Charles Durning, Oscar-Nominated Character Actor, Dies at 89

Charles Durning P 2012
Getty Images

UPDATED: Durning, who appeared in "The Sting," "Tootsie" and TV's "Rescue Me," died on Christmas Eve in his Manhattan apartment.

Charles Durning, the real-life war hero and dependable character actor who appeared in The Sting, Tootsie and most recently as Denis Leary's father on the firefighter drama Rescue Me, died Monday in his New York City home. He was 89.

Judith Moss, Durning's friend and agent of more than three decades, said that the actor died of natural causes on Christmas Eve.

In a rare feat, Durning earned back-to-back supporting actor Oscar nominations in 1983-84. After being signaled out for playing a comically corrupt governor in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, he received another nom for his work as a blundering Nazi colonel in To Be or Not to Be, starring Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft.

His other memorable movie roles included playing Dustin Hoffman’s surprised suitor in Sydney Pollack's classic comedy Tootsie (1982). He was a frazzled police lieutenant in Dog Day Afternoon (1975), the U.S. president in Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977) and a formidable monsignor in Mass Appeal (1984).

He also appeared in two Coen brothers films: The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) and O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000).

Long active on the stage, Durning won a Tony Award for his portrayal of Big Daddy in the Broadway revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1990.

Also that year, he captured a Golden Globe for his role as “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald in the miniseries The Kennedys of Massachusetts, based on the book by Doris Kearns Goodwin.

He was nominated for nine Emmys, most recently for outstanding guest actor in a drama series for FX's Rescue Me.

Durning served as a regular on the Linda Bloodworth-Thomason sitcom Evening Shade, having previously played with that series' star, Burt Reynolds, in the films Starting Over (1979) and Best Little Whorehouse. The show ran 1990-94 on CBS. He also did voice work for Family Guy and had a recurring role as a priest on Everybody Loves Raymond.

Resembling what one might envision as a grizzled cop, Durning excelled in congenial everyman roles and was a familiar character actor, if not a household name. With his stocky frame, he played Santa Claus five times in TV movies, often invigorating the “ho-ho” hum character with a curt edge.

He had a role in Scavenger Killers, a crime thriller scheduled to open next year starring Eric Roberts and Robert Loggia.

The second youngest of five children, Durning was born Feb. 28, 1923, in Highland Falls, N.Y. The son of an Army officer, he took classical dance lessons as a youth. Following high school, he served in the Army’s 1st Infantry Division during World War II. Durning took part in the Normandy invasion of France on D-Day, winning the Silver Star, the Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts.

After his military discharge, he held several jobs: elevator operator, ironworker, cab driver, dance instructor, boxer. He fought on the same card as another future actor, Jack Warden, in New York's Madison Square Garden. 

While working as an usher in a burlesque joint, Durning was hired to replace a drunken actor onstage. He plowed into his new calling, performing in roughly 50 Brooklyn stock company productions and in various off-Broadway plays.

He attracted the attention of Joseph Papp: Beginning in 1962, Durning appeared in 35 plays as part of the New York Shakespeare Festival. During this period, he segued into TV, notching a stint as a police chief on the NBC soap opera Another World.

Durning made his film debut in 1965, playing in Harvey Middleman, Fireman. He also appeared in Brian De Palma’s Hi, Mom! (1971), credited as Charles Durnham.

In 1972, director George Roy Hill, impressed by his performance in the Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning That Championship Season, offered Durning a role in The Sting. In the Oscar best picture winner starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, Durning won distinction as a crooked cop.

His other film credits include Dick Tracy (1990) and V.I. Warshawski (1991).

On TV, Durning brought a beatific countenance to a number of exalted roles, including playing the pope in the 1987 telefilm I Would be Called John: Pope John XXIII. He starred as the title officer in the 1975-76 series The Cop and the Kid, played the title character’s dad in the 1979 miniseries Studs Lonigan and was a private eye in the 1985 series Eye to Eye.

Durning also shined as a domineering industrialist in the 1989 telefilm Dinner at Eight, a role made famous by Wallace Beery in the 1933 film. He starred as a postman opposite lonely widow Maureen Stapleton in the wonderful Queen of the Stardust Ballroom in 1975 and played a baseball legend in 1981's Casey Stengel.

Among Durning's many other acclaimed Broadway performances were as Weller Martin in The Gin Game opposite Julie Harris, as Matthew Harrison Brady in Inherit the Wind with George C. Scott and as ex-President Arthur Hockstader in Gore Vidal’s The Best Man.

In 2008, the Screen Actors Guild gave Durning its Life Achievement Award, and he was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, right next to one for his idol, James Cagney.

Survivors include his daughters Michele and Jeanine and a son, Douglas, all of New York. A private family service will be held and burial will be at Arlington National Cemetery.

The family invites friends and family to contribute to the Wounded Warrior Project, whose mission is to raise awareness and enlist the public's aid for the needs of injured service members; to help injured service members aid and assist each other; and to provide programs and services to meet the needs of injured service members. Durning was a regular supporter.

Mike Barnes contributed to this report.