Another hero "goes west"
Charles Durning Dies
Charles Durning, who has died aged 89, was a prolific American character actor in roles ranging from a wartime Nazi colonel to the Pope, but his most celebrated film part was as a comically corrupt state governor in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982).
Stocky and heavyset, he nevertheless demonstrated some nifty footwork in the film’s show-stopping Sidestep song-and-dance number, a legacy of his early career as a dance instructor. Durning was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor on the strength of this, and year later received another nomination for his portrayal of a bumbling Nazi officer in Mel Brooks’ To Be or Not to Be. He was also nominated for a Golden Globe as the harassed police lieutenant in Dog Day Afternoon (1975).
Durning started his career on the stage, and appeared at the New York Shakespeare Festival. But his breakthrough role was as a small town mayor in the award-winning play That Championship Season in 1972. The following year he made his film debut as the crooked cop stalking two con men, played by Paul Newman and Robert Redford, in the Oscar-winning comedy The Sting.
Dozens of notable screen roles followed. Durning was the would-be suitor of Dustin Hoffman, posing as a female soap opera star in Tootsie (1982); a purveyor of frogs’ legs in The Muppet Movie (1979); and Chief Brandon in Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy (1990). He also played Pope John XXIII in the made-for-television film I Would be Called John.
In all he appeared in more than 100 feature films, including The Front Page (1974), The Hindenburg (1975), Breakheart Pass (1975), Starting Over (1979) and Spy Hard (1996). On television Durning appeared in the short-lived series The Cop and the Kid (1975), Eye to Eye (1985) and First Monday (2002) as well as Evening Shade (1990-94).
One of 10 children, Charles Durning was born on February 28 1923 at Highland Falls, New York, near the US military academy at West Point. His father, an Irish immigrant, was unable to work, having lost a leg and been gassed during the Great War, and his mother supported the family by washing the uniforms of West Point cadets.
When Charles was 12 his father died, and five of his sisters subsequently succumbed to smallpox and scarlet fever. At high school he was told he had no talent for art, languages or maths and was advised to learn office skills. But after seeing King Kong (1933) and some of James Cagney’s films, he knew he wanted to act.
Leaving home at 16, he worked in a munitions factory, and in another making barbed-wire. Eventually he took a job as a variety theatre usher, and when a comedian turned up too drunk to go on one night, Durning took his place.
Drafted into the US Army in 1944, he served with the 386th Anti-aircraft Artillery (AAA) Battalion on D-Day and was the only member of his Army unit to survive when he went ashore at Omaha Beach in the Normandy landings. He killed several Germans and was wounded in the leg by an enemy mine.
After recuperating in Britain, Durning returned to active service in December 1944, only to be bayoneted by a young German soldier whom he killed with a rock. Captured in the Battle of the Bulge, the German counter-offensive through the Ardennes forest in Belgium, he survived a massacre of prisoners-of-war. He was awarded the Silver Star and three Purple Hearts.
In 2008 Durning received the Légion d’honneur from the French consul in Los Angeles, awarded for distinguished service in France. Later that year he was allotted a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame next to that of his idol, James Cagney.
After divorcing his first wife, Carol, in 1972, he married his high school sweetheart, Mary Ann Amelio, in 1974. His three children survive him.
Charles Durning, born February 28 1923, died December 24 2012
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