Remembering Charles Durning- The acting version of a great utility player Reviewed by Momizat on . Character. What a loaded word (at :58, Mr. Wolfe puts it perfectly). In baseball, in art, in life, “character” carries a lot of weight. I’ve been thinking Character. What a loaded word (at :58, Mr. Wolfe puts it perfectly). In baseball, in art, in life, “character” carries a lot of weight. I’ve been thinking Rating: 0
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Remembering Charles Durning- The acting version of a great utility player

Remembering Charles Durning- The acting version of a great utility player

Character. What a loaded word (at :58, Mr. Wolfe puts it perfectly). In baseball, in art, in life, “character” carries a lot of weight. I’ve been thinking a lot about this with the recent tragic loss of Ryan Freel. The analogy is far from perfect if we compare “character actors” to “character players”; the actors are often underrated by fans while the players’ contributions are arguably over-valued.  But fans seem to talk about character players/actors in the same way. They’re described as dependable or solid or “contributors” while the stars “make the people around them better.” In baseball, a great smile and a dirty uniform might keep you on a roster and gain you a loyal and vocal following (I’m not bagging on Frenchy, I promise). In movies, the same skill set makes you a megastar. Hard-working and nice? Here are your Oscars. Anyway, the word alone is enough to make my flimsy neural pathways obsess with feelings of loss and memories of terrific moments. Freel was never an everyday star (he managed 500PA just twice and didn’t crack many leaderboards—though he did finish in the top ten in the NL in CS from 2004-7). He did have an infectious personality and was a joy to watch (that’s an odd “highlight” reel… seems to be a collection of slap singles and unnecessary slides-into-third… I’d have tried to put together something more like this). Two days after we lost one of my favorite character guys in baseball, my favorite character actor was also taken from us, and since this is, after all, a movie/TV blog….

Character actors are just the best things ever. Everyone has his or her own criteria as to who qualifies as a member of that group. I think a particularly versatile actor always counts. I think someone who seems to play the same role over and over (and do it well) also fits. There are striking character actors and avuncular ones; leading players and the kings of cameos. Every race, age and size. They can be anywhere along the method-spectrum from Olivier to Hoffman. I think this is what the term means to me: these actors routinely outperform the material they’re given. A character actor is the best friend to a director or writer. This theory was perhaps best expressed by Roger Ebert in his Stanton-Walsh rule: “no movie featuring either Harry Dean Stanton or M. Emmet Walsh in a supporting role can be altogether bad.” One doesn’t often see Harry Dean Stanton in a performance and fantasize over how another actor might have played it. It’s his (NSFW: language). He owns it (NSFW: David Lynch) and elevates it (SFW: Polygamy). And though he’s not often the lead character, he’s never forgettable. Growing up, young actors want to be stars, or they want to be “that one guy with the face who was in that one thing and … wow.” I wanted to be Robert Prosky. I emulated (and continue to do so when I get the chance) Zero Mostel or Clancy Brown. I was more impressed with Lombard than Hepburn. Woody Strode over Henry Fonda. I think McConaughey might be one; same with Chris Evans. Anne Hathaway is on her way. This guy, and this one, and she is amazing and so is she, and James Hong is in the Pantheon. But one of the best modern character actors passed away at 89 years old this past Christmas Eve.

His story was told wonderfully by the Times. Here I’m just going to cover a few of my favorite Charles Durning performances.

The Sting: One of his best, and certainly his big early break in Hollywood, Durning’s self-serving Lt. Snyder is a terrific dirty cop. Also, the scene where the mob is put together is one of the great Hollywood casting scenes of all time. Fitting since this movie might have the largest collection of character A-listers ever.

Tootsie: Of course, this cast might even top that one. Durning’s subtle (for Tootsie, anyway) performance is by turns hilarious and heartbreaking (while still being, you know, hilarious).

Sisters: This movie is a difficult watch. I love it, but there’s plenty of contrary opinion out there. Durning plays a dogged and suspicious private eye (and has a terrific moment to end the movie). As a bonus, there’s an early uncredited role from another character favorite, if you can find her.

Twilight’s Last Gleaming: Durning as the President dealing with a terrorist crisis and the ethics of war. Terrfic cast. Great death scene. Oops. Spoiler. (Sorry.) Anyway, here’s the whole freaking thing.

North Dallas Forty: We’ll get more in-depth on this one when we begin our series ranking sports movies and actors-as-athletes/athletes-as-actors. For now, just know that this man is all of the football coaches in my mind. (NSFW: Language)

When a Stranger Calls: Another rare foray into horror for Durning (even he’s not enough to save the sequel) and featuring the uniquely brilliant Carol Kane and Colleen Dewhurst. The thing’s here for all to enjoy.

To Be or Not To Be: Available on Netflix Instant. I’m a huge fan of the original and would take Lombard and Benny over Brooks and Bankroft; but Christopher Lloyd, Jose Ferrer and Durning: funniest evil Nazi comedy team ever? (It’s a short list.)

Tough Guys: I remembered this movie being awesome, then for a while I decided it must have been terrible (NSFW: Red Hot Chili Peppers), and now I’m back to the fully awesome side. I think maybe Eli Wallach tips the balance for me.

The Muppet Movie: Doc Hopper is the best example of a commercial producer that Hollywood has ever created. “There’s $500 dollars in it for you!” This one’s also on Netflix and briefly features the uniquely brilliant Carol Kane.

Home for the Holidays: One of my favorite forgotten holiday movies. As my brothers and I have aged, I appreciate it more (NSFW: Family Thanksgiving Language) and more (NSFW: Same). Good direction from Jodie Foster and a cast stuffed with character types galore (Strathairn!), it’s the kind of movie that keeps me exploring IMDB for hours when I meant to just look up one quick thing.

Durning in Dog Day Afternoon

Durning in Dog Day Afternoon

Finally, Dog Day Afternoon:  One of my top-5 films of all time. A HoF director, star, screenwriter, plus Prince Humperdinck, Bishop and the aforementioned uniquely brilliant Carol Kane. It’s also got the patron saint of character actors, the late great John Cazale, who only appeared in 4 other movies, all of which are Best-Picture-Nominated Films. Charles Durning walks a fine line as the initial negotiator, Moretti. He’s terrified, filled with rage, and honestly not that bright (all of which would seem to be far from his own personality). Much of his performance was reportedly improvised due to difficulties posed by the crowds, his costars and the shoot schedule. The film and Durning’s performance perfectly illustrate what a Character Actor knows: take your comic scenes seriously and find the funny in tragedy. Terrific work and the closest to a must-see film that Hollywood has ever produced.

To celebrate the career of Charles Durning, check out any of the above or these on Netflix Instant: The Choirboys, The Man with One Red Shoe, Mass Appeal, The Final Freakin’ Countdown, Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Jerry and Tom, and of course, Solar Freakin’ Babies.


Follow Erik on twitter @TotallyKidding

About The Author

Incurable Royals and Chiefs fan since late 70's. I'm professional actor that was raised in Kansas City. Rockhurst, then Olathe North, then Olathe East, then Olathe North again (then Emporia State, Detroit, New York, LA and now Seattle). Life is pretty good and you can listen to me talk about it at and snark about it on twitter. Watch good movies.

Number of Entries : 43

Comments (7)

  • Erik Gratton

    The Times piece is really pretty great. As for his work with Burt, I agree, but as has been pointed out to me I could have gone on for 3000 words about the guy. I wouldn’t put Evening Shade as his lasting contribution, but am happy to be confronted on the subject. In my defense, Sharky’s Machine gets a reference in my next column. Hope that mollifies. (BTW, enjoy your work, OMD.)

  • old man duggan

    No love for his turns in Stick, Sharky’s Machine, and Evening Shade? His work with Burt Reynolds is what he should be remembered for. Let’s just forget Rescue Me, though. It’s depressing to see him that old.

    The weirdest thing about Durning is that he looked the same age from about 1978 until about 2002 and then aged 20 years in five minutes.

    And I’m sure this was covered in his Times obit, but the dude stormed the beach at Normandy. Much more a man than I’d imagine any of us are.

  • Erik Gratton

    Walter Brennan is a great choice and one of my favorites, certainly. In Princess and the Pirate, he has one of my favorite scenes in film, with Bob Hope. As far as best go, I might disagree, but it’s a strong choice and I disagree with just about everything. Pertaining to Big Ronnie Reagan, you’ll have to read the article and navigate the links. Thanks again!

  • DownUnderFan

    By the way, the best character actor of all time…Walter Brennan.

  • DownUnderFan

    Does Ronald Reagan get a mention?

  • Erik Gratton

    Thanks! Up next is a ranking (of sorts) of athletes that made the shift to Hollywood. I’m hip-deep in research, right now.

  • DownUnderFan

    Excellent article. You are off to a good start.

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