Oscar History

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RIP Charles Durning (1923-2012)

2012 has been, so definitively, the year for huge teeming male casts (Argo, Lincoln, Zero Dark, Magic Mike) of stars and character actors playing anxious determined men that I felt an extra pang of sadness to hear about the passing of Charles Durning on Christmas Eve. He was 89 years-old. 

Charles Durning at the SAG ceremony in 2008 accepting his lifetime achievement award

Had any of those movies (well, not, Magic Mike) been made in the 1980s, he would with certainty have popped up --  100% -- growling great lines in a suit or stove pipe hat.

Since the seeds of my movie mania were planted in the early 1980s, Charles Durning was one of the very first actors that embodied and defined the term "Character Actor" for me. I absolutely loved him in Tootsie (1982), one of the all time great movie comedies, as Jessica Lange's widower dad who took an unfortunate shine to Dorothy (Dustin Hoffman in drag). I remember experiencing early onset Oscar confusion when I realized (a couple of years after the fact) that he had been nominated for an extended cameo in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas instead. So I rented that one in 1985 of 1986, I think, on the sly -- my parents did not approve of "raunchy movies" -- and just delighted in his "little sidestep ♫ "

Other roles I have slightly less vivid memories of from that decade were his Oscar nominated turn in Mel Brooks comedy To Be Or Not To Be (1983) and his monsignor in the gay drama Mass Appeal (1985). The Golden Globes got to him before the Academy -- as they so often do -- nominating him for Best Supporting Actor for his hostage negotiator in Dog Day Afternoon (1975) which we recently discussed. Durning won a Tony Award in 1990 for playing "Big Daddy" in a revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof opposite Kathleen Turner (who he worked with onscreen immediately thereafter in the failed would be franchise launch VI Warshawski) but sadly he never won any major competitive acting award for his onscreen work despite Globe, Emmy, and Oscar nominations. His most recent Emmy honors were for a stint as Denis Leary's father on "Rescue Me".

What's your favorite Charles Durning role?
Have you ever seen his Oscar nominated roles?

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Reader Comments (21)

Favorite role -- Tootsie

I saw both Little Whorehouse and To Be Or Not to Be -- He was an EXTRAORDINARY actor.

RIP Mr Durning

December 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterHannibal Lester

Durning and Maureen Stapleton were perfectly paired in " Queen of the Stardust Ballroom".

Both were Emmy nominated. He was very light on his feet !

December 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBilly held an Oscar

Not the first time I saw him, but the first time I really took note of who he was, was as Waring Hudsucker in The Hudsucker Proxy, and the scene where he appears to Tim Robbins as an angel is still one of my very favorite moments in his career.

I loved about him that he could play just about any kind of part - comic, serious, action, foil to Muppets - and be equally great no matter what the tone. So much one of the best character actors of the last 30 years.

December 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTim

Oh what a great actor! I would give anything to have had the pleasure of see him on stage with the great Kathleen. His Tony speech was brilliant.

I saw his Oscar nominated roles back in the 80, but I prefer him in Tootsie and more recently in Rescue Me. He was fierce in that show.

December 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

I liked him in just about everything but Home for the Holidays seems to stand out for me. That reminds me that I haven't seen that movie this season.

December 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJohn K.

I love his work in Tootsie. He gets a lot of tenderness and sadness out of a character who could have been a lech in other hands. I read the NYT obit and was amazed by his WWII experiences.
I watched Rescue Me about until he left the show, so I can attest that he was doing excellent work right up until the end of his life.
Thanks for writing him up. Oscar-wise, he's got a kind of Madeline Kahn thing going on: back-to-back noms for untraditional oscar parts.

December 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMike in Canada

Outstanding character actor...my fave perf of his is in Dog Day Afternoon. Gotta love his Whorehouse work too!

December 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPatryk

Loved Queen of the Stardust Ballroom. (they don't make TV movies like that anymore!)

And "Ooh I love to dance a little sidestep, now they see me now they don't" in BLWIT

One of those "hey, it's that guy" character actors we all love, except we knew his name.

December 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPam

He was another reason why "Tootsie" is a comedy classic.

December 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

My first memories of Mr. Durning are of course in "Tootsie" so I always had this image of him as a genteel fellow. And it always surprised me to see his name in the credits as characters like the steely negotiator in "Dog Day Afternoon", the putz with a badge in "The Sting" or the frog-o-cidal fast food-er in "The Muppet Movie". He truly disappeared into all these roles, he is basically the definition of a character actor.

December 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMel

Evening Shade was my favorite. Elmo Saves Christmas, and the Muppet Movie. I haven't see "Best Little Whorehouse" in years so I'm definitely going to have to watch that again.

He was definitely one of a kind.

December 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterElizabeth Sullivan

Charles Durning starred against three of my favorite leading ladies in movies I love watching over and over. The list includes Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, Dolly Parton in Whorehouse, and, more recently, Angela Lansbury in the made-for-TV movie Mrs. Santa Claus. He makes a great Santa Claus, by the way, and so for me it's especially sad to hear he passed on Christmas Eve.

December 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDusty

A favorite of mine too, probably most for his evilly comic turn in "The Muppet Movie", but he was always so good in everything I saw. Terrific work from a terrific actor.

On a side note, since we're discussing musicals, the "Aggie Song" from Best Little Whorehouse might be the gayest straight men singing song ever. (Warning: partial nudity)http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=84TWhY1aPro

December 26, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterforever1267

My personal 82 supporting actor winner for toosie.

December 26, 2012 | Unregistered Commentermark

I've never seen BLWIT but love To Be or Not To Be and his performance in it. That's my favorite of his work although I recall him in the TV mini The Captains and The Kings having a great time playing a robber baron as well as being so great in Dog Day Afternoon. He was always so good in everything really, one of those wonderful actors that when you see their name you know that even if the film itself is a dog they will be worth watching.

Jack Klugman who also passed Christmas Eve was an equally reliable performer, a great loss to movies to for them both to leave us.

December 26, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

I'm going to miss Charles Durning. His character in Dog Day Afternoon was the father figure that Sonny Wortzik never had.

Also, my local news channel is pretty unclassy but I like how their acting reel for him was him playing Big Daddy in a stage version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Wish I was there to watch that.

December 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPaolo

I've just added "Mass Appeal" to my Netflix Instant queue. It's definitely new to me. But I just have to echo so many others -- Doc Hopper in "The Muppet Movie," "Tootsie," "Evening Shade," and on and on. What a fine, fine actor.

December 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChip

This news really saddened me. I'm still surprised that he was nodded for "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas." I'm glad he was Emmy nodded for "Rescue Me" in one of his last notable roles.

Not mentioned here but I think equally important was the death of Jack Klugman on Christmas Eve too. Very sad passings during the holiday season.

December 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLiam

Sentimental favorite (role): Home for the Holidays

He's a hoot in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, but the Oscar should've been his for Dog Day Afternoon IMO.

December 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMareko

My favorites are Dog Day Afternoon and Home For The Holidays. I also thought he was good in O Brother Where Art Thou? and as the voice of Francis Griffin on Family Guy.

December 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMeghan

I used to have a theory that an actor ceases to be a "character actor" once they are nominated for an Academy Award. (I ditched the theory when John C. Reilly definitively disproved it.) Historically, though, it would be interesting to go back and see if other past nominees stayed character actors or elevated themselves to household names.

December 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNeel Mehta

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