Charles Durning, the longtime character actor perhaps best known for his Oscar-nominated role in “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” died Monday of natural causes in New York City. He was 89.
Over his prolific career that spanned 50 years in film, television and Broadway, Durning played supporting roles in memorable movies such as “Tootsie,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “The Hudsucker Proxy” and “Dick Tracy.”
Despite all his accolades, Durning struggled with his confidence as an actor. He once said he was “driven by fear – the fear of not being recognized by your peers,” according to The New York Times.
Durning said he was content not being a leading man, he told USA Today in a 1990 interview.
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“I was born a character actor,” he said. “"I was born looking older -- and I've been aging since I was a teenager."
Durning’s work led to two Oscar nominations. He was recognized for his role as a corrupt governor in “The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas” (1982), starring Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton, and as an incompetent Nazi officer in Mel Brooks' 1983 remake of “To Be Or Not To Be.”
Durning was also a veteran of World War II. He was among the first troops to land on Omaha Beach on D-Day and was the only soldier in his unit to survive an ambush, the Times noted.
Durning spoke about his first brush with combat during a Memorial Day concert broadcast by PBS in 2007.
“It’s hard to describe what we all went through that day, but those of us who were there will understand,” he said. “We were frightened all the time … this guy in the boat, he turned to me and he threw up all over me and I got seasick. We were scared. You’re not thinking about anything, you’re just thinking about you just hope that shell that just went off isn’t going to hit this boat. Even the guys who had seen action before, they were just as ashen as I was.”
The battle wasn’t Durning’s only close encounter with death. He was also stabbed in the hand by a German soldier and survived by bludgeoning the soldier to death with a rock.
Durning also fought in the Battle of the Bulge. His unit was captured near Malmedy, Belgium, and the Germans gunned down 90 American POWs in what became known as the Malmedy Massacre. Durning was one of the few to survive the atrocity, according to the Times.
After the military, Durning studied acting. He bucked the odds to become a successful character actor after the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City kicked him out of the school.
“They basically said you have no talent and you couldn’t even buy a dime’s worth of it if it was for sale,” he told the Times in a 1997 interview.
Durning was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2008. He said he was always grateful for any acting offers.
“I never turned down anything and never argued with any producer or director," he told the Associated Press at the time.
"If I'm not in a part, I drive my wife crazy," he said in a 1997 interview. "I'll go downstairs to get the mail, and when I come back I'll say, `Any calls for me?'"
As he got older, Durning still churned out acting roles, last appearing this year’s “Amazing Racer” and “Rogue Assassin,” according to his IMDB page. He also had a recurring role as Michael Gavin in the television series “Rescue Me.”
Durning said he would keep going untl the end.
"They're going to carry me out, if I go," he told the AP in 2008.