most deadly massacre of U.S. prisoners during the war. He later helped liberate the Buchenwald concentration camp.
It took years for Durning to recover from his physical and psychological wounds.
“It’s your mind that’s hard to heal,” he told The Washington Post in 1994. “There are many horrifying secrets in the depths of our souls that we don’t want anyone to know about.”
After keeping silent about his wartime experiences for decades, Durning appeared several times at Memorial Day observances at the Capitol in Washington and Arlington National Cemetery in Northern Virginia. More than 50 years after he had left the battlefield, he still had nightmares, he said.
After the war, determined to pursue acting, he studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York until he was kicked out.
“They basically said, ‘You have no talent,' ” he later recalled, ” ‘and you couldn’t even buy a dime’s worth of it if it was for sale.' ”
He took speech lessons to overcome a stutter and attended dance class as a form of physical therapy. He became so adept that he became a professional ballroom dancer and teacher.
His other jobs included working as a comedian, night watchman, dishwasher, sightseeing guide, bridge painter, bricklayer, plumber’s helper, bartender and cabdriver. At 30, he was delivering telegrams, while appearing in plays where his payment came from the passing of a hat. From such a life did the character actor develop his character.
When he took on a working-class role, he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2001, he needed no preparation.
“I could be one of these guys,” he said. “I dug ditches and built foundations and poured and mixed concrete. I still remember: ‘One shovelful of cement to six shovelsful of sand.' ”
In the early 1960s, Joseph Papp hired Durning for the New York Shakespeare Festival. He said Papp’s belief in him “opened up the gates of heaven for me.” Durning had 22 Shakespearean roles over a dozen years.
But success still didn’t arrive for years. In 1964, Durning played a priest in a touring company of “Fiddler on the Roof” — but his role was cut from the play before it reached Broadway.
After the breakthrough of “That Championship Season,” in which he played a small-town mayor, Durning finally began to get steady work as an actor. Besides his Tony-winning role in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” — described by critic Frank Rich in The New York Times as “an indelible hybrid of redneck cutup and aristocratic tragedian, of grasping capitalist and loving patriarch” — Durning appeared in such Broadway classics as “Death of a Salesman,” “Inherit the Wind,” “Glengarry Glen Ross” and “The Gin Game.”
He was nominated for an Emmy for playing the middle-aged suitor of Maureen Stapleton in the 1975 TV movie “Queen of the Stardust Ballroom.” He received Oscar nominations for his role as an over-the-top singing and dancing governor in “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” (1982) and for portraying a Nazi officer in the 1983 Mel Brooks spoof “To Be or Not to Be.”
The range of his roles almost defies belief. He tried to seduce Dustin Hoffman’s female persona in “Tootsie” (1982); he won a Golden Globe as best supporting actor in 1991 as John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald in the TV film “The Kennedys of Massachusetts"; he was a police officer opposite Al Pacino in “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975); he appeared in one-man roles as baseball manager Casey Stengel and as Pope John XXIII; he was the father of a comically dysfunctional family in Jodie Foster’s “Home for the Holidays” (1995). From 1990 to 1994, he was the buffoonish town doctor in “Evening Shade,” a CBS comedy set in Arkansas.
He had guest appearances on such TV shows as “Homicide,” “NCIS” and “Everybody Loves Raymond” and played the father of Denis Leary’s character in the FX fire-department drama “Rescue Me” from 2004 to 2011.
In all of his roles, Mr. Durning aimed for simplicity and sincerity.
“The simpler you are, the clearer it is to the audience,” he said in 1990. “I barely got out of high school. I don’t know how to break down a play. I don’t how to read poetry. All I can do is start from the beginning and learn the lines.”
Charles Durning was born Feb. 28, 1923, in Highland Falls, N.Y. He was one of 10 children, only five of whom lived to adulthood. His Irish immigrant father lost a leg in World War I and died when his son was 12. His mother did laundry at the nearby U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.
Durning left home at 16 and worked as an usher at a burlesque house in Buffalo, where he first took the stage after a comedian didn’t show up for work. He sang in a dance band and held other jobs before joining the Army.
At Omaha Beach on D-Day, he said in one of his Memorial Day appearances in Washington, “I was the second man off my barge, and the first and third men got killed.”
He later fought in the Battle of Bulge and, in hand-to-hand combat, killed a German soldier with a rock. Durning was bayoneted eight times.
Later, he was among more than 100 U.S. soldiers captured near Malmedy, Belgium. German troops opened fire on the prisoners, killing more than 80. Durning managed to escape but returned to help identify the victims.
He was awarded the Silver Star, Bronze Star Medal and three Purple Hearts.
Durning’s first marriage, to Carol Durning, ended in divorce.
In 1974, he married the former Mary Ann Amelio, who had been his teenage sweetheart. Both had married and had children, but they were reunited when her daughter greeted Durning backstage after a performance of “That Championship Season.” The next night, the couple had their first date in more than 30 years.
Mary Ann Durning survives, along with three children from his first marriage.
Durning seldom took vacations and rarely went to parties, except for a weekly poker game with other actors. In 2008, he received a Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award and was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame near that of his boyhood idol, Jimmy Cagney.
“You know, I never set out to win awards,” Durning said, summing up his workmanlike career. “I set out to pay the rent.”