Honor for a ‘Career Actor’

Jan 20, 2008  •  Post A Comment

The only person who seems genuinely surprised by the selection of actor Charles Durning to receive the Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award this year is actor Charles Durning.
“I was dumbfounded,” Mr. Durning said, speaking from the Newark, N.J., set of a murder mystery he’s filming. “I can think of at least a dozen people who could’ve won it over me. I’m talking big stars.” He sounded humble. He sounded sincere. He even sounded a little nervous. “I hope they didn’t make a mistake,” he said.
Kathy Connell, a member of SAG who also produces the awards show for Jeff Margolis Productions, scoffs at that idea. “We wanted to showcase a career actor. We wanted to focus on a person who’s had this wonderful career. Just look at him: He’s done all those movies and how many plays? He’s the epitome of the working actor.”
Mr. Durning joins the likes of Eddie Cantor, Stan Laurel, Edward G. Robinson, Gregory Peck, Rosalind Russell, Katharine Hepburn and Clint Eastwood, all of whom have won the prestigious award.
Mr. Durning, who was born in Highland Falls, N.Y., on Feb. 28, 1923, is a full decade older than the guild that is set to honor him next week. The son of an Army officer, Mr. Durning made his own mark in World War II, landing in the first wave at Omaha Beach on D-Day in 1944, killing seven enemy gunners and being seriously wounded by machine gun fire and shrapnel in return.
He was taken prisoner during the Battle of the Bulge, survived the attack on American POWs at Malmedy, Belgium, and later, out of 40 Americans who took out a German machine gun nest, was the sole survivor. For his efforts, Mr. Durning was awarded three Purple Hearts and a Silver Star, but it was half a century before he could talk openly about his experiences.
After the war, Mr. Durning studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, getting whatever acting jobs he could land. Along the way he drove a cab, tended bar and worked as a dance instructor, a skill that would come in handy years later in his Oscar-nominated performance as the singing, dancing governor in “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.”
The respected character actor has appeared in numerous films—184 and counting—and at least 60 plays, including “That Championship Season” in New York, which he performed nightly from September 1972-April 1974. One of those nights, early in the play’s run, found director George Roy Hill in the audience; Mr. Hill cast the actor in “The Sting” as corrupt police lieutenant William Snyder, and the rest, as they say, is show biz history.
By then Mr. Durning had already appeared in two early Brian de Palma movies, including “Hi Mom,” after making his film debut in 1965’s “Harvey Middleman, Fireman.” But it was his turn in “The Sting” that made people take notice. It also led to the part of Detective Moretti in 1975’s “Dog Day Afternoon,” which was one of his favorite roles, along with the misguided suitor in “Tootsie” and “some other movies the critics didn’t like that I thought were fine.”
Mr. Durning has built a career playing cops and politicians; he played Lt. Gil McGowan on soap opera “Another World,” won awards as “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald in the miniseries “The Kennedys of Massachusetts” and turned heads as Gov. Menelaus
“Pappy” O’Daniel in the Coen brothers’ “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” in 2000. The actor has played his share of outright scoundrels, too, most notably with his portrait of the scheming frog-legs restaurateur who tried to off Kermit in 1979’s “The Muppet Movie.”
The late 1970s and most of the ’80s found Mr. Durning occupied primarily with film and TV, but the stage, he has said, is his great love. He did find time in that period to co-star with Dustin Hoffman, whom he had earlier tried to smooch in “Tootsie,” in the 1984 revival of “Death of a Salesman,” and in 1990 won a Tony for his portrayal of Big Daddy in the Broadway revival of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” In 1996 he co-starred with George C. Scott and Tony Randall in a Broadway revival of “Inherit the Wind.”
In recent years Mr. Durning made several appearances as Father Hubley in “Everybody Loves Raymond” and has played the recurring role of Denis Leary’s father on the FX series “Rescue Me,” though he isn’t sure about his future on the show. “They’ve killed me off,” he said, chuckling. “That’s what they told me. But I’m returning as a ghost.”
He admits there are people he wishes he could work with, but “most of them are dead. Barbara Stanwyck and James Cagney, I’d want to work with them,” he said. “But of the younger ones: Sean Penn and Johnny Depp. Those guys are terrific. The really young ones coming up, some of them want to be celebrities, but they don’t want to learn to act. They don’t want to do theater, which is where you learn not to mumble.”
Mr. Durning’s fear at this point is that nothing lasts forever. “I get worried when they give an award like this, it means I won’t work again,” he said. “You know, I never set out to win awards. I set out to pay the rent.”


  1. Charles Durning is, to be sure, an excellent actor. I just recently watched again his turn as a corrupt construction excecutive in 1981’s underrated “True Confessions” with Robert De Niro and Robert Duvall. I also noticed a failure to mention his work with Burt Reynolds on TV (Evening Shade) and film (Best Little Whorehouse in Texas – who could forget his dance in the rotunda of the State Capitol in Austin? 🙂
    But all of his works are chaff in the wind compared to the sacrifices he made for our country – for ALL of us – at Normandy and the Ardennes in 1944. We can never repay the debt we owe Mr. Durning and others, celebrity and regular Joes and Janes, who gave so much so we can be free to enjoy our regular lives. Thank you, Mr. Durning!…..tigercat1945@yahoo.com

  2. The wonderful character acting career of Charles Durning is a small reward for his couragous and incredible acts of heroism during WWII. Those who admire him as an actor need to know the real man. Many thanks to you for your entertaining career on stage and screen, but my heartfelt gratitude to you as an American hero. Thank you, Charles Durning, from the bottom of my heart for all that you have given to the world!… denlink@vol.com

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