Charles Durning, an accomplished stage actor who later became famous for his character work in the movies, died on Monday. He was 89.
Then came World War II, and he enlisted in the Army. His combat experiences were harrowing. He was in the first wave of troops to land on Omaha Beach on D-Day and his unit’s lone survivor of a machine-gun ambush. In Belgium he was stabbed in hand-to-hand combat with a German soldier, whom he bludgeoned to death with a rock. Fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, he and the rest of his company were captured and forced to march through a pine forest at Malmedy, the scene of an infamous massacre in which the Germans opened fire on almost 90 prisoners. Mr. Durning was among the few to escape.
By the war’s end he had been awarded a Silver Star for valor and three Purple Hearts, having suffered gunshot and shrapnel wounds as well. He spent months in hospitals and was treated for psychological trauma.
After the war, still mentally troubled, Mr. Durning “dropped into a void for almost a decade” before deciding to study acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, he told Parade magazine in 1993. The school dismissed him within a year. “They basically said you have no talent and you couldn’t even buy a dime’s worth of it if it was for sale,” he told The Times in 1997.
Durning was a familiar face on TV and in the movies when I was growing up–he was always there in something worth watching. And even when the movie was lousy he was always worth watching. I recognized his face on the jacket cover of my father’s copy of That Championship Season and of course knew him well from The Sting, Dog Day Afternoon, The Muppet Movie, Tootsie, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Sharky’s Machine, True Confessions, To Be or Not to Be, and Death of a Salesman.
He was one of the great ones. And he is already missed.