You might remember Charles Durning as the crooked Lt. Snyder in the classic 1973 film The Sting, or as the World War II Medal of Honor winner who confesses to killing his best friend in a 2004 episode of the hit TV series NCIS. Or you might recall him as the U.S. President that a renegade Air Force General (portrayed by Burt Lancaster) tries to force to release a scandalous secret document in the 1977 movie thriller Twilight’s Last Gleaming. Or as Jack Amsterdam, the corrupt Catholic layman who becomes entangled in the grisly murder of an actress/call girl in the 1981 detective film True Confessions. Or as Doc Harper, the villain who kidnaps Miss Piggy in 1979’s The Muppet Movie. Or for his recurring roles in the TV shows Everybody Loves Raymond and Rescue Me.
We could cite a lot more possibilities, but you get the idea. Charles Durning, who died on Dec. 24 at age 89 in New York City, played a whole lot of roles in his half-century-long career – all told, 207 of them, according the Internet Movie Database. While he was never a star, he was highly sought after by directors. USA Today hailed him as nothing less than “the king of character actors,” because of his skill in playing distinctive, memorable roles that helped to make a drama or a comedy special.
Here are five intriguing facts about the gifted performer, whose own life was as interesting as the characters he portrayed.
- He never won an Oscar, but he won three Purple Hearts and a Silver Star in World War II. Durning, a U.S. Army Ranger who landed in the first wave of troops on Omaha Beach on D-Day, lived the sort of harrowing adventure that most actors only played on sound stages. He was the lone survivor of a machine-gun ambush that day, and later, in Belgium, was stabbed in the hand by a German soldier in close-quarters combat before he bludgeoned his attacker to death with a rock. During the Battle of the Bulge, he was captured by the Germans, who then tried to execute him and nearly 90 other POWs in the infamous Malmedy massacre. Somehow, Durning was one of the few to escape, but he suffered serious injuries and psychological trauma that took him nearly a decade to overcome. In 2008, France awarded him the National Order of the Legion of Honor medal for his wartime heroism.
- He was a working-class hero, too. Before taking up acting in the late 1950s, Durning worked as a construction worker, boiler maker, elevator operator, waiter and dance instructor, according to a 1978 newspaper profile. “The only difference between being an actor and a construction worker is that acting is more work,” he explained.
- Despite his roly-poly build, he was surprisingly lithe and athletic. Durning’s physical interests included boxing, judo and skiing. Here’s a video clip from a late 1980s appearance by Durning on Dolly Parton’s variety show, in which he demonstrates his ability as a dancer.
- He was an unknown until he was almost 50. Durning got his first big role on Broadway in 1972 in the play That Championship Season, about an aging group of former high school basketball teammates. New York Times critic Clive Barnes lauded Durning, who played a former player who had become a paunchy small-town mayor, as “absurd and yet both understandable and credible, a boy for all seasons.”
- He loved to work. As he told an interviewer in 1978, Durning hated to take vacations. “When I don’t have a part, I’m terror-stricken,” he explained. He had few interests outside of acting, though he did enjoy watching silent movies and for years played in a weekly low-stakes card game whose regulars included comedian Shecky Greene, according to a 2003 Los Angeles Times profile.