Theatre yesterday and today



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The late actor Charles Durning was born on this date. He won a Tony Award, was nominated for two Academy Awards, and worked as an actor right up to his death in 2012, just shy of his ninetieth birthday (his last two films were released posthumously). Though he accomplished a great deal in his life, none of it came easy. He has one of the most fascinating biographies of any actor I know, and today is as good a day as any to tell some stories and celebrate his legacy.

Charles Durning (1928-2012).

Born in 1923 in Highland Falls, N.Y., Durning was the ninth of ten children. Five of his sisters died of smallpox or scarlet fever in childhood (three of them within two weeks), and his father, who had lost a leg in World War I, died when Durning was still a teenager. Forced to go to work, young Charlie dropped out of school at sixteen (happily by his own account, as he never considered himself a good student). Leaving home, he went about performing odd jobs from town to town: a munitions factory, on a slag heap and in a barbed-wire factory, finally landing more than 350 miles away in Buffalo, as an usher in a burlesque house. One day, he talked his way into going on stage to replace a drunk comedian who had failed to show up. Since Durning knew the routine and got a few laughs, he found a calling. In his own words: "I became hooked on show business."

Then World War II came and, after a year's worth of training, Private First Class Charles Durning was sent with his outfit to England on Feb. 18, 1944, just shy of his 21st birthday and just in time to prepare for the invasion of France. To say that he saw action at D-Day is an understatement. In his own words, Durning claimed to have been "the second man off my barge, and the first and third man got killed." Whether that's an exaggeration or not, the truth is that he was there and survived the initial assault relatively unscathed. Considering that the official count of Americans and allies who died that day came to 4,413, he was one of the lucky ones. Ironically, he was wounded just a few days later by shrapnel from an exploding mine set off by long range German artillery on Omaha Beach. After six months in a hospital, he and his Purple Heart were put back on the front lines to combat the German Ardennes offensive in Belgium. "If you could pull a trigger, you had to go up. So I went up. I got wounded twice up there and got the Silver Star. But I got out. I did the March to Malmedy—I remember that."

Young Charlie Durning in his Army days, not more than twenty-one years old.

What Durning is referring to was how he and the rest of his company were captured and forced to march through a pine forest at Malmedy, the scene of an infamous massacre in which the Germans opened fire on almost 90 prisoners. Durning was among the few to escape. He also killed a young German soldier in hand-to-hand combat, a story that was very difficult for him to speak about. In fact, according to his family, he only began to talk about these experiences at the end of his life, ending decades of silence.

After the war, there's no question that Durning suffered PTSD. Plagued with survivor's guilt, the constant rejection he was getting as an actor kept his sense of self dangerously in check. But having a history doing every odd job imaginable had its benefits. "I taught ballroom dancing at the Fred Astaire Dance Studio. Every time I was out of work, they'd give me a job as a dance teacher. Dancing came easy to me. Acting came hard." He also told of how he was perceived as an actor early on: "I was kicked out of drama school because I had no talent and no hope of buying any if there was any for sale. And you know who they kicked out with me, who 'had no talent' either? Jason Robards."

It was the producer Joseph Papp, who even before he built the Public Theatre, went to bat for the actor. Hiring him first in 1962, Durning would eventually be in 35 plays for Papp over the course of a dozen years (many of them Shakespeare). Occasionally, he found other work either on or off-Broadway, but few pushed him beyond the boundaries of being a utility player. Two musical flops came and went quickly, like Pousse-Café and Drat! The Cat! Then in 1964, after being hired to play the village priest in a new musical called Fiddler on the Roof, Durning felt like he might finally have a hit on his hands—only to experience the part being cut out of town, sending him back to New York jobless, having to walk past Fiddler's marquee countless times during its seven-year run. He had a small role in the 1967 musical The Happy Time (he can be heard on the cast album in the opening number shouting at David Wayne, "Who stole your stupid naked picture, you old goat!"). But it was Durning's old friend Joe who came to the rescue in 1972, helping him get cast in a new play at the Public by a young actor named Jason Miller. That Championship Season not only moved to Broadway, but won the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize. The five-man ensemble became the toast of the town, and Durning left the show with his best paying gig to date, to play the crooked cop in The Sting, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture the next year.