Overweight and losing hair, Charles Durning doesn’t exactly blaze with conspicuous star power. “I’m a guy you could think was your building superintendent or collected your garbage,” says the 67-year-old actor. “I can get lost in the crowd and not noticed too much.” Until, of course, you put him center stage. Then the talent that has made Durning the king of character actors—with some 250 stage, film and television roles to his credit—becomes apparent. In March he opened in a Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and his performance as Big Daddy, the crass and domineering Mississippi plantation owner dying of cancer, has nearly upstaged his megawatt co-star, Kathleen Turner, who plays Maggie the Cat. Three weeks ago he received a Tony nomination for his performance.
He was not intimidated, he says, by the inevitable comparison with Burl Ives, who originated the role on Broadway and also appeared in the movie. “What makes acting for me so wonderful is that everybody can approach it in a different way,” he says. Turner believes that Durning’s meaner, more aggressive Big Daddy has “really centered the play, making it as powerful as it could be.”
Durning returns the favor, crediting Turner with making Cat the hottest ticket in town. “That’s the power of a golden star.” he says. admitting that he had heard she was tough and was prepared not to like her. “But she’s so far to the other side that I can’t believe it. She’s the spark in the show. Kathleen knocks on our dressing room doors every night to wish us a good show. That’s rare.”
Equally rare is the versatility that Durning has exhibited in his 40-year career. He has played a corrupt cop in The Sting, the show-stopping Governor in Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and Dustin Hoffman’s love-smitten suitor in Tootsie. In June he’ll appear as Chief Brandon in Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy.
The range of his real-life roles is even broader. Durning has worked in a button factory, taught ballroom dancing, sung on radio, trained as a stockbroker and painted bridges. He has been on his own since age 16, when he left home because his widowed mother, Louise, was having trouble supporting five kids on the money she earned laundering cadets’ uniforms at West Point. (His father, an Army sergeant, died when Durning was 12.) He drifted from Highland Falls, N.Y., to Buffalo, where he landed a job as an usher in a burlesque house and became fascinated by the comics. “I would see these guys do the same thing every night,” he says. “And they would still make me laugh.” Filling in for a comedian who was often too drunk to go on and winning the laughs himself convinced Durning he wanted to perform.
In 1944 Durning enlisted in the Army, landing in Normandy on D day. He was the only member of his patrol to come back alive from the Battle of the Bulge, and the war’s end found him in the hospital recovering from his wounds and a mental breakdown. “There’s only so much you can witness,” says Durning, who received three Purple Hearts. “Before the war I was very quiet and happy-go-lucky. I still hold a lot of resentment.”
Healthy again and living in Manhattan. Durning enrolled at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Jason Robards. Colleen Dewhurst and Grace Kelly were fellow students—which may explain why he was not invited back the second year, for lack of talent. “It threw me,” he says. He quit show business for a while, but eventually decided. “To hell with it. I’m going to do it on my own.” He joined a modern dance troupe, sang in nightclubs, fronted a dance band. He began landing roles in off-Broadway plays but often had to work at other jobs to support his young family—his wife, Carol, a fellow dance instructor at Fred Astaire Dance Studios, and. later, their three children (Michele. now 28, Douglas, 27, and Jeanine, 23). Sometimes on the road with a play for 18 months at a stretch, Durning wasn’t much of a family man. and in the early ’70s Carol and Durning divorced.
By then, he had begun a 12-year stint with director Joe Papp’s Shakespeare company. It was in 1973, while Durning was starring in the off-Broadway hit That Championship Season, that Papp persuaded him to accept a part in The Sting so he could make some real money. He went to California and basically never came back. “I kind of fell in love with the money,” he admits, though he makes a point of doing one stage role a year.
It was also during That Championship Season that Durning was reunited with his first love, Mary Ann Amelio. They had been sweethearts in their 20s, but her family objected to his actor’s prospects, and she married someone else. Then one night in 1973, a young woman came backstage and said she was Mary Ann’s daughter. “I freaked,” says Durning. who, learning that Mary Ann was divorced, called immediately; they married 15 months later. Mary Ann would like her husband to take a real break when he leaves Cat in July, but it isn’t likely. Even after 40 years, says Durning. “If I’m out of work for two weeks. I start to panic.”