Charles Durning Biography

Theater Actor, Film Actor, Actor (1923–2012)
Actor Charles Durning appeared in such films as The Sting, Tootsie and Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. He also had roles on such shows as Rescue Me, Everybody Loves Raymond and Evening Shade.


Born in 1923, actor Charles Durning served in the U.S. Army during World War II. He had a career breakthrough with the 1972 play That Championship Season on Broadway. Roles in such films as The Sting (1973) soon followed. He received an Academy Award nomination in 1982 for The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and again in 1985 for To Be or Not to Be. In 1990, Durning won a Tony Award for the Tennessee Williams' play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. He died in December 2012.

Early Life

Born on February 28, 1923, in Highland Falls, New York, actor Charles Durning built a career on playing on engaging and interesting supporting characters. He grew up in a poor Irish family, and his early life was one of hardship. One of ten children, Durning lost five of his sisters to disease. His father died when he was only twelve.

In his mid-teens, Durning left home to find work. He had a series of factory jobs before he discovered acting. As an usher, Durning got first-hand experience in vaudeville at a Buffalo, New York theater. He even took the stage at times, filling in for comics who were too drunk to perform.

During World War II, Durning served in the U.S. Army. He was part of the first wave of soldiers to reach Omaha Beach in the invasion of Normandy on D-Day in 1944. Captured during the Battle of the Bulge, Durning managed to survive a massacre of American soldiers being held in Belgium. For his service, he received a Silver Star and three Purple Hearts.

Career Beginnings

After the war, Durning returned to the United States still reeling from his experiences overseas. He eventually pursued his dream of becoming an actor. Screen legend James Cagney was an early inspiration. For a time, Durning studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. According to the Los Angeles Times, he didn't exactly wow his instructors there. "They told me, 'You're too short, too fat and have no talent,'" he stated. Durning ignored their criticisms and continued to seek work as an actor.

For many years, Durning lived the life of a struggling actor. He worked numerous jobs during this time, including taxi driver, night watchman and dance instructor. In 1960, Durning landed a role in a touring production, marking his start of his professional career. Primarily a stage actor, he made his first film appearance five years later in Harvey Middleman—Fireman.

After appearing in numerous plays, Durning had a major career breakthrough with That Championship Season in 1972. He won a Drama Desk Award for his work in the original play by Jason Miller, which helped open new doors for him in film and television. Soon after Durning had a supporting role in the Robert Redford and Paul Newman comedy The Sting (1973), and a couple years later, he picked up his first Emmy Award for the television movie Queen of the Stardust Ballroom with Maureen Stapleton.

Later Successes

By the 1980s, Durning had established himself as a top character actor. He received his first Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for the Dolly Parton musical Best Little Whorehouse in Texas in 1982. Durning gave another impressive performance in the comedy Tootsie starring Dustin Hoffman and Jessica Lange. In the film, he plays the widowed father of Lange's character.

Three years later, he received another Academy Award nod for the Mel Brooks comedy To Be or Not to Be, in which he played a Nazi officer in the film and co-starred with Anne Bancroft, Christopher Lloyd and José Ferrer. Turning to more dramatic fare, he received critical acclaim for the 1990 miniseries The Kennedys of Massachusetts. Durning also won his first and only Tony Award that year as Big Daddy in a revival of the Tennessee Williams' classic drama Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with Kathleen Turner.

On the small screen, Durning spent several years as part of the sitcom Evening Shade and later landed a recurring role on Everybody Loves Raymond.

Final Years

With no interest in retiring, Durning continued to act in his seventies and eighties. He received Emmy Award nominations for his guest appearances on NCIS and Rescue Me. In 2008, Durning also earned several accolades for his longtime contributions to the arts. The Screen Actors Guild gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award that year. He also joined an elite group of performers around this time with his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

On December 24, 2012, Durning died in his Manhattan home.

Durning is survived by his three children from his first marriage. According to the Associated Press, the "king of character actors" will be laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery.

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