Spotlight: Charles Durning (1923-2012)

Charles Durning died at age 89 on December 24th, 2012. He was a two-time Oscar nominee, considered one of the best character actors in Hollywood. A longtime friend, Judith Moss, told Associated Press that Charles died in his home in Manhattan. He has played comic scenes and serious roles, as well as starring in Broadway plays.
He is best remembered for his Oscar-nominated role as a corrupt governor in the 1982 film, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.

Actors in the Military image

What you may not know about Charles Durning is that he served in the United States Army during World War II and was a highly decorated soldier, wounded on three different occasions  He was drafted at age 20 and assigned as a rifleman with the 398th Infantry Regiment, with the 3rd Army Support, and the 386th Anti-aircraft Artillery (AAA) Battalion. Durning earned the Silver Star and three Purple Heart medals, wounded three times.

Durning’s first combat experience was in the Normandy Invasion of France on D-Day, June 6th, 1944, and was among the first troops to land at Omaha Beach. In the program Dinner for Five, Episode #S03E09, starring Charles Durning, Burt Reynolds, Dom DeLuise, and Charles Nelson Reilly, Burt Reynolds had to speak about Durning’s service in the military because Durning did not like to talk about it.
History 101 image

Durning was the only survivor of machine gun fire and shrapnel of his group that hit the beach, and despite suffering from shrapnel wounds he managed to kill seven enemy soldiers.

Several months later, in Belgium, a teenage German soldier in hand-to-hand combat stabbed Durning eight times, Durning survived by killing him with a rock.
On June 15th, 1944, Durning was wounded again by a German “S” Mine at Les des Mares, France. He was transported to the 24th Evacuation Hospital and by June 17th he was back in England at the 217thGeneral Hospital. He was severely wounded by shrapnel in the left and right thighs, right hand, frontal region of the head, and anterior left chest wall. Durning recovered quickly and was fit for duty on December 6th, 1944. He arrived back at the front in time t0 fight in the Battle of the Bulge, where he was taken prisoner. He was one of three men that survived the infamous massacre of American POWs at Malmedy, Belgium, where 80 out of 120 Americans were murdered on December 17th, 1944 by members of Kampfgruppe Peiper (1stSS Panzer Division).

Joachim Peiper, SS

The unit was named after its commander, Obersturmbannfuhrer Joachim Peiper. By the time it was over, the unit had killed 362 prisoners of war and 111 Belgian civilians. Peiper survived the war, and after his trial was sent to prison. He lived in France when he was released, but was identified by a former French Resistance member and was attacked and killed at his house. His family was sent to Germany, so was not there when Peiper’s home was attacked. After news of the massacre, a written order came from HQ, 328th US Army Infantry Regiment on December 21, 1944 that:

No SS troops or paratroopers will be taken prisoner but will be shot on sight.

Malmedy Massacre

Charles Durning helped identify the bodies of the massacred soldiers who had been preserved in the frozen snow. He had been wounded in the chest during his escape and was then sent to the United States. He remained in Army hospitals to receive treatment for wounds and psychological trauma until his discharge on January 30th, 1946.

Durning starred in a portrayal of a Marine veteran in Call of Silence, nominated for an Emmy Award, in an episode of the television series NCIS, 2004. His knowledge of battle-induced stress helped in playing the part so well.
In April of 2008, Durning received the National Order of the Legion of Honor from the French consul in Los Angeles, awarded to those who served with distinction in France. During the ceremony, he spoke of his wartime experiences.

Durning’s best films were: The Sting, Dog Day Afternoon, Tootsie, To Be or Not To Be, and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. He won a Tony award for his portrayal of Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roofin 1990.

Charles Durning was born on February 28th, 1923 in Highland Falls, New York. His mother, Louise (1894-1982), Irish, was a laundress at West Point Academy, and his father was James Durning, an Irish immigrant who received citizenship by joining the army and died when Charles was young. During was raised as a Catholic and even considered at one time to become a priest. He left home at a young age because he felt that his mother would have one less mouth to feed.
Durning got his start acting when working at a burlesque theater as an usher, he convinced the management he could fill in for a drunken comic. He also was a professional boxer, construction worker, elevator operator, cab driver, nightclub singer, and ballroom dancer before making his first stage debut in Buffalo, New York. The war broke up his acting career.

Upon his return from war, severely wounded several times and despite injuries to both legs, he found employment at a nightclub as a ballroom dancer, as well as an instructor at Fred Astaire Studios. With the help of the GI Bill, he enrolled at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and started getting roles in regional and touring productions. By the 1960s he was a popular performer on the New York stage in 35 comedies and musicals. His first on-camera part was in a TV episode in 1963 of East Side/West Side. For the next few years he would participate in stage productions, TV guest shots and movies. During this period Charles divorced Carol (1972) and married Mary Ann Amelio, his childhood sweetheart in 1973.

[See Filmography]

Charles’ daughter, Jeanine Durning, is a well-known New York modern dance performer and choreographer.
Durning was honored with the Life Achievement Award at the 14thAnnual Screen Actors Guild Award Ceremony on January 27th, 2008. On July 31st, 2008, he was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame next to his idol, James Cagney.
The following is a scene from The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas that got Charles Durning his Oscar nomination …
Now you know, after watching this why he would not talk about or remember what happened on D-Day until encouraged to do so towards the end of his life.

2 comments on “Spotlight: Charles Durning (1923-2012)

  1. Tom says:

    This may be of interest concerning Charles Durning’s war record. Read all the postings, particularly the ones near the bottom

  2. Thank you for this additional insight; however, a couple of commentators in that article are off a bit on dates and circumstance. Durning was there at Normandy, but was wounded, which put him out of commission until healed. An article in a Sun Times blog is the only one who contests Durning’s exemplary war record – and provides NO sources. I have plenty more than what I put in the article.
    Why is our society, or I should say some in our society, so quick to denounce people who are true heroes? Instead they look up to Gangsta Rappers and the unreal world of fantasy in video games and Hollywood films. The 1930s and the 1940s brought the best and worst of the United States to the forefront of history, and the generation of the 1940s are still considered to be an amazing generation, here and abroad who didn’t know what the outcome would be but insisted that the Nazi and Imperial Japan was not going to reach their goal of world domination. Imagine, if you can, being sent to war and spend four to five years of your life in a combat theater – and amazingly coming back alive. Imagine the psychological trauma and what the Vietnam War era veterans call “shock of the real world” when returning back home, whose combat tour length was 13 months. Things changed, they changed in your mind, while knowing that one can never leave it all behind forever. It wasn’t until later in life that Durning even talked about it and somehow, People magazine had gotten him to recall and he was also a guest speaker at various veteran functions and honorary mentions.
    No, sorry, nothing reveals no source where Durning did not receive three Purple Hearts and the Silver Star for combat bravery. Despite my experience, I could not imagine the horror on D-Day when soldiers, sailors, and Marines has to work their way through machine, mortar, and artillery fire – watching those around them fall or drown before reaching the beach. They deserve tribute. I imagine his acting career helped him get out from himself in his parts of playing various roles. He was a talented actor and a great American. He is at peace at last, joining many who never came home.

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