Dennis McLellan
Los Angeles Times

Charles Durning, a Tony Award-winning actor whose prolific work in films and television included supporting roles in the classic comedy Tootsie and the TV sitcom Evening Shade, died Monday. He was 89.

Durning, a decorated veteran of World War II, died of natural causes at his home in Manhattan, said Judith Moss, his longtime agent.

A seasoned former member of Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival, Durning had a breakthrough role in the 1972 Broadway play That Championship Season.

Durning’s Drama Desk Award-winning performance as one of four former high school basketball players who reunite with their old coach led to his being cast as the corrupt police lieutenant in The Sting, the Oscar-winning 1973 movie starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford.

Durning went on to appear in movies such as The Hindenburg, The Choirboys, The Muppet Movie, North Dallas Forty, Starting Over, True Confessions, Sharkey’s Machine, Dick Tracy and O Brother, Where Art Thou?

As a supporting actor, he was nominated for two Oscars: in 1983 as the governor in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and in 1984 as the Nazi colonel in To Be or Not to Be.

His TV credits include Queen of the Stardust Ballroom, the 1975 made-for-television musical in which he played the mailman who reaches out to Maureen Stapleton’s lonely widow on the dance floor.

As the doctor on Evening Shade, the 1990-94 series starring Burt Reynolds, Durning earned two Emmy nominations as a supporting actor.

More recently, Durning played the father of Denis Leary’s New York firefighter in the TV series Rescue Me — a recurring role that earned him the last of the nine Emmy nominations he received.

Durning’s first love was the stage, which included his Tony Award-winning performance as Big Daddy in the 1990 Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Born Feb. 28, 1923, in Highland Falls, N.Y., Durning was one of 10 children. Five of his sisters died of smallpox and scarlet fever. His Irish immigrant father, who lost a leg in World War I, died from the effects of mustard gas exposure when Durning was 16.

Durning dropped out of high school at 16 and got a maintenance job at a Pennsylvania munitions factory before working in slag heaps, selling coal. He later worked as an usher in a burlesque theater in Buffalo, N.Y., where the laughs he generated when he filled in for a comedian helped spur his desire to perform.

In 2008, the same year Durning received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the Screen Actors Guild’s honored him with its Lifetime Achievement Award.

Durning, who was married twice, is survived by three children.