Tuesday, December 25, 2012

RIP: Charles Durning

Bummer. We lost a legend early this morning: Charles Durning, legendary character actor of stage and screen. You may not know his name, but you've seen him in movies and probably enjoyed him.

Durning was one of the great self-made men of modern acting. Born into poverty, he left home of his own accord to ease the financial burden on his mother, traveling and taking odd jobs as he found them. While working as an usher in a burlesque house, he found himself standing in for a no-show stage comic and got bitten by the acting bug. But, before he could fully commit to theater, World War II broke out and he enlisted.

Though he seldom ever spoke about his military service, Durning was a decorated hero: He was the only survivor of a first-wave troop that charged Omaha Beach on D-Day only to be ambushed by machine gun fire, he was taken prisoner while fighting at the Battle of The Bulge and was one of only three P.O.W.'s to escape the notorious Malmedy Massacre. All told he was seriously wounded three times, recieving three Purple Hearts and the Silver Star for Valor; and after all but the final injury returned to combat. One of those injuries included being stabbed eight times with a bayonet during hand-to-hand combat with a German soldier in Belgium. He lived through the fight by ultimately bludgeoning his attacker to death with a rock; and would later cite his own horror at the realization that his enemy was only a teenager as a reason he preferred not to discuss his time as a soldier - it was only in the final decade of his life that he became comfortable speaking of it publically, as in this 2007 appearance at the National Memorial Day Concert.

Upon returning to the U.S., he spent a long period going through the veterans health system for his physical and psychological wounds (he'd later state that he still suffered from nightmares into old age) and also training as a dancer, singer and professional boxer; he returned to the stage and established himself as a hardworking and sought-after performer of classical and modern American dramas. In the late-70s and early-60s he broke into the movies as an equally sought-after character and voice actor, lending his unique cadence and feisty energy to films as diverse as "The Sting" and "The Muppet Movie." He was nominated for two Oscars, multiple Emmys and Tonys throughout his career.

Durning passed away of natural causes, in the presence of family. Below, his signature scene from "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," a role which netted him one of those Oscar nods: