By Robert Simonson
25 Dec 2012
The stars were hardly aligned for Mr. Durning to become a famous actor. He was born into poverty Feb. 28, 1923, in Highland Fall, NY, the son of Irish-Catholic immigrants. Five of his nine siblings died during childhood of smallpox or scarlet fever.
He was drafted into the army in 1944, and participated in the D-Day landing of Normandy, landing on Omaha Beach. For his valor and the wounds, he was awarded the Silver Star, Bronze Star Medal and three Purple Heart medals. Despite his many injuries, to the legs, hand and head, he was sent back to the front and took part in the Battle of the Bulge in late 1944. He and his company were captured and ruthlessly shot by the Germans in an infamous massacre. Mr. Durning was one of the few to survive. Hit again, this time in the chest, he was returned to the States to recover.
Following an aimless decade, he turned to acting, but his progress was slow, and he took whatever odd jobs he could find. (On the side, he boxed a bit.) In 1962, Joe Papp took a chance on him and cast him in a bit part in a Shakespeare play. He played myriad clowns and anonymous citizens in subsequent New York Shakespeare Festival productions, more than 30 roles in all, but didn't break out as a performer until he was cast as one of the five Scranton friends reliving the past glory of their bygone basketball championship in Jason Miller's That Championship Season. The plays debuted Off-Broadway in 1972 and then transferred to Broadway, winning the Pulitzer Prize from Drama.
Mr. Durning did not wax theoretical about his approach to acting. "I sort of hold my nose and jump in," he told Playbill.com in 2000. "There's no compass per se. You're out there on a high wire without a net, and that's the way actors operate. They have to be fearless about how they work and they have to create a life for the audience in 90 minutes and make them believe. Sometimes you succeed and sometimes you don't. We're all taking things from each other and you have to get to know one another early on."
He reached a sort of career high in the early '80s, achieving a seeming ubiquity in film. He played Jessica Lange's father, who has designs on Dustin Hoffman's cross-dressing title character, in the smash hit "Toostie"; and was nominated for Academy Awards as both the gleefully corrupt governor in "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" and a comic Nazi colonel in the Mel Brooks remake of "To Be or Not To Be." Other film credits included "True Confessions," "The Muppet Movie," "Sharkey's Machine," "The Man With One Red Shoe," "Tough Guys," "Far North," "Dick Tracy," "I.Q.," "North Dallas Forty," "One Fine Day," "State and Main," "Home for the Holidays" and the Coen Brothers' "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"
Newly flush with film fame, he returned to Broadway in 1990 to play Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, winning a Tony Award. He further starred in two productions of Tony Randall's National Actors Theatre—revivals of Inherit the Wind (opposite George C. Scott) and The Gin Game (opposite Julie Harris). In the latter, he got the opportunity to display his little-known skills as a dancer. "Dancing came easy for me," he once said. "Acting came hard." He played a wily ex-President in a 2000 staging of Gore Vidal's The Best Man.
A final New York stage performance came with the 2005 Lincoln Center Theater premiere of Wendy Wasserstein's final play Third, in which Mr. Durning played the physically and mentally failing father of the play's professor protagonist, played by Dianne Wiest.
Critics rarely found fault with Mr. Durning's work, praising him as a natural. Given his rate of success, however, he professed to have no philosophy toward his craft. "Who knows how acting really works," Mr. Durning said. "I have no idea. Acting is ephemeral. You can't hang it on a wall. You can't throw it off. And you can't bring it out of a closet. It's there one night and it's gone the next, at least with stage acting anyhow. One night, maybe it soars, and the next night it may go right in the toilet. You need to be as honest as you can be, that's the main thing, and you need to be honest with the other actors."
"I think I've done 200 plays and 125 movies, so I've been very lucky to have made a living at acting. Of course, I'm often not the top dog, but sometimes it's better not to be top dog, because you last longer. If a movie or play flops, you always blame the lead. They say, 'He couldn't carry it.' They always blame him. But they rarely blame the second or third banana, so I insist on playing those roles and so far, so good."