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Durning, king of character actors, dies in NYC

Published on NewsOK Modified: December 25, 2012 at 4:44 pm •  Published: December 25, 2012
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Dozens of notable portrayals followed. He was the would-be suitor of Dustin Hoffman, posing as a female soap opera star in "Tootsie;" the infamous seller of frog legs in "The Muppet Movie;" and Chief Brandon in Warren Beatty's "Dick Tracy." He played Santa Claus in four different movies made for television and was the pope in the TV film "I Would be Called John: Pope John XXIII."

"I never turned down anything and never argued with any producer or director," Durning told The Associated Press in 2008, when he was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Other films included "The Front Page," ''The Hindenburg," ''Breakheart Pass," ''North Dallas Forty," ''Starting Over," ''Tough Guys," ''Home for the Holidays," ''Spy Hard" and 'O Brother Where Art Thou?"

Durning also did well in television as a featured performer as well as a guest star. He appeared in the short-lived series "The Cop and the Kid" (1975), "Eye to Eye" (1985) and "First Monday" (2002) as well as the four-season "Evening Shade" in the 1990s.

"If I'm not in a part, I drive my wife crazy," he acknowledged during a 1997 interview. "I'll go downstairs to get the mail, and when I come back I'll say, 'Any calls for me?'"

Durning's rugged early life provided ample material on which to base his later portrayals. He was born into an Irish family of 10 children in 1923, in Highland Falls, N.Y., a town near West Point. His father was unable to work, having lost a leg and been gassed during World War I, so his mother supported the family by washing the uniforms of West Point cadets.

The younger Durning himself would barely survive World War II.

He was among the first wave of U.S. soldiers to land at Normandy during the D-Day invasion and the only member of his Army unit to survive. He killed several Germans and was wounded in the leg. Later he was bayoneted by a young German soldier whom he killed with a rock. He was captured in the Battle of the Bulge and survived a massacre of prisoners.

In later years, he refused to discuss the military service for which he was awarded the Silver Star and three Purple Hearts.

"Too many bad memories," he told an interviewer in 1997. "I don't want you to see me crying."

Tragedy also stalked other members of his family. Durning was 12 when his father died, and five of his sisters lost their lives to smallpox and scarlet fever.

A high school counselor told him he had no talent for art, languages or math and should learn office skills. But after seeing "King Kong" and some of James Cagney's films, Durning knew what he wanted to do.

Leaving home at 16, he worked in a munitions factory, on a slag heap and in a barbed-wire factory.

Durning and his first wife had three children before divorcing in 1972. In 1974, he married his high school sweetheart, Mary Ann Amelio.

In addition to Gregory, he is survived by his children, Michele, Douglas and Jeannine. The family planned to have a private family service and burial at Arlington National Cemetery.

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AP reporter Andrew Dalton contributed to this story.