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.