Prolific American actor who was Oscar nominated for roles in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and To Be Or Not to Be
The American actor Charles Durning, who has died aged 89, first grabbed audience attention as the crooked Lieutenant Snyder in The Sting (1973). He makes an explosive appearance, tearing down an alley after the slick grifter played by Robert Redford, and repeatedly lurches out of the shadows throughout the rest of the film. Durning had only a handful of scenes, and over the next 40 years would seldom be granted more screen time in 200-odd film and TV roles. Nevertheless, his jowly face, with its boxer’s nose and sly eyes, grew increasingly familiar, and his name in the opening titles usually promised good things ahead. His heavyset frame meant he was often cast as tough guys, but he later assumed more jovial roles, portraying Father Christmas several times.
His first Oscar nomination came for The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982), an ebullient musical about the southern hospitality offered at a brothel called the Chicken Ranch. Durning plays the slippery Texan governor who must decide whether to close down the establishment. His evasive nature is captured in a magical song-and-dance routine: “I love to dance a little sidestep,” he sings. “Now they see me, now they don’t …”
Durning’s second Oscar nomination was for playing another character uneasy with his authority – the nougat-loving Gestapo chief Colonel Erhardt in To Be Or Not to Be (1983), Mel Brooks’s remake of Ernst Lubitsch’s classic about a Polish theatre company’s attempt to outsmart the Nazis. Durning has some of the funniest scenes in the film. He barks commands at a hapless captain (Christopher Lloyd), then blames him when his plans backfire. Making doe eyes at Anne Bancroft, he tells her: “Consider yourself in the arms of the Gestapo.” It is a broad comic role in a film that balances farce with tragedy.
Durning knew first-hand the horrors of war. Born in Highland Falls, New York state, he grew up near the military academy at West Point. His mother, Louise, laundered the clothes of the cadets there. His father, James, was badly injured in the first world war. Charles joined the army aged 17 and took part in the D-day landing aged 21. In a Memorial Day speech in 2007, he recalled: “I was the second man off my barge, and the first and third man got killed.” Shot in the hip shortly afterwards, he spent months in hospital, then fought at the Battle of the Bulge. He received the Silver Star and three Purple Hearts.
Durning was a boxer, ice-cream seller and dance instructor before establishing himself as an actor. He cut his teeth in Shakespearean productions staged by Joe Papp and, in 1972, won a Drama Desk award for his performance in That Championship Season on Broadway.
By then, he had played his first film roles. In Brian De Palma’s Hi, Mom! (1970), he is the slobbish superintendent who shows off an unsanitary apartment to a prospective tenant (played by Durning’s friend Robert De Niro, who recommended him for the part). He re-teamed with De Palma for Sisters (later Blood Sisters, 1973) and The Fury (1978); in the latter, he is the director of a research facility judging psychic ability, and supervises a female patient who unlocks his own troubling secrets. That decade he also took police roles in Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and the TV series The Cop and the Kid (1975-76).
In Tootsie (1982), he was the wealthy widower Les Nichols, who falls hopelessly in love with the TV star Dorothy Michaels, not knowing that behind the drag makeup is the luckless actor Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman), who is infatuated with Les’s daughter. Les’s pursuit of Dorothy is full of funny moments – when he squeezes on to a garden swing with her at his ranch, it creaks under his weight – but it touches on pathos, too, particularly when Les speaks of his wife, and when he makes his move on Dorothy with an excruciating proposal.
With his physical bulk and commanding presence, Durning was perfectly cast as the tyrannical tycoon Big Daddy in Cat On a Hot Tin Roof on Broadway in 1990, for which he won a Tony award. He also looked at home as Chief Brandon in the box-office hit Dick Tracy (1990). Regrettably, fewer saw one of his best performances, in The Music of Chance (1993), based on Paul Auster’s novel. He played Bill Flower, a former accountant who believes he has the Midas touch. Flower and a fellow millionaire host a card game and when their opponent (James Spader) cannot settle his debts, they make him and his friend build a wailing wall from 10,000 bricks. Durning was never creepier, seldom more sadistic.
In the Coen brothers’ comedy The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), he was the bigwig who, in a boardroom meeting, runs the length of a conference table and throws himself out of the window. In the Coens’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), he was the cantankerous Mississippi governor Pappy O’Daniel, whose re-election campaign is boosted by a trio of convicts turned musicians, the Soggy Bottom Boys. Pappy joins them on stage for a rousing version of You Are My Sunshine.
That year, Durning starred in two comedy films written by David Mamet – Lakeboat, and State and Main – and appeared on stage in New Jersey in Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross. There was little to distinguish his subsequent films such as Kinky Killers (2007), a nasty piece of work, but he evidently relished voicing Peter Griffin’s mean-spirited stepfather in the animated TV series Family Guy.
He remained bracingly prolific and kept a straightforward approach. “Of course, I’m often not the top dog,” he told Playbill in 2000, “but sometimes it’s better not to be top dog, because you last longer. If a movie or play flops, you always blame the lead. They say: ‘He couldn’t carry it.’ They always blame him. But they rarely blame the second or third banana.”
Durning had three children, Michele, Douglas and Jeanine, with his first wife, Carol. After their divorce, he married Mary Ann Amelio. She survives him, along with his children.
Charles Durning, actor, born 28 February 1923; died 24 December 2012