Charles Durning grew up in poverty, lost five of his nine siblings to disease, barely lived through D-Day and was taken prisoner at the Battle of the Bulge.
His hard life and wartime trauma provided the basis for a prolific 50-year career as a consummate Oscar-nominated character actor, playing everyone from a Nazi colonel to the pope to Dustin Hoffman’s would-be suitor in “Tootsie.”
Durning, who died Monday at age 89 in New York, got his start as an usher at a burlesque theater in Buffalo, N.Y. When one of the comedians showed up too drunk to go on, Durning took his place. He would recall years later that he was hooked as soon as he heard the audience laughing.
He told The Associated Press in 2008 that he had no plans to stop working. “They’re going to carry me out, if I go,” he said.
Durning’s longtime agent and friend, Judith Moss, told The Associated Press that he died of natural causes in his home in the borough of Manhattan.
“Not only was Charlie a World War II hero but he was also a hero to his family. Charlie loved Christmas and if he could have chosen a time to pass, he would have chosen this day,” said a statement from his stepdaughter, Anita Gregory, released Tuesday by Ana Martinez, spokeswoman for the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce.
“He loved that holiday and played Santa Claus many times in films and TV shows,” Gregory said. “Charlie lived the spirit of Christmas each and every day of his life. He taught me to believe that nothing was impossible. He brought joy and a smile to everyone’s life.”
Although he portrayed everyone from blustery public officials to comic foils to put-upon everymen, Durning may be best remembered by movie audiences for his Oscar-nominated, over-the-top role as a comically corrupt governor in 1982’s “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.”
Many critics marveled that such a heavyset man could be so nimble in the film’s show-stopping song-and-dance number, not realizing Durning had been a dance instructor early in his career. Indeed, he had met his first wife, Carol, when both worked at a dance studio.
The year after “Best Little Whorehouse,” Durning received another Oscar 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 harried police lieutenant in 1975’s “Dog Day Afternoon.”
He won a Golden Globe as best supporting TV actor in 1991 for his portrayal of John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald in the TV film “The Kennedys of Massachusetts” and a Tony in 1990 as Big Daddy in the Broadway revival of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
Durning had begun his career on stage, getting his first big break when theatrical producer Joseph Papp hired him for the New York Shakespeare Festival.
He went on to work regularly, if fairly anonymously, through the 1960s until his breakout role as a small town mayor in the Pulitzer- and Tony Award-winning play “That Championship Season” in 1972.
He quickly made an impression on movie audiences the following year as the crooked cop stalking con men Paul Newman and Robert Redford in the Oscar-winning comedy “The Sting.”
Dozens of notable portrayals followed. He was the would-be suitor of Dustin Hoffman, posing as a female soap opera star in “Tootsie;” the infamous seller of frog legs in “The Muppet Movie;” and Chief Brandon in Warren Beatty’s “Dick Tracy.” He played Santa Claus in four different movies made for television and was the pope in the TV film “I Would be Called John: Pope John XXIII.”
“I never turned down anything and never argued with any producer or director,” Durning told The Associated Press in 2008, when he was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Other films included “The Front Page,” “The Hindenburg,” “Breakheart Pass,” “North Dallas Forty,” “Starting Over,” “Tough Guys,” “Home for the Holidays,” “Spy Hard” and ‘O Brother Where Art Thou?”
Durning also did well in television as a featured performer as well as a guest star. He appeared in the short-lived series “The Cop and the Kid” (1975), “Eye to Eye” (1985) and “First Monday” (2002) as well as the four-season “Evening Shade” in the 1990s.
“If I’m not in a part, I drive my wife crazy,” he acknowledged during a 1997 interview. “I’ll go downstairs to get the mail, and when I come back I’ll say, ‘Any calls for me?”’
Durning’s rugged early life provided ample material on which to base his later portrayals. He was born into an Irish family of 10 children in 1923, in Highland Falls, N.Y., a town near West Point. His father was unable to work, having lost a leg and been gassed during World War I, so his mother supported the family by washing the uniforms of West Point cadets.
The younger Durning himself would barely survive World War II.
He was among the first wave of U.S. soldiers to land at Normandy during the D-Day invasion and the only member of his Army unit to survive. He killed several Germans and was wounded in the leg. Later he was bayoneted by a young German soldier whom he killed with a rock. He was captured in the Battle of the Bulge and survived a massacre of prisoners.
In later years, he refused to discuss the military service for which he was awarded the Silver Star and three Purple Hearts.
“Too many bad memories,” he told an interviewer in 1997. “I don’t want you to see me crying.”
Tragedy also stalked other members of his family. Durning was 12 when his father died, and five of his sisters lost their lives to smallpox and scarlet fever.
A high school counselor told him he had no talent for art, languages or math and should learn office skills. But after seeing “King Kong” and some of James Cagney’s films, Durning knew what he wanted to do.
Leaving home at 16, he worked in a munitions factory, on a slag heap and in a barbed-wire factory.
Durning and his first wife had three children before divorcing in 1972. In 1974, he married his high school sweetheart, Mary Ann Amelio.
In addition to Gregory, he is survived by his children, Michele, Douglas and Jeannine. The family planned to have a private family service and burial at Arlington National Cemetery.