REVIEW POTPOURRI – Actor: Charles Durning

Peter Catesby Peter Cates

Charles Durning

Charles Durning

A select number of actors and actresses could enhance mediocre films and television shows with their contributions; in vehicles worthy of their talents, the nominations for Oscars and Emmys came pouring in.

Those no longer living (excluding the obvious superstars) would include Max von Sydow, George Sanders, Robert Ryan, Jo Van Fleet, Susan Hayward, Lee J. Cobb, Ray Collins, Agnes Moorehead, Judith Anderson, Everett Sloane, Martin Balsam, Alastair Sims, Jeannette Nolan, etc. (Those still living will be saved for another day.).

I add Charles Durning (1923-2012) and give a brief summary of his background.

When he served during World War II, his unit was part of the D-Day invasion, at Omaha Beach, and all of its members were killed except for Durning, who was severely wounded. A few months later, he recovered and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. He was awarded several medals for bravery under fire and would be a popular speaker at Memorial Day and 4th of July commemorations.

While working as an usher in 1951 at a Boston burlesque theater, he was asked to replace a drunken actor on stage, thus beginning a part time career in mostly minor roles in such plays, until the famed Shakespeare-in-the-Park producer Joe Papp saw him and liked what he saw.

Work on stage and in films and television began pouring in more often.

I jump ahead to my first experience of Durning in the mid-’70s Burt Reynolds film Starting Over, as the brother-in-law of Burt’s character. Durning brought an understated reserve in his performance that drew attention away from Reynolds and his leading lady Jill Clayburgh.

Next would be Durning’s appearance in the early ‘80s TV film Night of the Scarecrow as the leader in the lynching of an innocent, educationally-challenged man under wrongful suspicion in a rape case and dressing his corpse up as a scarecrow.

The scarecrow becomes a night of the living dead creature and members of Durning’s lynch mob start mysteriously turning up dead. He worries, but not enough, and is home by himself after dark watching television in his recliner when he starts hearing shuffling noises in the dining room.

The choreography of his leaping out of the recliner and skating all over the floor before he’s executed by the scarecrow was absolutely hilarious.

Other notable roles:

Durning’s one man show on a Boston University stage as baseball legend Casey Stengel, which was hosted by the legendary actor George C. Scott in the audience and televised live on National Public Television.

His role as the sadistic warden in 1987’s HBO miniseries The Man Who Broke 1000 Chains.

His appearance as a governor of Mississippi in the Coen brothers O Brother Where Art Thou; the manner in which Durning stared at stupid sycophantic underlings is worth the viewing.

A guest appearance on a 2004 NCIS episode as a shell-shocked World War II veteran undergoing flashbacks.

In a Parade magazine interview, Durning stated the following about acting:

“There are many secrets in us, in the depths of our souls, that we don’t want anyone to know about. There’s terror and repulsion in us, the terrible spot that we don’t talk about. The place that no one knows about – horrifying things we keep secret. A lot of that is released through acting.”

Charles Durning died from natural causes in 2012 at the age of 89. The New York Times paid tribute to him and Jack Klugman as “extraordinary actors ennobling the ordinary.”


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