Charles Durning, the versatile character actor whose friendly face and full form was recognizable to movie audiences since the mid-’70s, died of natural causes at his Manhattan home Dec. 24, his agent confirmed. He was 89.
Among his roles: The corrupt cop in The Sting, the show-stopping Governor in Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (for which he was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar), Jessica Lange’s father and Dustin Hoffman’s love-smitten suitor in Tootsie, a buffoon of a German officer in To Be Or Not to Be (another Oscar nod) and Warren Beatty’s law-enforcement boss in Dick Tracy.
His range of real-life roles was even broader. Durning, a genuine World War II hero with the Purple Hearts to prove it, worked in a button factory, taught ballroom dancing, sung on radio, trained as a stockbroker and painted bridges.
According to a 1990 PEOPLE profile, at the time he played Big Daddy to Kathleen Turner’s Maggie the Cat in a Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, During had 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.)
His first job in showbiz was in Buffalo, N.Y., where he landed a job as an usher in a burlesque house and became fascinated by the comics. 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,” said Durning, who received three Purple Hearts. “Before the war I was very quiet and happy-go-lucky. I still hold a lot of resentment.”
But as Burt Reynolds, a frequent costar with Durning, told PEOPLE in 2005: “He and my father were 15 yards apart at Normandy Beach. That was quite a night when they both realized that. I was told to go outside. I said, ‘Why sir?’ He says, ‘Because you weren’t there.” So I peaked in the window and watched the two of them head to head talking.”
Durning, he said, was “amazing.”
Healthy again and living in Manhattan. Durning enrolled at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where classmates included Jason Robards. Colleen Dewhurst and Grace Kelly. Deciding to forge ahead with a career, he joined a modern dance troupe, sang in nightclubs, fronted a dance band.
Off Broadway roles followed, as did marriage to Carol, a fellow dance instructor at Fred Astaire Dance Studios. They had three children, but Durning began traveling with road companies of plays – which all but destroyed his family life. The couple divorced in 1972.
By then, Durning’s stage career was taking off, thanks to the New York Shakespeare Company production of Jason Miller’s That Championship Season. This led to his role in The Sting, and from then on his movie career was off and running.
In 1974, he married his high school sweetheart, Mary Ann Amelio, who survives him, as do his children, Michele, Douglas and Jeannine. The family planned to have a private family service and burial at Arlington National Cemetery, reports the Associated Press.
• Additional reporting by OLIVER JONES