An Actor with Character

December 27, 2012

“Somebody asked me, ‘What is acting?’ And I said, ‘Acting is listening. And if you ain’t listening, nobody’s listening.'” –Charles Durning

Charles Durning, one of the most respected character actors of all time, died on Christmas Eve after a long and storied career. Durning stormed the beach at Normandy on D-Day, received three Purple Hearts, and worked as a bartender, boxer, movie usher, and dance instructor before he embarked upon his career as an actor. “They told me, ‘You’re too short, too fat and have no talent,’” Durning said in an interview with the Times. “This shook me to the foundations,” he continued; “I thought they knew what they were talking about.” Well apparently they did not know what they were talking about.

Fortunately, as shaken as Durning was, he did not give up on his dreams. Rather, he fought like a warrior and landed over 200 credited roles; even though he didn’t really get going until he was forty years old. He is now known as “the king of character actors” representing the common man in a profound and nuanced and noble manner. Whether playing the lovestruck dope in Tootsie, the world-weary negotiator in Dog Day Afternoon, or the unheralded patriarch and fantastic dancer in Home For The Holidays, Durning brought his unique personality and abiding spirit to every role; and the world of film is all the better for his efforts. Thank God he didn’t listen to the naysayers and doubters.

Durning’s characters didn’t slay dragons, get the girl, or make hearts flutter with shirtless bravado. But he was a damn good actor, and his movies will touch and entertain generations to come–he’ll be known as one of the best character actors of his time, or any other time, for that matter. Not bad for a schlub who was too short, fat, and untalented to make it in Hollywood. Charles Durning grabbed the brass ring because he knew when to listen to others, as well as when to listen to his own indomitable heart. And he had the good sense to seize an opportunity when it introduced itself. “I never turned down anything, and never argued with any producer or director.” 

Wise words from a wise man who’ll be sorely missed this holiday season. How about you, what’s your favorite Charles Durning role?