Charles Durning, Esteemed Character Actor and War Veteran, Dies at 89

Charles Durning was a decorated World War II veteran and an award-winning actor

Charles Durning, an iconic character actor and war hero, died on Christmas Eve in New York of natural causes. He was 89.

Durning's longtime agent Judith Moss confirmed her client and friend’s death to the Associated Press, saying he died in his Manhattan home on Monday evening.

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Durning typified the actor known more by face than by name, appearing in movies as diverse as cross-dressing comedy “Tootsie,” crime drama “Dog Day Afternoon” and musical comedy “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.”

The latter earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor, a feat he duplicated a year later for his performance in Mel Brooks’ “To Be or Not to Be.” Durning never won an Oscar or Emmy despite repeat nominations, but did win a Golden Globe and a Tony. 

A successful actor for close to five decades, Durning's early life was marked by tragedy.

He was born in Highland Falls, N.Y., and grew up one of 10 children. Though all four of his brothers matured to adulthood, all five of his sisters died as children to disease. His father died when Durning was 12.

Durning's father was a World War I veteran and his mother was a laundress at West Point. The younger Durning served in World War II, earning a Silver Star, Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts. A war hero and decorated serviceman, he fought in the Normandy invasion on D-Day and at the Battle of the Bulge.

He fell in love with acting at a burlesque theater in Buffalo, N.Y., and went on to act on stage, in films and for television shows as well.

First discovered by theater impresario Joseph Papp in the early 1960s, Durning got his break in 1972 playing a small-town mayor in “That Championship Season,” and a year later appeared in “The Sting,” a caper film starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford that won seven Oscars, including Best Picture.

Durning played supporting but significant roles in some of the most memorable films of the 1970s and '80s, including “Dog Day Afternoon,” “North Dallas Forty” and “Tootsie.” In addition to his regular roles in films, he worked both on stage and in television.

He won a Tony Award for playing Big Daddy in a 1989 revival of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and earned nine Emmy nominations across his career.

He notched two straight in 1975 and 1976 for TV movie “Queen of the Stardust Ballroom” and miniseries “Captains and the Kings,” an adaptation of Taylor Caldwell’s bestselling novel. The latter also earned him a Golden Globe nomination for supporting actor, a trophy he took home in 1990 for his portrayal of John F. Fitzgerald in "The Kennedys of Massachusetts." Fitzgerald was grandfather to both President John F. Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy.

He was awarded the Screen Actors Guild's Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008.

Durning continued to act throughout his later years, recurring on FX’s “Rescue Me” as Michael Gavin, father to Denis Leary’s Tommy Gavin.

He is survived by children Michele, Douglas and Jeannine.