Charles Durning

Charles Durning has died. It should not come as a surprise for a man of 89 to die of natural causes. But Durning seemed to already be old when he started his career and continued it for decades and decades.  He even has one upcoming credit in Scavenger Killers, which is due out in 2013.

Most obituary headlines have dubbed him “the king of character actors.” Although he was one of the most recognizable in that brand of actors which are not supposed to be easily recognizable, he had a versatility which surpasses the designation and its somewhat negative connotations.  The earliest of Durning’s films I have seen is Brian De Palma’s 1973 thriller Sisters (pictured above) which has him as a private investigator who is the only one who believes a young reporter who claims to have witnessed a murder through her apartment window. Durning had not yet developed the white stringy hair that  later so quickly identified him when he would pop up in a movie, but he was already burly and gruff.

Durning often played gruff, occasionally corrupt, detectives or officers of the law, from a jaded vice cop (Sharky’s Machine) all the way up to the director of the CIA (The Man With One Red Shoe). Two of his most family roles are as cops, in The Sting and Dog Day Afternoon. His paunch, bulbous nose, and world-weary demeanor made him perfect to play a cop who has seen it all. But he could do much more than that. Some of his role required him to do little other than shout at the top of his lungs (North Dallas Forty). But he could always do it with a glint in his eye that said “I hate to do this to you guys, but you need to be bawled out.”

The penultimate scene of Tootsie has Dustin Hoffman meeting Durning at a small tavern. Durning’s character had courted Hoffman’s when he thought that he was a woman. Seeing him for the first time out of drag, he is humiliated and agree, but also able to accept Dustin’s apology. There is a fine line between the scene and the kind of soapy melodrama the movie parodies. But the two master actors are able to keep it realistic. It is a wonderful scene.

As a child, I knew Durning from his role as Doc Hopper, the entrepreneur who is desperate to get Kermit the Frog as a spokesman for his frog leg restaurants. He is fun and obviously having fun with a cast that is largely made of felt. That is what he was—a versatile actor who did not take himself too seriously and was not afraid to have fun with a role. More recently he voiced Peter Griffin’s father on “Family Guy,” a hard-working Irish Catholic man with ear hair hosting an enchanted forest. Although it was only a vocal role, Durning was terribly funny with it. Two of his roles were so funny they earned him Oscar nominations. One was as a buffoonish Nazi officer in Mel Brooks’ To Be or Not To Be. And the other was the Governor of Texas in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. It features Durning doing something he no one ever thought they would see Charles Durning doing—singing and dancing. And he also delivers what I think is one of the funniest lines I have ever heard in a movie just before he breaks into song. Video below.


Farley Granger

Veteran actor Farley Granger died on March 27. As a testament to the longevity of his career, his death came nearly 64 years after he started filming his first leading role, in Nicholas Ray’s directorial debut, They Live By Night, and with last screen credit, in The Next Big Thing (2001), a fairly recent memory, even if it was in a forgettable film. Granger’s passing also severs one of the few remaining living ties with Alfred Hitchcock. Even decades after the two made two films together—two of the director’s best, by the way—Granger graciously fielded questions about Hitchcock in interviews, and appeared in documentaries and DVD featurettes.

Granger was born to upper-middle class parents in San Jose in 1925. The stock market crash of 1929 hit the family hard, and Granger’s mother enrolled him in the same dance and drama studio where Judy Garland and Shirley Temple had gotten their starts, perhaps hoping an early show biz career would help the family financially. Although he never became the tap dancer his mother was wishing for, his natural, lithe athleticism would benefit him in his most famous role as a tennis player in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, and the dramatic training would prepare him for decades on the stage.

Granger landed small parts in his first two films—The  North Star (1943) and The Purple Heart (1944)—while still in his teens. He enlisted in the Navy during WWII, and returned to acting soon after leaving the service. His first film after leaving the Navy was in Ray’s They Live by Night, which was filmed in 1947, but not released until 1949 due to Howard Hughes’ takeover of RKO. In his early career, Granger was known for his handsome, clean-cut image, but he also excelled at playing vulnerable characters. This began with They Live by Night, in which Granger plays a man wrongly convicted of murder, who escapes with two fellow convicts, and is forced by them to commit actual crimes while on the run. The film not only foreshadowed Bonnie and Clyde by 20 years, but also established Granger as a dramatic actor.

While They Live by Night was floating in limbo, unreleased, Hitchcock ordered up a print of the film, and cast Granger in Rope as Phillip, the weaker-willed of the two young men who murder an old school chum in the interest of committing the perfect crime. The two roles were carefully written, but Granger brought a twitchy vulnerability to the role of Philip. It is really this that is memorable in the film, more than Hitchcock’s tightly choreographed camera and the apparently unbroken single long take.

Granger worked again with Hitchcock three years later in Strangers on a Train, playing a young, semi-pro tennis star dating a senator’s daughter, who seems to have everything going for him until an emotionally unbalanced man draws him into a murder plot. Again it was Granger’s ability to deliver a delicate mix of determination and anxiety that made the role a memorable one.

After the role in Hitchcock’s masterpiece thriller, Granger appeared in the light farce Behave Yourself! (1951), playing the hen-pecked husband of a need woman (Shelley Winters), who gets mixed up with mobsters after adopting a dog trained to sniff out a stash of ill-gotten loot.

Granger and Winters seem to me an unlikely couple on the screen, so I was surprised to learn that they were a romantic couple in real life, and had a friendship that lasted till Winters died in 2006. As Granger revealed in his very dishy 2007 memoirs, Count Me Out, he was bisexual and made no distinction between his relationships with men and women.

Granger was dating Arthur Laurents at the time the writer was building up the screenplay for Rope with Htichcock. Hitchcock was disappointed when two of his original casting choices for Rope—Cary Grant and Montgomery Clift—decline roles that were implied to be homosexual, but was intrigued when he discovered that one of the replacement actors was involved with his screenwriter. Hitchcock would slyly invite the two men to dinners, but never mention their relationship. Over 60 years later Laurents would claim that Rope was still one of the most sensitive portrayals homosexuals (although they are also murders) ever to come out of Hollywood, something that was made possible by Granger, at the very beginning of his career, not shying away from the risks that other actors worried would end their careers. For Granger, the risk started his career, and throughout his long career he would live and work openly and honestly. “I have hidden nothing,” he wrote in his memoir.




Michael Gough

British actor Michael Gough died at the age of 94 this week in London. Most newspaper obituaries I have seen describe him as a “character actor,” but this appellation misses the main points of his career—its longevity, variety and distinction.

Gough was of the old school. He was born to British parents in what is today Malaysia in 1916. It was a time when British actors could emerge from the far reaches of the British Empire. Vivien Leigh was born just four years earlier in Darjeling, India. Gough was a concientious objector during World War II, something that must have carried some stigma in Britain at the time. He came into acting comparatively late. He earned his first screen credit at the age of 32, playing alongside Vivien Leigh in the  1948 version of Anna Karenina.

While Gough was not a Shakespearean actor of the stature of Ian McKellan or Derek Jacobi, he did play Shakespeare, appearing in a small role in Laurence Olivier’s Richard III in 1958. Although he was often relegated to smaller roles, he brought a certain dignity to these parts. I lit up when I spotted him in the 1984 version of A Christmas Carol. Not just because he was one of the British actors in a production made for American television, but because his traditional mannerisms brought a touch of authenticity to a small role as one of the bankers who asks Scrooge for a contribution to charity on Christmas Eve.

In the 1950s, Gough began appearing in Hammer Horror films and this gradually led him to roles that allowed him to poke fun at his own screen persona. In 1961, for example, he appeared in a horror comedy called What a Carve Up! (retitled No Place Like Homicide for American release). One of my personal favorites amongst his roles is in 1984’s Top Secret!, in which he plays Dr. Flammond, a scientist forced by the East Germans to develop super weapons. It is a patently silly movie. When Val Kilmer arrives at Fleurgendorf Prison with French Resistance members Deja Vu and Chocolat Mousse, the doctor notes the irony, as he was just one day away from finishing the tunnel he is digging with a teaspoon. Kilmer peers into the wall to see the Holland Tunnel, complete with a sign pointing the way to New Jersey. Gough was able to pul of the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker silliness with a straight face and composure that even the late, great Leslie Nielsen couldn’t have pulled off.

In 1988, he got the role that has been mentioned at the top of all the obituaries coming out this week, playing Alfred Pennyworth, butler to Michael Keaton’s Batman. Gough reprised the role several times, while other actors donned the Batman suit. But the role was perhaps more important for beginning his association with director Tim Burton. Along with Vincent Price and Christopher Lee, Gough was one of the veteran actors to be idolized by the much younger Burton, and enjoying a career renaissance through appearances in his big budget films

Already in his 80s, Gough returned to work with Burton in 1999’s Sleepy Hollow, playing the paranoid public notary of the village who is drawn into a supernatural conspiracy against his will. As his age progressed, he stopped appearing on the screen, but his sagely voice retained its power. In 2005, he came out of retirement for Burton to voice the character of Elder Gutknech, a netherworld wiseman who is the parallel of a priest “upstairs” voiced by Christopher Lee. Last year, he came out of retirement once again for Burton, voicing the Dodo Bird in Alice in Wonderland. Gough had previously played the March Hare in another production—a full 42 years earlier, yet another indication of the longevity of his career.