Charles Durning died this week at the age of 89, and while you probably remember him as a veteran “that guy” actor from such roles as incumbent governor Pappy O’Daniel in O Brother Where Art Thou, or Waring Hudsucker in The Hudsucker Proxy (just to name a couple), it turns out he was also kind of a badass who lived a crazy life.
I’ve put some facts about him into bullet-point form, but only because I couldn’t put them into bayonet form. You’ll see.
- Durning was one of 10 siblings. His father died when he was 12, and he lost five sisters to smallpox and scarlet fever. FIVE. Yes, they were Irish.
- He got his start in show business as a teen, working as a burlesque theater usher in Buffalo, and when one of the comedians was too drunk to go on, Durning took his place.
- Durning fought in the first wave of the Normandy invasion and was the only member of his army unit to survive. He killed several Germans and was wounded in the leg by an enemy mine.
- After recuperating, Durning returned to active service in 1944, at one point getting bayoneted by a German in hand-to-hand combat, eventually overwhelming him and killing him with a rock. Yes, “once killed a Nazi with a rock” was an actual true thing you could say about Charles Durning.
- Durning was captured by the Nazis at the Battle of the Bulge, and narrowly survived a prisoner massacre. He was eventually awarded the Silver Star, three Purple Hearts, and the Légion d’honneur from the French consul in Los Angeles.
- Despite being a fat guy, he had worked as a dance instructor, and even met his first wife at a dance studio.
- His breakout role came in the Tony-winning play That Championship Season in 1972, when Durning was already 49
Although he portrayed everyone from blustery public officials to comic foils to put-upon everymen, Durning may be best remembered by movie audiences for his Oscar-nominated, over-the-top role as a comically corrupt governor in 1982′s The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.
The year after Best Little Whorehouse, Durning received another Oscar nomination, for his portrayal of a bumbling Nazi officer in Mel Brooks’ To Be or Not to Be. He was also nominated for a Golden Globe as the harried police lieutenant in 1975′s Dog Day Afternoon.
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.
In any case, rest in peace, Charles Durning, a man so badass his real epitaph sh*ts on Royal Tenebaum’s fake one.